‘Elemental’ filmmakers, actors reflect on the 7-year journey to complete Pixar’s latest film

‘Elemental’ filmmakers, actors reflect on the 7-year journey to complete Pixar’s latest film‘Elemental’ filmmakers, actors reflect on the 7-year journey to complete Pixar’s latest film
Walt Disney Studios
Michelle De Pacina
June 16, 2023
When “Elemental” director Peter Sohn and producer Denise Ream first saw their seven years of hard work on the big screen, they experienced what they describe as being similar to parents feeling the prideful moment of watching their child graduate. 
The filmmakers first saw the finished product at the Stag Theater at Skywalker Ranch in California, where they experienced an overwhelming wave of memories of their time spent developing the movie.
“It’s like we’re getting the child ready to go out into the world and it’s no longer ours,” Ream tells NextShark.
Along with animators, Sohn and Ream noted “Elemental” to be the most challenging Pixar film they have ever tackled. Drawing inspiration from both of their personal lives and the experiences of first- and second-generation immigrants who work at Pixar, they created a multicultural fictional world where residents made of fire, water, earth and air live together.
“Elemental” follows Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis), a fire-elemental woman whose parents emigrated from Fireland to Element City. She forms an unexpected friendship with a water-elemental man named Wade (voiced by Mamoudou Athie) and eventually ventures out of her comfort zone and explores her spectacular city.
via Walt Disney Studios
Besides the difficulty of creating an entirely new animated world, Sohn’s parents both passed away during the film’s development, making the path to completion a journey of personal healing.
“It was messy, meaning there was no clear-cut way to deal with the death,” Sohn says. “There was no clear-cut way to really understand how to put yourself into a movie. There’s no template for any of it.” 
Sohn eventually learned how to take it piece-by-piece with the help of his family and the tight-knit community at Pixar. The Korean American director ultimately saw the film as a tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from Korea to New York City in the early 1970s. 
Sohn’s personal story was eventually what drew voice actors Lewis and Athie to the opportunity to voice characters Ember and Wade. 
Lewis, who had always been a fan of Pixar films, shared that being a part of the film’s audition process had already been “a privilege beyond anything else.” 
“Knowing that [Sohn’s] real life experiences were basically just kind of infused into this film, that’s something that always speaks very deeply to my heart when people could be that honest and vulnerable. His story is a special one and a very important one, too,” Lewis tells NextShark.
The 26-year-old actor says she relates to Ember’s struggles of accepting her differences and of finding the courage to authentically be herself. Lewis was adopted from Shanghai as a baby and grew up in a predominantly white town in Florida. 
Athie, who starred in the 2020 film “Black Box” and the 2022 mystery drama “Archive 81,” shared similar sentiments as the child of a diplomat father who received political asylum in the U.S. The 34-year-old actor was born in Mauritania and grew up in New Carrollton, Maryland.
Athie, who shares a deep connection with Sohn, says that although “Elemental” includes certain parallels to the immigrant experience, it is also a universal story.

There’s self-acceptance and acceptance from one’s family. True love and just connecting with somebody else and really taking the plunge and going for something that you really believe in, whether that is what you feel like is your soul mate or a new career. All these things just really feel like parts of everything in a single person’s life that you kind of just get it.  

With “Elemental” now showing in theaters, the filmmakers and actors hope viewers connect with and learn from the characters. 
“At the end of the day, I hope that people can appreciate what their families have done for them regardless of their backgrounds,” Ream says. “We hope people will really just love going to the movies together with family or friends, and connecting and experiencing the movie on that kind of visceral level.”
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