A 6-way split-screen framed the faces of the filmmakers and talent behind Disney/Pixar’s Elemental, as they gathered to discuss the makings and highlights of their latest film on a Virtual Press Conference. Stars Leah Lewis (Ember Lumen) sported a beautiful turquoise suit and Mamoudou Athie (Wade Ripple) wore a simple white tee, director Peter Sohn was dressed in a gray sweater/white shirt combo with his signature director’s cap, producer Denise Ream wore a blue denim coat over a pinstripe shirt, while singer Lauv rocked a vibrant multi-colored, quilted sweater. Lisa Cabello hosted the event.
Lewis discussed her fiery character Ember and where she is when we first meet her in the story. “Ember does burn very bright—sometimes a little too bright—but there’s never such things, you know,” Lewis said. “She’s a very fiery, passionate, young, independent woman, who is very, very close to her family, and so much so that she has this dream of wanting to take over her family shop. And, in the beginning, you see why fire and water don’t really get along. I mean a lot is at stake for them just even interacting.”
In contrast, Athie described his character Wade as one with a much more practical and positive perspective on life. “Wade is an eternal optimist. He is also, and let me know what you think of this, Pete [Sohn], I think he’s also a realist. He has, like a pragmatic element,” Athie said. “So when the going gets tough, he’s like, ‘Okay, what is the thing that needs to happen? And let’s do that.’ He chooses to live his life in a very open-hearted way. He—and I say chooses very specifically—because…his overall nature is like, you know, to be emotional, but I think he looks for the positive. He looks to see the positive in everything and everyone.”
Speaking on the discovery of the designs and how they ended up zeroing in on the look and feel of each character, director Peter Sohn recalled:
“When I drew fire, you know, right next to water, there was this wonderful tension that I couldn’t get enough of! And yeah, so I knew right away that those would be sort of our main characters for this film. But, you know, there was no roads for Pixar to make characters like this,” Sohn laughed. “You know, we’re 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. And so we just had to bring a lot of ‘construction workers’ to build this road for us to even get to an image that would come alive in a moat, and before we would even be talking about moving it. And yeah, it took hundreds of amazing artists and I’m just so grateful for the amazing talent that everyone gave.”
The love and affection that Lewis has for her character was apparent as she talked about how much she relates personally to Ember and also admires many of her qualities. “She… mirrors a bit of a younger part of myself, to what I think in the past was a bit more defensive. Even though we kind of see her as really guarded, I think that she’s just a bit fearful to kind of step out into the world and see what these other elements have to offer, because she’s kind of only known one thing her life,” said Lewis. “But she’s beautiful, you know. She’s absolutely radiant, and I think the way that she moves too is just so elegant and so so flowy, despite her being fire, which is something that can be so explosive. She has so much range, but you know she’s so loyal to her family, and the things that mean the most to her, and I think that’s a really admirable quality that I also kind of follow suit with… the things that I really care about I would go to the ends of the earth to fight for that as well.”
And what is it like for Athie, who has primarily taken live-action roles in his career, to voice a Pixar character in a film of this scale?
“It’s honestly, it really was a dream come true,” said Athie, smiling from ear to ear. “Now we get to talk about it. We get to go to screenings, and we’re going to go to London after this… But getting into the booth, it’s kind of hard to quantify until one moment that was like extra special, because it was all like—I’m old enough now to really appreciate a good thing as it’s happening, you know? So, I’m really just able to like soak it in every time.”
Athie took a moment to reminisce on a fond memory that related to the experience of creating the film and what the initial draw of his character was. He recalled a quote—originally by artist Jenny Holzer—from a movie theater marquee in Times Square in the early 2000s, which his program director had placed on a play he directed at the time.
“‘It is in your self-interest to find a way to be very tender.’ And that is one of the through-lines of not only this character that I got to play, but this movie. Like there’s an open-heartedness that I just find so moving,” Athie said.
Speaking on the creative process, Sohn described it as layered, where early ideas were built upon and added to, not just by himself, but collaboratively.
“It wasn’t a cynical journey whatsoever; everyone was connecting to this fully open and so, from that sort of a primitive start, all of a sudden, she [Ember Lumen] became the second generation daughter of immigrants. And that started layering on top of her passion on top of her temper….What did a lot of that mean? What does that burden mean? How does that connect to the temperance? So it just kept evolving for her,” Sohn said. “And the same with Wade. It was really like, ‘Oh, 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, you know? The fact that the character was transparent really pointed to like, ‘Oh, yeah, he can’t hide his emotions. You see right through him.’ He just wears everything on his sleeve. And then what does that mean? And then…this idea of his high E.Q. (emotional quotient), and the way he connects to the world all started evolving through this story process, and it was a beautiful thing. This was…a process of trial and error.”
The group took a moment to reflect on their favorite moments in the film. As Elemental was in production for around 7 years, being able to share the film with audiences after all this time came as both a breath of fresh air and another source of joy for the entire team. Producer Denise Ream led with what she was most excited to finally see on screen.
“There’s a sequence we call the ‘Hot Air Balloon’ that I think is really, really beautiful, that I think people are gonna enjoy. And then there’s another one we call ‘Bubble Date.’ That has a couple of beautiful moments in particular,” Ream said.
Ream also addressed some of the Easter Eggs that fans might look for in the film, and in particular, one that fans might not understand until the release of Pixar’s next film, Elio, in 2024. “We have a little bit of a Easter Egg for the family that comes from the film after us, called Elio, and we worked really hard to put one of the characters in that movie. That’s a really fun little detail that every time I see it I smile.”
Describing his experience working with the film’s prolific composer, Thomas Newman, singer/songwriter Lauv—who teamed up with Newman to create the film’s original song “Steal the Show”—swelled with emotion. “I would say it was really delicate, but also like really so inspiring and so moving, because he [Thomas Newman] —being the legend that he is—was so welcoming to me, you know? And I was honestly coming into the studio for the first time,” Lauv said. “But I really feel like… looking back, he gave me the space to shine in the way that I guess I needed to, and he brought so much; we went back and forth so much on working on the music and adding more sounds, and him, recording strings, everything… Really amazing process where I feel like creativity was respected all around by everybody, which is really cool.”
Wrapping things up, Sohn sounded off on what he hopes audiences will take away from the overall viewing experience.
“You know this whole film’s been about connection. And, you know, if an audience member comes out of this film inspired by the world and the characters to connect with somebody that would mean the world,” Sohn said. “It’s so funny, what empathy is: empathy doesn’t exist without a little bravery. It’s such a weird thing…just taking that little step of bravery. And so, if it if inspires anyone to connect, I’m a happy man.”
Elemental premieres June 16 in theaters.
Elijah Isaiah Johnson is a writer/illustrator/animator. His most recently published works include the Amazon best-seller Nightmare Detective, Noir is the New Black, the Comixology Indie best-selling series Leaders of the Free World, The Formula and much more.