Elemental – A story about relationships

When director Peter Sohn was a kid in science class, the future storyteller’s imagination was already in full swing. “In middle school when you learn about the periodic table, I never saw it as a periodic table,” says Sohn. “I always saw it as apartment buildings. There was something so funny about the skyline of the periodic table—these little squares being someone’s home.” Decades later, Sohn would reflect on the idea as he develop the story and look of Elemental.

It’s easy to imagine the wind having an attitude or fire being angry. A happy bunch of flowers could absolutely brighten the day of a lonely pot of dirt. And water might be calm and collected one day and in a big hurry the next. “What if the elements we all know we’re alive?” asks director Peter Sohn.

“I boiled it down to classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—it’s hard to make fun of barium,” Sohn jokes. Throughout the city, there are nods to Sohn’s early inspiration. “Pieces of the city actually feel like a chemistry set with test tubes,” he says. “One park is shaped like the periodic table.”

The city celebrates all elements. “It’s a very hopeful city in terms of forming interesting elemental relationships,” says Sohn. “Water can help Earth grow materials to fuel Fire. Air gives oxygen to Fire. Of course, sometimes there can be friction between elements, too.”

When Sohn set out to build a world in which Fire-, Water-, Air- and Earth residents would live and interact, he knew it would be a bold undertaking. But he had no idea just how bold. “I did not know what I was getting into at all,” the director laughs. “I knew that the characters would be complicated, but I guessed wrong which characters would be the most difficult. I knew that there would be a lot of obstacles, but I totally came into it with a hopeful naiveté and excitement.”

Of course, Pixar Animation Studios was built on that kind of naiveté—the kind that allows storytellers like Sohn to push the boundaries of what is possible. Think Toy Story and the impossible idea of having toys come to life in three dimensions using computer technology, and—just a few years later—the crazy conceit of creating fur-covered creatures in Monsters, Inc. Technological feats are a hallmark of the studio—feats that have made possible stories of forgeƞ ul fi sh, super-powered parents and emotive skeletons.

“Traditionally, when you’re doing a movie like this, you’ve got one world and one culture with one general type of character that you get to invent,” says production designer Don Shank. “For this show, we had four.”

Artists, storytellers, and technicians worked hand-in-hand to make possible Sohn’s vision of a spirited Fire woman and her special journey of self-discovery alongside a chill Water guy. “If you took Peter Sohn and separated him into two characters,” says story supervisor Jason Katz, “you’d get Ember and Wade.”

Directed by Peter Sohn, Elemental features a screenplay by John Hoberg & Kat Likkel, and Brenda Hsueh with a story by Sohn, Hoberg & Likkel, and Hsueh.

Elemental is an all-new, original feature film set in Element City, where Fire-, Water-, Earth- and Air residents live together. The story introduces Ember, a tough, quick-witted and fiery young woman, whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow guy named Wade challenges her beliefs about the world they live in and the person she wants to be.

A Very Personal Story

Sohn says the story, which is very personal to him, started with a drawing of a Fire character and Water character interacting. He imagined an unexpected friendship between them—a relationship sure to trigger awkwardness, banter, and funny missteps. “I started layering in my relationship with my wife—I’m Korean and she’s American, half Italian,” Sohn says. “I hid the relationship from my parents at first because they—in an old-school way—wanted me to marry someone Korean. My grandmother’s dying words were literally ‘Marry Korean!’”

Featuring the voices of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade, respectively. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Sohn’s old-school parents eventually came around, finding they had a lot in common with their eventual daughter-in-law’s family. They also inspired another important aspect of the story, says the director. “It’s about understanding our parents as people. From that understanding comes an appreciation for the sacrifices that they make for their kids. My parents emigrated from Korea in the early 1970s, so I was born there and raised with Korean traditions, language, and culture in the very American New York City. That led to some culture clashes along the way between first and second generations. I took for granted the trials and tribulations they must’ve experienced.”

Like Sohn, Ember is a second-generation immigrant—only her parents emigrated from Fireland to Element City where Ember is born and raised. “She goes on a journey of understanding her own identity and,” says the director, “with that, the meaning of what her parents have given her.”

A highlight of Ember’s journey—and in many ways the impetus for it—is a fun and fateful friendship with a water guy named Wade. “In the beginning, Ember has disdain for the city, but Wade helps her begin to fall in love with everything it has to offer,” says Sohn. “We found ways to introduce her to the city like some of my favorite comedies do—serving up opportunities for laughs.”

Set in a city that brings elements of different backgrounds together, “Elemental” demonstrates that opposites do indeed attract. “It’s a comedy filled with heart,” says producer Denise Ream. “It’s a story about relationships— between Fire and Water, between parents and their kids, and between all of us and our neighbors who might not look like us. It’s part comedy, part family journey, and part culture clash.”

According to Ream, more than 100 first- or second-generation immigrants from Pixar came together to speak with filmmakers about their experiences. “It was phenomenal,” says Ream. “Most of us, wherever we are, come from somewhere else. There were so many emotional stories about what people went through to come here—their family’s experiences. I don’t think you can really explain the impact of something like that on a story.

Amplifying The Story’s Emotional Core With Music

Filmmakers at Pixar Animation Studios have long understood the power of music in helping to bring a story to life. Indeed, world-building extends far beyond the buildings and background characters—the soundscape selected for a film adds depth to the characters’ journey and helps define emotional moments. For the Elemental score, fi filmmakers called on a tried-and-true member of their musical family: Thomas Newman.

Director Peter Sohn capitalized on Newman’s experience and artistry to amplify the story’s emotional core. According to Sohn, Newman’s score brilliantly captures the unexpected connection between Ember and Wade, Fire and Water—opposites by all accounts. Not only that, says the director, but it eloquently
accompanies the story’s deepening relationship between father and daughter.

Newman’s edict was to create music that spans the film’s emotional spectrum. “You have the utterly ludicrous all the way to deeply profound,” he says. “As a composer, you always want to help tell the story: ‘Elemental’ is full of puns that are there for laughs; at the same time, there are some really deep issues.”

The music also conveys the unique cultural undertones of the story—without leaning on any existing cultural hallmarks. “From Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, how could we create something that was unique to the world of the film and wasn’t going to appropriate anything from our human world?” asks Sohn. “Through Tom’s amazing breadth of experience, we believed in his skill to create something very unique for the different communities of our film. The surprise for me was how he was able to unify the different cultures through our main character. How we could feel the music of the Fire culture through Ember, and then feel what she was going through when leaving her comfort zone and entering a city that wasn’t built for Fire.”

PETER SOHN (Directed by/Story by) joined Pixar Animation Studios in September 2000 and has worked on Academy Award-winning feature films including Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and WALL•E. Sohn made his directorial debut on the Pixar short Partly Cloudy, before going on to direct his first feature The Good Dinosaur. He was also an executive producer on “Luca,” which debuted on Disney+ in June 2021.
In his role as a creative VP, Sohn is involved in key creative decision-making at the studio and consults on films in both development and production. In addition to his contributions as a filmmaker, Sohn has lent his voice talents to Pixar’s feature films. In Ratatouille he voiced the character of Emile, and in Monsters University, he is the voice of Scott “Squishy” Squibbles. Audiences can also hear Sohn in “Lightyearas Buzz’s dutiful robot companion cat, Sox. Prior to Pixar, Sohn worked at Warner Bros. with Ratatouille director Brad Bird on The Iron Giant, as well as at Disney TV. He grew up in New York and attended the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). He lives in the Bay Area.

BRENDA HSUEH (screenplay by/story by) began her career writing on the first three seasons of How I Met Your Mother, and then worked as a co-executive producer on Apple TV+’s “The Afterparty” and Mr. Corman.” In the feature film space, Hsueh wrote the upcoming Ghostbusters film from Sony Pictures and will make her feature directorial debut with Match, a live-action sci-fi romantic dramedy. In addition to her work in writing and directing, Hsueh also works as a producer and started her own production
company Shoes Off Productions, which produces both television and feature film projects.