‘Elemental’ Filmmakers Peter Sohn & Denise Ream On Bringing Elements To Life: “We’ve Never Done This Before”

When director Peter Sohn and producer Denise Ream began working on Elemental, they started with the idea of elements coming to life. This led to the creation of Element City, a sprawling metropolis filled with residents made of fire, water, earth and air. The story follows Ember (Leah Lewis), a fire resident working in her parents market, whose fiery temper leads her to a chance meeting with Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a sappy water resident working as a city inspector. While fire and water do not mix well, Ember and Wade find themselves forming an unlikely friendship. As Sohn and Ream were working on the project, they soon discovered how difficult it was to animate fire and water to give them emotional performances, without turning them into humans. Elemental premieres in theaters on June 16, 2023 with new animated short Carl’s Date.

DEADLINE: Where did you get the idea for using fire and water as the main characters?

PETER SOHN: It was through doodling and drawing different ideas and then finding out personalities from them. As an animator, you’re always trying to explore something that would be really fun to animate, like blinking flames and all that kind of stuff. And then I had this idea that I first drew about this water character coming to a dinner. And when he was eating something, it was all boiling in his mouth… and that started forming this idea.

DEADLINE: Did you realize from the beginning that water and fire are two very difficult things to animate well?

SOHN: It was really early on. Even when we pitched the idea, everyone said it was going to be very difficult.

DENISE REAM: From the get-go, basically. Our boss was really worried about the fire, and that was something we heard a lot about. We never wanted realistic fire, but the character still needs to feel like fire. So, I immediately started talking to the tools people and big R&D brains. 

SOHN: It’s hard to look back on it right now, because there wasn’t anything before. Even online, there were no real fire characters. There was the Human Torch and Jack-Jack on fire. That was it – a man on fire and a baby on fire, but nothing really made of fire in that way. So, all I had were drawings. When we told people it’s gonna be a fire person and a water person, there wasn’t anything that people would immediately think of. 

REAM: Well, the shot that they showed [at the press conference] of the paper airplane going through Ember ended up being a really great rallying point, where people were getting what Pete meant when he said, “I don’t want it to be a character on fire.”

DEADLINE: That was something that everybody who worked on this said, that these are elements, they’re not human. Ember is fire, not a human on fire. How did that realization come about?

SOHN: Well I just knew that I’m still not happy with the rigs. I’d love to push the rigs even further, you know? I’ve been here for so long and we’ve had [characters made from] hard plastic, hard metal, you know cars or toys and humans… and we knew how to do that. I remember there was this [article] on Terminator 2 where they had done the T-1000, the liquid man of metal. And I remember where it was successful and where it was weird, and then thinking about that for our characters… we’ve never done this before. Let’s see what we can do with that and see where it goes.

REAM: From the animation perspective, that was the hard thing to figure out.

SOHN: A friend had said, “You should just mocap [motion capture] this and then put it on fire.” But the whole point of animation for us is to do something that you couldn’t do in a human outfit. And that was a weird, little back of the pocket goal for us – to make it look like you could never mocap this. We always want that hand animated feel that’s so fun and perky, you know?

DEADLINE: You’ve mentioned that you thought fire was going to be the really difficult one to animate, but water was actually the hardest. The VFX Supervisor, Sanjay Bakshi, mentioned that you went hard on animating the water before having to pull back.

SOHN: Yes, I went into a mania. I was so afraid that he was gonna look too human, so I kept pushing the water side of it. Every dial has transparency – his bubbles, the ripples, everything. Every time his mouth moved, everything in his head was moving and you couldn’t see anything and his performance started getting lost. We had to rework some of the design to accommodate that look, but that wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was lighting. What does Wade look like when the light hits him? Wade changes in every lighting situation, where Ember has no shadows on her. She’s essentially the same in every shot, except for her movement. But Wade in the basement or outdoors or daylight in the city, he could easily turn into something really weird. Or he’s too transparent here, or he’s too blue, or he feels like jello…

REAM: I would say designing the characters all the way through is probably the most challenging thing because, unlike our previous films, we had to have all of these shot based departments there to add their part to make the character come to life. You normally wouldn’t be in early pre-production with the effects team, but because we had to do character effects for the secondary motion, we ended up having this big team working less on paper and more on the computer to try to get that look. So that was challenging.

DEADLINE: Seems very challenging, especially because as you said, there’s no reference for this online.

SOHN: Yeah, and it’s so expensive to do. With current technology, it is so hard to render that type of volume in both characters. The rendering power will work to render the skin of Woody’s fabric and bounce off. But for Ember and Wade, it needs to render that part and render the hundreds of layers that go through them.

DEADLINE: You just finished working on the final frames of the film, so what does it feel like to have put all this work in to create something that hasn’t been done before?

SOHN: It’s very emotional. There’s a strange bittersweetness to finishing it, but that just shows you how much you really cared for the process. When you’re in the middle of it, you’re just focusing on the goal and how hard it is to get there. But once you start seeing what the teams here are doing, there’s this weird building of energy that happens inside where you realize that it’s exciting because they’re doing such cool work. Now that we got to the end, it’s so emotional and feels like you’ve raised a child. There’s a great pride in this sort of parental way, but it just grows as you’re growing it, you know?

REAM: It feels like it’s been ours for such a long time and now everyone’s coming to get the kid. I feel emotional as well because it’s been a long time. It’s happened through our life, personal lives, and the pandemic. There’s just been so much work, but seeing what everyone came together to do just blows me away.

SOHN: And like the art of all of this reflects what we’re going through, you just can’t help it. For this film, it was just the idea of trying to thank our parents for all the sacrifices that they made. My parents passed during this, so the idea of trying to honor them got even stronger and all of a sudden all of this stuff got colored into it. Everyone just puts a part of themselves into it.

DEADLINE: Speaking of emotional, what’s it like to have the animated short playing before your film be Carl’s Date, with characters from Up

SOHN: Oh, I’m extremely proud. I love Bob [Peterson] and I love what he’s been doing to keep those characters alive, since we both worked on Up.

REAM: That was my first movie, so it feels extra special for me to have that attached.

SOHN: And that one specifically, it just connects directly to the heart of the first film and of what Carl’s going through. So, we are super proud. 

Click below to watch the trailer for Elemental


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