Disney and Pixar’s Elemental follows the firey Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) and a go-with-the-flow Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), an unlikely pair who are about to discover something elemental: how much they actually have in common. The film is a classic tale of opposites attracting with a dash of culture clash and immigrant guilt. It draws from director Peter Sohn’s life as a child of immigrant parents and husband of an interracial marriage. As such, his story comes alive through the magic of animating science. And the cast and crew got to share some of their thoughts on making the film and how much of their lives are reflected in the stories and the characters.
With Elemental out in theaters later this week, Thatsitla had the chance to sit down and talk with the cast and crew about how much they are like their characters, what makes a good Pixar film, and crafting the perfect love song about two opposing elements falling for each other.
Lewis describes Ember as a “fiery, passionate, young, independent woman who is very close to her family.” Ember fully understands the sacrifices they had to make to get to Element City and provide her with the life she has now. As such, she feels indebted to them, so much so that she dreams of taking over her father’s shop. So she feels she has no time for any relationships, let alone one where two elements do not work together. “A lot is at stake for them just even interacting. I mean, they could literally extinguish one another or snuff each other out,” Lewis said. “I would want to go near someone if our lives were on the line because of that reason. But also just fundamentally because they’re so different. And they don’t socialize in ways that they would, I guess, with other elements, especially fire, because fire can burn everything down. I love that.”
Athie sees Wade as a pragmatic, realistic element who isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. For him, Wade is the kind of guy who finds a solution to any problem. “When the going gets tough, he’s like, Okay, what is the thing that needs to happen? And let’s do that,” Athie said. “He chooses to live his life in a very open-hearted way, and I say ‘chooses’ very specifically because he looks for the positive. He looks to see the positive in everything. And in every one. That’s one of my favorite things about him because he’s just like a person who’s chosen a person. A water guy has chosen to be as positive as possible for not only other people’s benefit but his own.”
And bringing these characters to life was no easy task, especially when the studio has a history of working on plastic toys, sea creatures, superheroes, humans who could turn red pandas, and talking cars. So Sohn thanks the hundreds of amazing artists who helped give life to characters that would otherwise be treated as an effect. “There was no road that Pixar to make characters like this. We were so used to building toys or metal cars, and trying to create a character that was entirely an effect was all new for the studio,” Sohn said. “We just had to bring a lot of construction workers to build this road for us that even get to an image that would come alive in emote and before we were even talking about moving it.”
Sohn described the process of giving these characters depth and personality as very layered. With fire, they have a creative spark and are very luminous, while water is very transparent and goes with the flow. “It just started off as these simple ideas. But as we started developing them, you just started putting these personal pieces of yourselves. And it wasn’t just me. It was an entire crew. And in that open-hearted way that Mamadou was talking about, it will really was that experience. It wasn’t a cynical journey whatsoever. Everyone was connecting to this fully open from that early primitive start. All of a sudden, she became the second-generation daughter of immigrants that started layering on top of her passion and on top of her temper, on top of our creative spark, and on top of her temper on top of our creative spark.”
So Sohn wanted to be able to make those connections between the personalities and family stories to those elements. “Understanding these two characters were missing something and then trying to find out what they would begin to fill in each other, started to layer on top of this, go with the flow attitude,” he said. the fact that the character was transparent really pointed to he couldn’t hide his emotions.” And Sohn wanted to figure out what that would mean for Wade to fill the missing puzzle piece in his life.
Sohn also looked at ideas of privilege and high EQ for Wade and how he connected to the rest of the world. Once those things started to take shape, the story began to evolve. “It was a beautiful thing because the way the writers and the story artists were doing that was a very heartfelt gift that they just kept giving these characters,” he said. “This was a, you know, a process of trial and error. And, anytime there was a leap forward, it was all done through feeling.”
In finding some of her commonality with Ember, Lewis talked about how Ember mirrored a bit of a younger part of herself when she was more defensive and guarded. ” I think that she’s just a bit fearful to kind of like step out into the world and see what these other elements have to offer,” she said. The actor says Ember has only known one thing in her life, but she’s beautiful and absolutely radiant. “I think the way that she moves is just so elegant and so flowy despite her being fire, which is something that can be so explosive. She has so much range. She’s loyal to her family and the things that mean the most to her. And I think that’s a really admirable quality I also follow suit with.”
Lewis also relates to Ember’s devotion to her family. In the film, we see how Ember is driven to live up to her father’s expectations so that she can continue the family business. And the actor sees a lot of Ember’s loyalty in herself. “I would go to the ends of the earth to fight for that as well. And, I think similarly with her having this intense passion that can kind of double as explosion has also happened in my life, too,” Lewis adds. “I’ve had a bit of an edgier side to myself, but I’ve actually been able to turn that into something good through the help of people in my life, like my family and friends. The many different ways they have come into my life and helped me see the light inside of me rather than it being treacherous. It’s actually really beautiful. I relate to her in many, many different ways. Although I don’t get as angry as she does. Maybe when I was younger, I used to, but these days, I’ve kind of reeled it in a little bit.”
To create the dynamic chemistry between Ember and Wade, Lewis and Athie spent much time in the recording booth without spending a single session together. “Peter was just so generous in the way that he was, like, ‘Just be you. But do that, like times 10. And we’ll figure out what parts of your voice we can use that are brand new,’ Lewis said. “For me, though, if we’re really getting technical with it, a lot of water, a lot of sleep, and a lot of rest.”
Lewis added Sohn advised her not to blow herself out within the first five minutes of a four-hour recording session. “I think just being willing to be silly and be vulnerable and be as sad as possible, all the different range of emotions, like just keeping my heart completely open for where Ember needed to go,” she said. “In these four-hour sessions, we’re doing a bunch of different scenes that range from angry to sad to happy to we’re falling in love. And now we’re talking to our family. So I think it was just remaining very open and on my toes.”
Lewis said she was in it for the long haul, but a lot of it was easy because it was already in the script. “Ember was already there. Thanks to Peter,” she said. And then him just being so inviting with my own personality. So it was actually quite easy. I wish I worked more with Mamodou in the booth, though.”
Athie concurred with Lewis on the technical aspects of the recording process and Sohn’s openness. He recalled how his French-style clown class helped him access parts of himself that he felt ashamed of or embarrassed by. “It helped me become a less self-conscious actor,” he said. “And it kind of just made those sessions like a form of very fun but serious play.”
As to what kind of elements they would be, the cast and crew’s answers were across the board. Lewis said she would be water. “I feel like being water looks so fun. a water person who would hope to be invited into the Earth part of Element City, she said. “Water looks thrilling and the way that their world is. Look at Wade Ripple’s house, like how thrilling is that?”
Athie sees that air has the easiest time to exist in Element City. “They’re not really in danger with the other elements. So I like the idea of being air,” he said. But he quickly changed the flow and wanted to be more like water. ” There’s something really sweet about the water. I mean, I also am very transparent. Everybody knows exactly how I feel about it at all times. So it’s not something I’m very good at writing. But I felt like a little blend of fire and water.”
Producer Denise Ream, she also sees herself as a combination of fire and water. Like her director, she also is very emotional” I cry more easily than Pete. But I have a little bit of a temper. I’m way better than it used to be when I was younger,” she said. “I do like all water sports. So if I had to pick one, I would be fire and water.”
Lauv sings the “Elemental’s” “Steal the Show,” said his manager told him at the premiere that he was a lot like Wade. “The water vibe is like what I would hope to be like, just to be really forthcoming, open, loving, and just nothing to hide. I think that’s so cool.”
Finally, Sohn said he’s gone through so many different elements throughout the years and confirms Ream’s comments on him being very emotional. ” I am a crybaby for sure. But you know what, the last time I saw the film, I was so amazed by Ember’s fire ability to create things like she does at the beginning of the film,” he said. “She takes like glass, melts it with her mouth, and wonderfully sculpts something out of it. And so I love that art side of fire. I would go fire all the way.
“Elemental” opens in theaters on June 16, 2023.