Element City
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Film Fire and water fall in love in ‘Elemental’: Here’s how Pixar brought their romance to life

Fire and water fall in love in ‘Elemental’: Here’s how Pixar brought their romance to life

Element City

(Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers.)

After a disappointing Cannes premiere, mixed reviews and low box office forecasts (under $40 million), Pixar’s ambitious “Elemental” hits theaters with one big question mark: will audiences accept this love story between Ember (Leah Lewis) ) and Wade (Mamoudou Athie)? After all, fire and water don’t mix. But director Peter Sohn built Pixar’s first romantic comedy on the proposition that they could team up. This is the whole point of this elaborate animated world and character building (as a tribute to the immigrant history of his Korean parents and his mixed marriage). If fire and water can overcome their differences and coexist, then so can humanity.

“The first question was whether fire and water could even connect or fall in love,” Sohn told IndieWire. “And that was a promise of what this intimacy was going to be. A big part of developing this was our trying to figure out how to use the effect (of these two elemental characters) in a cinematic way.

In their earliest iterations, Ember and Wade came out as superheroes, throwing fire and water as displays of energy (they represent Pixar’s first fully simulated volumetric characters in a joint effects and animation collaboration). “Soon, very quickly, I found a connection by using the elements to reflect emotion,” Sohn added. “How do Wade’s bubbles or Embers’ cloudiness feel? Sounds like stress to you?

“Once we got there, I felt like there was an opening for us to understand how these characters could start to connect,” she continued. “Something different for me in terms of other films I had worked on here was: It wasn’t just a buddy film about miscommunication, these two characters had holes and trying to figure out how they fill each other was the first journey” .


But figuring out the chemistry between Ember and Wade proved difficult before sorting out their identities: she has anger management issues and he has his own unresolved emotional issues. “Ember, as our main protagonist, was trying to figure out where she belonged, how the burden of her family weighed upon her,” Sohn said. “And because it didn’t belong to her, it created a wall inside her. I mean, her hole was really about something unconscious there inside her.

As for Wade, his “being such a high IQ and being so emotional, he became this mirror character, which means he would mirror Ember, but he would also become that safe place for Ember to become vulnerable. He helped us figure out how intimate they would be.

A memorable moment reveals great intimacy when Wade sneaks Ember into an abandoned museum so she can finally see her favorite flower, the Vivisteria, which has remained elusive since childhood due to fire restriction laws.

“It starts as a spark for her,” Sohn continued, “but it also becomes a concept of her identity. And it’s really related to my experience of trying to figure out: Am I Korean or am I American? And that spelling has started to overlap the little bubble that protects Ember underwater. It helps her heal some of the xenophobia that happens to her, which totally relates to identity when someone tells you you don’t belong.


Indeed, “Elemental” took a dark turn early in production with the death of Sohn’s father. He was so pained that he made Ember a much angrier character. (Later, near the end of production, her mother also died.) “She was really, really angry and blew up a building, and her father became a pariah,” she said. “When everyone (at Pixar) saw this version, they knew what I was going through. And they asked if this is what I wanted to do initially? I was like, ‘No, I’ve always wanted something more promising.'”

But the biggest challenge was understanding their first touch and the chemical reaction it elicited in both of them. “There was so much tension about what this contact was, fear that they might kill each other,” Sohn said. “It was one of the first things that I came on board with the show. This is not an old love, this is a new love. So there was the outside part, but then there was also trying to reflect that they wanted to connect. What is this chemistry? Is it magnetic, electric? This boiling, this cloudiness?

City element
“Elementary”Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

For Sohn, this directly ties into “Elemental’s” emotional and visual appeal. It’s both an intimate and an epic show. Yet it’s a nervous time for Pixar, given last year’s box office failure of “Lightyear,” which marked its first theatrical release since the pandemic. The studio aims to remind audiences of its special brand of animation with this original film that deserves to be seen in theaters as much as ‘Spider-Man: Across the Universe’ and ‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’.

“It’s great that we’re back in theaters and really making this for the big screen,” Sohn said. “Disney will let live longer in theaters as well. It won’t go to Disney+ until fall or winter. And we did it in 3D as part of that cinematic experience. There was a new level of immersion that made me focus on certain aspects of it. And since these characters are not human, it pushed the concept of their elementality. When Ember turns her head in 3D, there are transparent layers that move, making for a really cool new level. I’m biased, but I guess we’re in a brave new world.

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