Pixar’s Elemental Director Peter Sohn Interview

Recently io9 visited Pixar for a preview of its upcoming release Elemental, where we got a behind-the-scenes look at how the studio that brought us films like Up, Wall-E, and Turning Red was gearing up to transport audiences to a new world.

Led by director Peter Sohn, we got a look at the development of the film from its early stages to a fully rendered trailer and handful of scenes. Sohn described his pitch for the romantic comedy, which follows the relationship of Ember and Wade, two different elemental people from drastically different worlds. “That connection between fire and water was the first thing I pitched to Disney. I am a huge fan of so many romantic comedies, from the Jane Austen films to [movies like] Moonstruck and The Big Sick,” he said. He also added Amélie to the mix, noting how each of these films explore how the core romance’s meet-cute brings their extended worlds together.

“They bring cities into these stories as well. Romance is a big part of the movie, but it was also that part of my connection that I had with trying to marry someone that was outside my culture,” Sohn said. Elemental took inspiration not just from his marriage, but also the relatable but not-often-seen story of a child of immigrants assimilating to a new place while keeping true to their family’s roots. “It’s not just, like, a boy meeting a girl. It was also a father and a daughter and what that relationship was. And so the initial concept was to try to make something universal—that we can have part of that connection with these two, fire and water, but then also understanding the family dynamic and that cultural part of this to make the film larger.”

To keep the film universal, Elemental’s creative team imbued the film’s world with a mixture of various cultural touchstones, but without being specific to real life cultures. “When I first started pitching it, there were things of my own life that I would make fun of in terms of like, ‘Oh, I love spicy food. Wouldn’t it be funny if fire food was really spicy?’—that kind of thing and all that kind of fun,” he said. Sohn explained how that led into creating major differentiations in the world building, which is composed of different element types.

“Once people started saying or asking like, ‘Oh, are they Asian?’ It’s like, No, no, they’re not meant to be Asian.’ Or ‘Is air meant to be this culture?’ Quickly I realized these have to be universal. My biggest goal was to try to take the element itself and pull from there to make the culture,” Sohn said.Obviously if you go too far, it could become alien, and so you do have little grounding ways to do that. Something that was really interesting was disruption—meaning there is a piece of a culture that you think is mixed with the fire element on top, and then the next one should take you into another place where it’s giving you other values of cultures that we know—but without it pointing to anything.”

To fully imagine a world where Earth mounds would move around and sell branches, and fire would be in its own clay and iron environments while water lived an aquatic spa life, it’s very easy to draw class comparisons—but the magic of Pixar always lies in the abstract of the new realms the studio makes for its stories. Sohn shared that they went to the length of even creating languages. “David Peterson, who did Game of Thrones, and [his] amazing brilliant team tried taking fireplace sound effects and [making] a language of it,” he said mimicking various forms that a crackle of a fire might sound like.

To musically bring Elemental to life Pixar brought back Thomas Newman (Wall-E) to collaborate with Sohn to tell an emotional story of a character caught between two worlds. “It was a dream to just get to work with Thomas Newman; he’s just been someone that I’ve always admired. I say that because I used a lot of his music as temp and when making the reels,” Sohn said, geeking out a little bit.

“But for the story, the intellectual part of me wanted to showcase a foreign world much like a world that we know. I guess like an American world because it’s not American, but it’s part of our culture. And in tracking, that sort of intellectual idea of identity—like, ‘Am I Korean or am I American? What am I?’ I was born here [but] when I’m in Korea, they don’t treat me like I’m Korean, or when I’m here, sometimes you can feel not of this place,” he explained. “I’m trying to use music to help support that idea of when you’re in a fire shop, that there’s something there that the music can tell us that says it’s foreign, but it’s not like something that we know. But it has a vibe. It doesn’t feel like you’re here. And then when you’re in the city, it has something that grounds us to something that we know now. It’s a very difficult challenge to do. And ultimately, what Tom had done for that aspect of it was just make just very unique music that really sought to separate [the cultures]. But then on an emotional level, Ember’s journey of understanding her vulnerabilities and when her walls come down was also another layer that we really focused on.”

Like Inside Out before it, Elemental reaches for a new transformative and joyful experience with new characters made of the core essences of what sustains life. I mean, why are we here? What are we doing? It’s all just a love for movies, right?” Sohn beamed about the team he’s leading to tell such a personal story, “There’s so much magic that happens when all these artists [are] in a room like this, know we’re all in this together, and one of you is like, ‘Oh, this is the shot’ and you see it with everyone. There’s a real sports-like, ‘Holy cow, that was a slam dunk!’ that that person had done for the shot. That’s going to be part of a movie that we all want to see.”

Glimpse the gorgeously animated and unique take on a rom-com in the trailer below:

Elemental | Official Trailer

Pixar’s Elemental will be released in theaters June 16.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water.

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