Download: ‘Elemental:’ The Complexity of Bringing Disney / Pixar's Newest Characters To the Big Screen
Disney / Pixar’s Elemental takes the red-hot classic animation studio into several uncharted waters.
If you’ve not seen the trailer for the upcoming film, then scroll down, watch the trailer, and come back to amusingly groan at the two puns I just made. I’ll wait…
Elemental features the vocal talents of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade, the literal incarnation of opposites attracting. Over the course of the film, the two characters “meet cute,” learn about their individual lived experiences, and find ways to peacefully (and perhaps romantically) co-exist. The film marks Disney / Pixar’s first take at the traditional romantic comedy genre, but it also offers a much broader thematic palate for the audience, much like the best Disney / Pixar films.
“It’s a comedy filled with heart,” says producer Denise Ream. “It’s a story about relationships—between Fire and Water, between parents and their kids and between all of us and our neighbors who might not look like us. It’s part comedy, part family journey and part culture clash.”
To prep for the film and to make it as realistic as possible, the filmmaking team spoke with over 100 first- or second-generation immigrants. Both children of immigrant families themselves, Ream and director Peter Sohn found each conversation a deeply moving experience that deepened the storyline in ways that will resonate with millions across the world.
To bring this complex story to the big screen, Sohn and team knew they were hugely ambitious in designing the story they wanted to tell. The characters weren’t humans who weren’t made of fire, water, earth, or air. They were the elements themselves. They needed to move in a way that, for example, water would move if it could walk. It may seem a silly thing to consider, but these are the kinds of detailed conversations Sohn and the creative masters at Pixar had to bring their collective vision to theaters.
“I did not know what I was getting into at all,” Sohn laughs. “I knew that the characters would be complicated, but I guessed wrong which characters would be the most difficult. I knew that there would be a lot of obstacles, but I totally came into it with a hopeful naiveté and excitement.”
Sohn’s vision for the film would push the legendary animation studio well beyond what they’ve traditionally delivered before. In fact, the film literally could not have been made five years ago. In a recent Elemental press day, the filmmaking team revealed that the iconic Toy Story required just under 300 computers to produce. Their comic classic Monsters, Inc., required around 700. The early water sequences of Finding Nemo pushed that number up to 1,000. To fully render Elemental, Pixar required over 151,000 computers.
What required so much computing power? Well, in a traditional Pixar film, you have characters generally of the same species — monsters, rats, toys, and so forth. Here in Elemental, you have four unique character types representing the four elements.
“The balance of making the characters stylized but representative of the elements was a tricky line to walk,” visual effects supervisor Sanjay Bakshi says. “Ember looks like fire, but she doesn’t look like the fire that you photograph. It’s a very carefully curated depiction of fire that makes her believable but also invites you to look in her eyes and see her expressions and really get captivated by her performance.”
However, the fluid, emotional, and constantly moving Wade Ripple was the toughest to get perfectly right. Yes, he’s made of water, but if he moved too slow, then he looked like The Blob. When lighting concepts were applied, you could see straight through all of the water characters. The final product proved a collaborative example of Disney / Pixar ingenuity.
Character supervisor Junyi Ling describes the design for Wade as the culmination of a series of small choices. “There are color choices, shape choices—the shape of his hair, his lips, body—he’s a unique character,” Ling says, admitting that, while uniqueness was important for each character, they also needed to have some sense of consistency. “We wanted to make it clear that Wade and Ember are in the same movie, too.”
Character supervisor Jeremie Talbot adds, “One big challenge that Peter [Sohn] laid out for water, fire and air characters was that they shouldn’t look skeletal. Our tools are usually based around building characters that have flesh and bone. Fire and Water don’t have knees and elbows that are in fixed places like humans. When Wade takes footsteps, his foot can come and go—his whole leg can disappear into a blob and then come back. It’s controllable by the animator to reinforce the idea that he is water. It was a real challenge to loosen up our characters to allow them to work in a more dynamic way.”
When audiences see the finished product in June, they will not only love the worlds of Ember and Wade and their endearing attraction, but they will also be treated to a vast world of earth and air-based characters, a new sporting event played by clouds, and more all embedded within Element City, an incredibly detailed world designed by the best animators working today.
Elemental debuts in theaters only on June 16. Advanced tickets are now on sale.