Stage & Screen

Disney’s ELEMENTAL: Origin, Change, & Connection

The minds and talents behind the film open up about the hardships and joys of working on ELEMENTAL at its Virtual Global Press Conference.
All photos: Walt Disney / Pixar.
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Disney’s ELEMENTAL: Origin, Change, & Connection

Neither tears nor laughter were spared during the hour the group of six spent to talk about Disney and Pixar’s freshest production. ELEMENTAL, directed by Peter Sohn, imagines a city in which resides people of four different element types: fire, water, earth and air. The core motive of the film is to move people to connect with those that are different from themselves, as emphasised by Sohn: “If it inspires anyone to connect, I'm a happy man.”

On the talent panel were five jolly faces: director Peter Sohn, producer Denise Ream, voice actors Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie, as well as pop singer Lauv, who collaborated with Thomas Newman for a single on the film’s soundtrack. The energy and good spirit of the panel was contagious, and it became obvious that the five of them wholeheartedly adore the film as the conference went on. Sohn came up with the raw concept of the film, which he based on his early upbringing in the Bronx. It’s not hard to imagine how a child of immigrant parents’ experiencing bustling and diverse New York in the ‘70s was inspired the idea to write characters of such different natures to one another, and Sohn treated it with care. 

Sohn and Ream detailed the technical challenges the production underwent, explaining that while the average Pixar character has about 4000 controls, main characters Ember and Wade needed around 10,000. Being the first of their nature (made up entirely of elements, as opposed to a basic solid animation) meant that every scenario had to be considered meticulously. While Ember, being essentially a source of light, couldn’t cast a shadow; Wade was a few bubbles away from being made of jelly rather than water. Sohn admitted that the animation process “kept multiplying the challenges in every direction”, and the rest of the panel all had an admiration of sorts in their eyes as they quietly listened to the two. 

As the conversation shifted onwards, Lewis and Athie spoke a lot about what it took for them to embody their roles. Lewis admitted her character “kind of mirrors a bit of a younger part of [herself],” in having a bit of a defensive edge and an “intense passion that can kind of double as explosion”. Lewis’ character isn’t all too hot to touch though, as like Lewis, she has a light that burns bright with love and loyalty to those close to her. Lewis went on to explain how much she resonates with the family aspect of the story, tearfully sharing how her adoptive family supported her every step of the way. Athie suggested that to do well in life is not a debt being paid but rather a gift they give back in gratitude to their parents who sacrificed so much for them, and there was a genuine spark in the conversation as everyone smiled at the sentiment. It’s not hard to see why Sohn chose this pair to take on their characters.

As the driving force behind taking on his character, Athie quoted a Jenny Holzer installation from the naughties: "It is in your self interest to find a way to be very tender." He explained that this bare open-heartedness was the spine of his character, and it seemed as though everyone else on the seven-year project also took on their role - whether as cast or crew - with an open heart, all of whom have finally been rewarded with the project’s conclusion. At first it was something they lived through and had to themselves, and now the story is being passed on to the audience. 

Athie teased the listeners to “go see the movie and you’ll get what you’re looking for,” after mentioning that Pixar can always be counted on for putting heart into their films. When asked what she hopes an audience might take away from the film, Lewis shared that she hopes “people walk away with that missing piece of themselves that they weren’t quite sure was there.”

Whether one tends to burn bright or go with the flow, ELEMENTAL, so cared for by its creators, is a film for everyone. As put beautifully by Lewis, “we are composed of all the different people that we’ve come across”, and it is very true. There is always something one can gain from forming new relationships, whether that be insight on the world or insight on oneself. Sohn, who has been inspired by his own journey, summarises it clearly: “empathy doesn’t exist without a little bravery.”  

Elemental hits cinemas on the 16th of June.
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