‘Elemental’ Cast and Crew Open Up About Animating and Emoting the Elements

Disney and Pixar’s Elemental is anything but a simple love story about opposites attracting. The studio’s latest animated film is a nuanced exploration of culture clashes and the immigrant experience told through science and set in a world where elements of Fire, Water, Earth and Air co-exist.

Based on director Pete Sohn life as the son of immigrant children and the husband in an interracial marriage, Elemental examines the modern-day relationships and some of the prejudices that continue to exist today. So while a fiery hot head young woman named Ember (Leah Lewis) and a go with the flow water guy named Wade (Mamoudou Athie) couldn’t be any more different, they find out how much they actually have in common. But as we will soon learn, there were a few technical challenges to animate a personal story and give elemental effects like Fire, Water, Earth, and Wind emotions.

An Elemental art review to discuss the end credits in the art room, including Production Designer Don Shank, Director Peter Sohn, Rejoin Bourdages, Producer Denise Ream, Jesus Martinez and on Zoom video Laura Meyer and Yu Liu on January 18, 2023 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

The Nerds of Color joined their fellow journalists to for the Elemental press conference earlier this week, where they addressed some of the challenges of giving humanity to elements like fire and water, while Lewis and Athie spoke about the parallels between their individual personalities and their respective characters.

Sohn did a lot of doodling when it came to developing the look and feel of Ember and Wade who are considered more to be cinematic effects than characters. “When I drew fire, you know, right next to water, there was this wonderful tension that I couldn’t get enough of. So, I knew right away that they would be sort of our main characters for this film,” he said. “But here was no road that Pixar to make characters like this.” Referring to Pixar’s history of creating characters who were plastic toys, hairy monsters, grumpy fishes, and teenagers who turned into smelly red pandas.

“Trying to create a character that was entirely in effect was all new for the studio. And so, you know, we just had to bring a lot of construction workers to build this road for us that even get to an image that would come alive in a moment,” Sohn continued. “And before we were even talking about moving it, it was the conference of amazing artists. And I’m just so grateful for the amazing talent that everyone gave. It’s truly incredible.”

“It was creating the two characters from nothing,” producer Denise Ream said. “to create emotive characters that you need to connect to out of simulations is something that was pretty daunting.  We were excited at the challenge, but it was a daunting prospect.” They had started out with Ember and then built the world around her, but soon discovered that water characters were much more of a challenge.

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. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

While the average character has about 4,000 controls, Sohn said it was more than double that for Ember and Wade. “You needed this control to try to get them to move like the element while there was an effect going on top of it,” Sohn said. “And there’s so many layers of effects going on with these characters that they kept multiplying the challenges in every direction that we would go.” And creating characters that are fire-based while staying true to the science isn’t easy because you can’t shadow fire and you had to make sure that the eyes were in the correct place.

And it was just as hard with water. “If you slowed down the bubbles, all of a sudden, water would look like jello,” Sohn said. “If you remove the highlights, water would look like a ghost.  And then, so in every sequence, in every shot, and if, you know, if water was in the basement, there would be no light and you couldn’t see the character. And all of a sudden, when you’re on the rooftop next to Ember, the sunlight would just blow him out and he would just be this white light thing.  And every shot was, you know, about control and a challenge.”

And bringing these characters to life through the vocal performances was just as much of a process. Though Lewis and Athie connected to their characters, they spent a lot of time in the recording booth and had to go to a vulnerable place to connect to their respective characters.

“I think she mirrors a bit of a younger part of myself, too. I think in the past was a bit more defensive.  And even though we kind of see her as really guarded, I think that she’s just a bit fearful to step out into the world and see what these other elements have to offer ’cause she’s kind of only known one thing her life,” Lewis said of her character Ember. “But she’s beautiful.  You know, she’s absolutely radiant.  And I think the way that she moves, too, is just so elegant and so flowy, despite her being fire, which is something that can be so explosive.  I mean, she has so much range.”

Lewis also related to Ember’s devotion to her family as she would also fight to the ends of the Earth for them. “I think similarly with her having this intense passion that can kind of double as explosion, has also happened in my life, too,” she said. “I’ve had a bit of an edgier side to myself, but I’ve actually, just like Ember, been able to kind of turn that into something good, but through the help of people in my life, like my family and my friends and the many different Wades that have come into my life and helped me actually see the light inside of me. “

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. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

For Athie, he also felt a connection to his character, Wade. “I feel similarly, like I’m telling you guys.  Like I spoke with Pete and I was like, ‘I know who this guy is so well,’ he said. “I had to play this part.  Like I really felt like that.  I can’t say anything else as aside from that.  That, and I didn’t want to complicate it too much because I think Wade is very intentionally simple, very intentionally, I’m going to live my life like this.  And I try to find simplicity in my life.”

Though Lewis and Athie’s characters seem like they have a lot of chemistry, behind the scenes, the two didn’t have any recording sessions together. “I feel like it was Peter kind of doing a lot of behind the scenes work with us separately. I mean, to get into the world of Ember, Peter was just so generous in the way that he was like, just be you, but do that like times 10 and we’ll figure out like what parts of your voice we can use and that are brand new that he hadn’t even really thought of,” Lewis said. “For me though, if we’re really getting technical with it, a lot of water, a lot of sleep, a lot of rest.”

Lewis also learned that these recording sessions were a marathon, not a sprint. Sohn had taught her not to blow herself out within the first five minutes of each session. “It was definitely like a long haul every time I did a session for four hours.  But I think just being willing to be silly and be vulnerable and be as sad as possible, all the different range of emotions, like just keeping my heart completely open for where Ember needed to go,” she said. “Because, you know, in these four-hour sessions, we’re doing a bunch of different scenes that range from angry to sad to happy to, you know, we’re falling in love and now we’re talking to our family.”

For Mamadou, he took the lessons that he had learned from a French-clown class — not the kind you see at the circus — to heart as it helped him “access parts of myself that I felt ashamed of or was just embarrassed by.” “It really helped me just become a less self-conscious actor.  And so it kind of just made those sessions like a form of like very fun, but serious play,” he said.

LIGHTHEARTED FUN — In Disney and Pixar’s “Elemental,” go-with-the-flow guy Wade (Mamoudou Athie) ushers fiery young woman Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) out of her comfort zone to experience Elemental City like never before. 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.

And a lot of what makes Elemental emotionally resonating is how the score and Lauv’s “Steal the Show” makes an instant connection within the space of the film and the audience watching the film. The music artist loved the message of opposites coexisting and believes that its the kind of film that warrants multiple viewings. “It’s one of those movies that I want to watch multiple times many times because like seeing the actual thing for the first time at the premiere, I was blown away and I was like thinking about it and talking about it at dinner afterwards for a couple of hours.  And I feel like there’s more to learn each time,” he said.

As for “Steal the Show,” Lauv simply took the two loops provided by Academy Award-winning composer Thomas Newman to jump-start the chord procession and melodies, and then free style from there.

While Elemental is deeply personal for Sohn, as its story draws from his personal experiences as a child of immigrant parents and husband in an interracial marriage, the film also resonating with Lewis and Athie.

Athie emigrated United States when he was five months old, and his father, who was a diplomat, had two master’s degrees he couldn’t take with him and had to start anew. “And as an adult, I understood that was a sacrifice when I was a kid.  But as an adult, I have a fuller understanding of what it is to build a life for yourself.  But I cannot imagine having to, you know, start all over for the sake of your family.  But they did it and they did it without question. They did it for us,” he said. “And I think Pete and I shared like that sense of gratitude, that feeling of a debt that, “in the making of this film and just talking about it and talking with my parents about it, it’s not so much like a debt anymore.  It feels more of like a, you know, how do you say it?  Like a gift.”

“I love what Mamoudou just said about it being a gift.  Because I think when I talked to my parents, you know, they gave me the gift of giving their 135 percent when it came to supporting me and my sister.  And then the gift back is just living your life to the absolute fullest and really working on herself as a human being to feel fulfilled and feel confident,” Lewis said. “I felt really close to Peter’s story just in general, and the fact that he could be so honest and vulnerable and, you know, make it in such a digestible way through Pixar.  But I think, like I just related to Ember specifically on so many different levels.”

Like Ember, Lewis is appreciative of all the sacrifices her family has made for her to achieve her dreams of acting and singing. The actor wasn’t so open to sharing the tenderness of the subject because it ripped her in the most vulnerable of ways. And even if her dreams are different from her parents,’ she is still in a space where she can honor them and go on her journey of self-discovery. “It’s produced a lot of expectations that she’s even placed on herself, but by the end of the film, you know, she kind of reveals to her parents like, I actually have a different dream,” she said.

Elemental opens in theaters on June 16, 2023