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‘Elemental’ Director Peter Sohn Talks Representation and Science of Organic Awkwardness

On the surface, Pixar’s Elemental looks like a fun play on the classic opposites attract story, where two unlikely characters are thrown together and develop an unexpected relationship. But digging deeper, director Peter Sohn tells us that story along with delivering an appreciation for the parents who made great sacrifices for a new life in a new world with next to nothing but the clothes on their backs and their family. And we had the chance to talk to Sohn about Pixar’s upcoming animated film and what it means to him to share his story with the world.

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.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

The Nerds of Color: This film resonated with me because I am the son of immigrant parents who came to America in the ‘80s. And because Ember is the daughter of immigrant parents, she lived in two worlds. One with her parents and the other a product of her surrounding enviroment. Can you talk to us about connecting the culture clash with the opposites attract story?

Sohn: Bringing up the sort of that opposites attract with the immigrant story are totally tied, because that’s how it was in my family. Meaning, when I was growing up, my parents came from another country with values and traditions that I didn’t understand. So when I was growing up, they just always said, ‘marry Korean, marry Korean.’ And that’s because all they know is Korean, they grew up in a place where everyone was Korean, when I grew up in a place where everyone was different. And so already from their Korean values versus my American values, there was already a culture clash, and then this idea of falling in love with someone that was just fit in there very naturally, because that’s kind of what happened. It’s like ‘Oh, my parents have an issue with this, because they won’t understand her, they won’t be able to. My wife doesn’t know Korean food. She doesn’t understand the language. And so there would always be a barrier. And I didn’t know that until much later in my life. But all that stuff started forming naturally together, you can’t have one without the other.

Representation is so important to me because I can see myself in these stories. And since we’ve seen generational trauma and immigrant experiences sprinkled throughout previous Pixar films, I wanted to know what it was like to not only add your experiences to the film but make it the focus of it.

There’s two pieces of this. Meaning, there’s the diversity, and the power of that. I saw it at my dad’s grocery stores. And in a couple of shops that he had later, where there was so many different people that were coming in getting food. They were getting food on my dad’s grocery store, they didn’t speak the same language, but they were all understanding why they were here, they all got that. And then when they helped each other out, you could feel it. And so that that idea of diversity, making us stronger, you could feel just everywhere you go in the city. But there’s also there’s a lot of times when diversity and mixing, we’re bumping against each other, when there was xenophobia, or any of that type of thing.

Those few moments when that happened, also affected me and that was what was interesting about the elemental worlds, that some things can mix and some things don’t mix that well. But that idea of what this story isn’t compared to those other sort of moving stories, it’s just specific to my own experience tied to when I felt the power of it. And then when I felt like an outsider, and this movie definitely has a punch of have that sort of ‘you don’t belong here xenophobia.’ It’s from real experiences that affected me. I have regret over some of the things with my father. When I was walking on my dad in New York, we got rocks thrown at us, and I’ve had gum thrown at my hair. And I just remember my dad cursing them out. And I just wanted to fit here so badly that I was like, ‘Dad. Stop yelling at them.’ Like, why did I say that? And so there’s all these personal pieces of it that are small moments in the film that I can say that like, are different from other versions of animation.

Now, because this is film about opposites attracting, there are bound to be some awkward moments between Ember and Wade, and we saw small hints of that in the film. Can you talk about the process of making that happen organically?

Sohn: I remember talking with the writer, some of these moments of awkwardness of like, we had a dinner moment, there was this bachelorette party in a different version of the plot. But there was there was this moment of a dinner where the water character got to eat with fire people. And my dad would do these things when I had my wife’s family over where my dad was very generous and like, ‘oh, eat this kimchi.’ And, when I first pitched it, you’re doing these things where you have to pitch it and act it out. So we were just like, ‘Okay, everybody that we got this scene with Wade and Ember’s dad is like, ‘oh, he should eat more on these coals.’ and that he’s trying to punish Wade.

But then you act it up there. And then, in storyboard the story artists taken ahold of it, and then they start bringing their own thing to it, where they’re acting it out as it pitching the story. And the drawings are going by like, oh, that’s hilarious. And then when you get to animation, the animators are doing a very similar thing when they’re performing it. There’s video footage of this one performer crying really hard. And it’s weird to watch an animator in footage, and they’re in the backyard of dogs barking in the background as they crying. And there’s a lot of things like that, where you’re putting your performances up there in an awkward way. But that’s kind of life here to be frank.

FIREPLACE DREAMS — In Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental,” fiery young woman Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) has worked alongside her father in the family shop, Fireplace, for as long as she can remember. Someday soon, her father will retire and Ember will take over—at least that’s what they’ve been planning for years. Directed by Peter Sohn (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Party Cloudy” short) and produced by Denise Ream (“The Good Dinosaur,” “Cars 2”), Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental” releases on June 16, 2023. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Since Elemental is about what happens when two opposites attract, science has to play a role in grounding the film. So how much of your research in physics helped shape the animation?

Sohn: It did so much. One of my favorite tests that we did, because I did a lot of experiments with my kids, because we’re all at the pandemic for some of this stuff. And I took matches, and I saw this thing on YouTube where they took mattress and put tape around it. And then they lit it up, and they put it on the water. And it was this idea of like, ‘wait, the matches are still working in the water, but they didn’t go out that if they had a fuel source, they could still be underwater’ and there was something really magical about that.

When you boil water, sometimes the water will overflow over the top of the pot, but if you put a stick over it, they won’t do it. It was this crazy little thing. I bought flash paper, which is paper that goes up and burns in an instant. And I was gonna do it for one of these company meetings. And we were just playing with it at home. And there was a concept from this that we did it at nighttime. The lights off, I just wanted to see what that looked like. And it was like a camera flash like you turn it on. And my whole family was like, ‘I can’t see.’ It was so bright. And I remember talking our head of lighting and one of the one of the moments with Ember when she’s exploding, like, ‘oh, wouldn’t it be cool to get that sort of flash of anger’ with the character.

Denise Ream: We talked with scientists too, teachers that taught science. We did a lot of research.

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)

So can you then talk about your approach to the animation of these characters while trying to stay true to the science as much as you can?

Sohn: It was all about feeling it. Meaning, we’ve talked about superhero powers, could Ember jet fire out of her hands? All of that was clinical. You didn’t feel anything. But then once we were talking about like, ‘oh, what does it mean when you are falling in love with someone for the first time,’ or ‘when you’re telling something about yourself that you feel very fragile about?’

I remember this a lot about being with someone that you’re intimate, you’re very naked, you’re very open. If they just said one thing, you could be crushed and cry your eyes up? And how do you feel that in a cinematic moment? The movies do it so well, when someone is a great performer will just bring you into an intimate moment. But with Ember, we knew to get a performance like that. But trying to get the fire to match that was something that we discovered that, ‘Oh, what if the fire could just come down to a candlelight where she really changes drastically, and then a sort of wind might blow and she might go out,’ that sort of tied to what it felt like to be vulnerable.

And so we did that all the time. The same thing with anger. When she’s getting pissed off, the anger, the fire will build in a way that you could feel. And that’s all what cinema is just trying to feel these moments and be immersed in it versus a cold, sort of like, Oh, she’s on fire over there, but it means nothing. And so that was a goal that we found very early on.

Elemental opens in theaters on June 17, 2023.

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