‘Elemental’ Director Peter Sohn on Sharing His Personal Story Through Animation

Pixar is at its element when they are delivering original storytelling. It’s something that they pride themselves in doing. And while sequels expand upon some of their classics, nothing beats a Pixar original. Especially when those stories come from a personal place, like director Peter Sohn‘s Elemental.

Based on his life as a son of Korean immigrants, Elemental is a play on the opposites attract with appreciation of the sacrifices parents make for their children. The twist is Elemental‘s characters are based on the elements of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. So imagine the possibilities of creating a film where elemental characters.

The Elemental Long Lead Press Days, including a filmmaker presentation with Director Peter Sohn in the Steve Jobs Building Theater, from March 26, 2023 to March 28, 2023 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

The Nerds of Color had the chance to join a selected group of journalists at Pixar Animation Studios production designers, animators, and visual effects artists about the making of this film. But before we can get to that, we talked to Sohn as well as producer Denise Ream about Elemental, finding the story, representation, and those awkward moments one has if they have a flame for someone.

During the presentation, Sohn talked about the three keys that helped shape Elemental‘s true to life story.

The first was his parents. “My parents came to New York, in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. And they didn’t have any money. And they didn’t speak the language. They had nothing and but they managed to create this beautiful life in the Bronx,” Sohn said. Showing a photo of his dad’s storefront on 41st Street, Sohn talked about how most of his dad’s customers were immigrants like him and had the same immigrant story. “They all left their homes, looking for a new life and all mixing into one sort of big salad bowl of cultures, languages and foods and little neighborhoods.”

The Elemental Long Lead Press Days, including a press conference with Director Peter Sohn and Producer Denise Ream in the Steve Jobs Building Theater, from March 26, 2023 to March 28, 2023 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

The second inspiration was a combination of his memories of the brownstones of New York and the Periodic Table. As it turned out, the latter looked a lot like the former when you treated each element as if it were a window. “I was a kid, looking at the the periodic table, I just imagined that each one of these things were like an apartment complex, all sort of squished together in this like crazy, like neighborhood,” Sohn said. “There is like platinum who lives next to gold, and they’re happy. But be careful of mercury because they have toxic relationships.” One of the jokes that he couldn’t make work, involved farts and helium. But at the center of this inspiration was the idea of “what these elements were all doing in the sort of these apartments and neighborhoods started sort of swirling in his head.”

The last inspiration addresses the culture clash that Sohn experienced as a child and when he married a non Korean woman. “She loves that term,” Sohn joked. “Growing up, my grandmother’s dying words were ‘marry Korean.’ That’s really started all these sort of culture clashes growing up. And so, you know, even with these sort of three ingredients in place, the possibilities of where the story could go, were endless.”

Sohn then talked about how they honing in on the idea of opposites attracting of fire and water would help them understand the focus of the film. “Once that became our Northstar, we could adjust the characters and the obstacles that they go through,” he said. “So with these three key inspirations and our guiding light of opposites attracting, the story start to come together.”

FIRE AND WATER – Set in a city where fire-, water-, land-, and air-residents live together, Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” introduces Ember, a tough, quick-witted and fiery young woman whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow guy named Wade challenges her beliefs about the world they live in. Featuring the voices of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade, respectively, “Elemental” releases on June 16, 2023. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

With Ember and Wade supporting the opposites attract story of Elemental, Sohn also wanted to tell the story about the immigrant experience while also focusing on the sacrifices people make in search of a better life or achieving their dreams. “I wanted to tell a story for everyone who’s ever made a sacrifice or taking a risk, and then set it in a crazy, creative city,” he said. “When we first started this, I had no idea how hard this was going to be. And it would really test the creative, you know, teams and technical teams, which are the same thing, honestly, here at Pixar.

Denise Ream, who serves as a producer on the film, also felt a personal connection to the story. Showing photos of her dad’s grandmother, her great grandmother, Mary Tegan, she talked about how she came came from Ireland to Boston, all by herself in 1880. “Like all of my ancestors before her, she came to America hoping for a better life,” she said. “I get to do a job I love largely because of the sacrifices he made for our family.”

Ream then showed a picture of her Roger, on the day he became a US citizen, which would help support the themes of the film. “Our time together has really shown me what it means to leave your family and friends and start over in a new country,” she said. “As Pete and I were developing the story, we spoke to many of our co workers about their experience, experiences with immigration, their accounts were really inspiring, influenced the story. And we were really thrilled to see that kind of authenticity show up on screen as we were making the movie.”

Together, they showed journalists photos of the team of animators who’ve had similar experiences of moving to a new country for a better life. Some of that was captured in images of families at the airport, at weddings, having their first Thanksgiving, and even at Disneyland. So while parts of Elemental is specific to Sohn’s experience, these images help support the story that Sohn wanted to tell to audiences.

And after hearing Sohn share his story and how it ties organically into the film he’s directing, it got me excited to see Elemental in its entirety.

Elemental arrives in theaters on June 16, 2023.