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The art and science of the elements in Pixar’s “Elemental”

When director Pete Sohn was first dreaming up his original tale for Pixar’s next feature film with “Elemental“, he found that using the elements like fire and water would be the basics for his characters. That in itself presented a great yet exciting challenge for the teams who needed to take Sohn’s rough sketches and turn them into three-dimensional quality Pixar characters.

This rather technical challenge isn’t new to the Pixar tech teams who have made rather glorious things like creating individual digital hairs for Sully in “Monsters Inc.” and creating a physics for the metaphysical world as seen in “Soul.”

Now with “Elemental,” the technical and animation teams had to overcome the challenge of not only designing personified versions of the elements themselves, but show how they could interact with each other like characters do.

“Pete (Sohn) had a rule for us though– they needed to be the actual elements,” said Jeremie Talbot, a character supervisor on the film during the film’s early press day. “As in we needed to actually obey the physical laws of how these elements actually are,” added Junyi Ling, another one of “Elemental’s” characters supervisors.

The rule was set by Sohn because he saw them to be the perfect way to convey the uniqueness of immigrant peoples through their cultures and traditions. “Our story is heavily focused on the differences I experienced as part of an immigrant family, so using the elements was perfect to tell that story since we could really explore how we can all co-exist and not at times,” Sohn said.

With the challenge set, Pixar’s talented characters team began the process of designing the look of their characterized versions of fire, water, land, and air. Together with the animation and effects team, the teams ended up creating environments and character interactions that honored the physics and science that each element exists in.

For example in one of the opening scenes showcasing the metropolis that is Element City where the elements live, work, and play, the Pixar team created fun neighborhoods and transportation methods that were respective to each element. Air, for instance, traveled in blimps that inflated as they entered, and Firetown where main character Ember lives where water is frowned upon since they can destroy anything there.

It was all in a day’s work for all the technical and software teams at Pixar to create a fully animated feature film with these creative limitations. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The people who work on these films are the most talented people in the world. ‘Elemental’ wouldn’t have been as moving or plainly wouldn’t have existed without their creativity and hard work,” Sohn said.

Pixar’s “Elemental” is now playing exclusively in theaters.


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