While scientists see the periodic table as an arrangement of the chemical elements, Korean American director Peter Sohn was inspired by its rows and columns as he created the world of Disney and Pixar’s upcoming feature film “Elemental.”
Sohn, 45, recalled sitting in a science class in middle school and picturing a community residing in the boxes that make up the periodic table.
“I never saw it as a periodic table,” Sohn said in a press conference. “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. Argon might live next to hydrogen — they would be neighbors.”
This can be seen in the fictional setting of “Elemental,” which follows Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis), a fire-elemental woman whose parents emigrated from Fireland to Element City.
Ember, who forms an unexpected friendship with a water-elemental man named Wade (voiced by Mamoudou Athie), eventually ventures out of her comfort zone and explores the spectacular world of Element City. The fictional world is inspired by cities around the globe while also embracing the theorized contributions of each elemental community.
“I boiled it down to classical elements — fire, water, air and earth,” Sohn said. “Pieces of the city actually feel like a chemistry set with test tubes. One park is shaped like the periodic table.”
In the film, Ember and Wade, who cannot physically touch each other, eventually discover their similarities, leading Ember on a special journey of self-discovery.
Sohn, who worked on “Elemental” for seven years, wanted to depict a city that celebrates diversity.
“It’s a very hopeful city in terms of forming interesting elemental relationships,” Sohn said in a press release. “Water can help earth grow materials to fuel fire. Air gives oxygen to fire. Of course, sometimes there can be friction between elements, too.”
Sohn was born to Korean immigrants and grew up in New York City learning about Korean traditions and culture. Understanding the importance of cultural history and the balance of old and new traditions, he also wanted to highlight the hierarchy in Element City.
He explained that the first community to arrive was water — the basic infrastructure of the city — followed by earth, causing the city to be built on a delta where earth and water meet. From there, air would come before fire.
“There are two advantages for this: Element City represents an obstacle to Ember since its water-based infrastructure makes it harder for a fire element to navigate, but it also reveals an undiscovered beauty and opportunity for her,” Sohn said.
Leading the team of animators was production designer Don Shank, who helped make Sohn’s vision come to life.
“It was a more difficult challenge than we thought,” Shank said in a press release, noting that they looked at big cities all over the world, particularly those based on canal systems like Venice and Amsterdam.
“While Peter said it was not based on New York, it’s an immigrant story and New York is his hometown. We all fall back on what we know when discovering our stories,” Shank said.
Shank, who has worked on numerous Pixar films such as “Monsters, Inc.” and “The Incredibles,” used plenty of research to create concept art and develop the different sets and environments in “Elemental.”
In an interview with NextShark, he revealed that his team started conceptualizing the fictional world by focusing on Firetown, which is home to Ember and her family.
Although Firetown came first, it was supposed to be an old Earth neighborhood that then got abandoned by Earth people. Fire [characters] came in and was able to make a home there and build up a whole community… What we were after was that there would be some sort of immaculate reality. We needed to believe in this history and culture.
Shank decided on various building styles while finding ways to differentiate the different elements’ environments.
For the Earth community, he pictured more vegetation and terraces, while the shape of their buildings would look like giant pine trees. He pictured waterfalls down the sides of glass buildings for the Water community, and for the Air community, Shank leaned into objects such as propellers and took inspiration from kites, clouds and vapor. Meanwhile, wood became the most important feature for Firetown. The film’s artists also incorporated objects that fire characters can interact with without causing damage, including various metals, stone, cooking pots and ovens.
Shank said he hopes viewers will be amazed by the film and want to visit the world of “Elemental.”
The film’s animators admitted that they felt challenged while creating characters and buildings based on Sohn’s imagination.
“It’s harder because there is nothing to ground it,” Sanjay Bakshi, the movie’s visual effects supervisor, told NextShark.
There’s nothing you can point at and be like, “Oh it should look like that.” It’s all in our imagination, so I think if you have a movie, even if it’s a new world that takes place in the human world, it’s easier because you could look at a photograph and say, “Oh, yeah, it should look like that.” Pete couldn’t show us any pictures of what Elemental City would look like so we had to figure it out together. He had to use words and people had to drop pictures. I think it was very challenging because it was pure imagination that you’re trying to translate into visuals.
Directing Animators Gwen Enderoglu and Allison Rutland echoed the same sentiment, noting that this project was “far more challenging than anything they have worked on before.”
Rutland, who has been an animator at Pixar Animation Studios for around 13 years, told NextShark:
There was a playfulness that animators could have because of the freedom of not having a human anatomy in the film, but at the same time that was also challenging because sometimes that extra motion is really difficult to marry with the acting and make those two things work together. Also, all those controls are a lot of extra work to animate.
“Elemental,” is set to hit cinemas on June 16. It will be accompanied by a screening of “Carl’s Date,” a short film from the “Up” universe.
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