Disney + Pixar’s ELEMENTAL director Pete Sohn revealed that George Lucas influenced his process working on the film. While in a press conference with ELEMENTAL director Pete Sohn and producer Denise Ream, Pete revealed that George Lucas had a huge impact on the world and look of the film.
PETE SOHN (Director): I really believe in this creation concept called the “immaculate reality”. It was a phrase that I had heard from George Lucas on the making of STAR WARS, where they were designing things knowing that they had a history to it, but the audience would never get to know that history. It would make the world feel more real because things had a history to them.
ELEMENTAL is an immigrant story set in Element City (think New York City). First, water-element-residents populated the city, and eventually land-, air, and fire-residents immigrated into this booming metropolis. The feature film begins by introducing Ember (Leah Lewis), a tough and fiery young woman who is a fire element and also second generation immigrant to Element City. Her parents immigrated, started up a small business in the form of a “Fire Shop”, and have carved out a life in the big city.
In early footage we saw, Ember and her parents have a tough time as fire elements, navigating a city that caters heavily to water-based residents. The elevated train spills water as it takes hard turns, and fire-residents must dodge away or risk losing pieces of their faces when the water touches them!
Naturally, the fire- and water-residents don’t interact much, and have even built up a bit of prejudice towards each other. However, Ember befriends water-resident Wade (Mamoudou Athie). He’s as go-with-the-flow as she is tough and snarky. He cries at the drop of a hat (being made of water) and shows her just how fun life can be when you chill out. She, in turn, shows him her life. The two are fire and water, literally, and must learn how to navigate the world together with their two opposing viewpoints.
Back to George Lucas. Sohn reveals that every detail has a purpose and a history, based on Lucas’ “immaculate reality” concept. Ember’s parents own a fire shop, and you must look at every detail!
PETE SOHN: In my upbringing in New York, there were always sort of groups of communities going through a neighborhood. The Irish came into this one neighborhood, then they would move out of it. And then Italians, Chinese – all leaving traces of their history. And so the details within the store, the fire shop, it was an old earth neighborhood that Bernie and Cinder (Ember’s parents) found and then made it into their shop by imprinting their traditions and cultures on it.
ELEMENTAL derives directly from Pete Sohn’s own experience growing up in New York as a second-generation immigrant. His parents had immigrated there from Korea.
PETE SOHN: [The story] was something very personal to me. The shop where [my parents] started, and a couple shops that my father had started building after that, were all in immigrant neighborhoods, and so that’s all I had known. All sort of poor families, but they were all from another place, and so you were just in this very rich, diverse community. That really affected me growing up.
So, once I thought about the elements as separate communities, I was trying to capture that idea of people that had come from other places that have gathered to create a life for themselves. And that was the emotional hook for me, was that my parents had come here from another place, a foreign place, to make a better life for us. And it’s something that I grew up not really understanding until I became an adult, where I really began to appreciate that, and so it was all tied from a personal experience.
DENISE REAM (Producer): And that personal experience resonated with a lot of people, our coworkers and colleagues. So many people at Pixar are first- and second-generation immigrants. So we ended up having a lot of those people work on the movie, and that added texture and authenticity.
Though the messaging may sound heavy-handed, as an immigrant story, Sohn assures us that there is no big “Message” he wants to preach. Instead, the film is meant as a love letter to his parents, whom he has lost. When he was growing up, Pete was drawn to anthropomorphic characters, because they are universal.
As for the characters, Wade – our water element – is depicted crying…a lot! I was curious about the juxtaposition of showing an extremely emotional male(ish) character.
PETE SOHN: It was two things for me. There was the fun of drawing just the characters without gender. Like, when you drew fire, first that they would just become fire. When you drew water, having them leak water and sweat or crying was just a funny visual, gender or not. And then in trying to find Ember and Wade as the story was evolving early on in development, there was something about it – I am a crier. I am a total emotional guy and I have a lotta water weight as well, like, I’m a chubby dude. And there was a lot of jokes that I started drawing from my own personal life of, like, Wade trying to exercise to get some of that weight off and he would be sweating. And then the way he would cry, I was just pulling from my own life of my family and I watching some K drama and you’re just crying your eyes out. And that just became a personal thing for me, and so that’s why I love Wade. It’s ok for guys to cry. It’s ok!
The final thing that struck me about the footage we saw was the music. Much like INSIDE OUT, the soundtrack builds moods, depending on the environments shown. So I asked what kind of direction Pete gave to composer Thomas Newman.
PETE SOHN: Trying to find the identity of the places musically was one of the first concepts, and then, on top of that, the emotion. Thomas Newman works in a very thoughtful and unique way where everything is layered. He would bring these, sort of, “vibes”. They weren’t themes or motifs. It was mainly capturing an energy that a character was feeling and then, from there, when we had found that, that’s when he started adding colors. What does Firetown sound like? What is a foreign sound for fire people in that culture, and then what would be the themes of Element City and that place that they live in?
There were definite inspirations for the different elements throughout the score. There was a high-pitched flute for the wind-residents. There was a droopy-drip noise for a drum that he would add for water. It was a foreign instrument that I had never heard of. And then he started finding instruments that gave you the feeling of those elements that he would use as sort of a layer on top of some of these other vibes that he was getting.
The thirty minutes of footage we saw only peaked my interest. Water and fire are not easy elements to animate, but here they are as fully formed characters, expressing and emoting. Another “element” to look forward to – Wade’s mom, Brook, is voiced by Catherine O’Hara (SCHITT’S CREEK, HOME ALONE)! We can’t wait to hear what the talented improv artist brings to the film.
ELEMENTAL arrives in U.S. theaters on June 16th. Will you see it? Let us know in the comments!