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Elemental’s Director Peter Sohn On How His Own Romantic Experiences Inspired The Movie

Directed by Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur, Partly Cloudy short) and produced by Denise Ream (The Good Dinosaur, Cars 2), the is set in Element City, where fire, water, land and air residents live together. The story introduces a fire elemental named Ember, who is a tough, quick-witted and fiery young woman, whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow water elemental named Wade challenges her beliefs about the world they live in. It features the voices of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade, respectively.

Courtesy of Disney+ Hotstar, we were lucky enough to interview Elemental director Peter Sohn. This article has been edited for clarity.

How did you collaborate with the screenwriters?

Peter Sohn: Elemental started off with a lot of personal stories growing up in New York City, but we started bringing in a lot of other help in terms of story artists, artists and then our screenwriters. Each aspect brought different pieces of the film together, what was interesting was we had to make our own cultures because I didn’t want fire to represent one culture that we knew like in our human world.

We wanted it to represent its own thing so that we wouldn’t be appropriating anything. We had to make that up so that took a lot of different artists to build that world. In terms of the Ember and Wade relationship, that was everything with the screenwriters and me really building up a truthful love story and a truthful story about culture clash and living in a place where you needed to assimilate or find a way to be a part of it.

What have you learnt from directing The Good Dinosaur that you’ve applied in Elemental?

Peter Sohn: It’s a great question. You know, what was interesting was that The Good Dinosaur wasn’t originally my idea, it was the original directors, who I love, trying to honour his original concept to the movie.

For Elemental, this was all from scratch from something that I had come up with, the drawings and everything. Trying to remain impartial to a personal story was a bit of a challenge.

A big lesson for me in The Good Dinosaur was that it wasn’t a personal thing for me, that story, but that allowed me to make a lot of quick decisions that were necessary. Here (for Elemental), I feel like, because it’s personal, I could get stubborn, like no, it has to be this way but for The Good Dinosaur, I keep pulling back and allow the movie to be its own thing, like a child. It wants to be something else, you know.

You’ve had several voice roles over the years, including as Sox the cat in Lightyear and Forrest Woodbush in The Good Dinosaur. Which do you like more, directing or voice acting?

Peter Sohn: I love filmmaking in all forms. I will say this, being a director offers you a vantage point to see a lot of amazing talent. You get to work from department to department and see artists give amazing work. I think my favourite part of the job is to just see amazing and passionate talent every day from hundreds of artists, and the passion that they give. And trying to honour that world, is my job in terms of making the film, but I think the best thing about it is the directing part of it.

We saw a preview of a scene from Elemental where Wade conjured a romantic rainbow for Ember. How did you come up with this idea?

Peter Sohn: In the beginning, I was doing a lot of drawings, one of the first things that I have storyboarded early on, almost five years ago that moment was boarded. But it was a list of what can fire and water do together. What can fire do by itself and what can water do by itself? It was a lot of fun research, like YouTube and Internet.

But then, take some of those ideas and drawing them out, it’s like, oh, they’re so opposite, but maybe this can be the first steps of where they begin to share their element. That’s how it started but it all started with just goofing around with drawings, trying to find moments that were shareable like that.

What can audiences expect from the relationship between Ember and Wade?

Peter Sohn: It’s an interesting question because it’s Ember’s story. What I mean by that is that it is about Ember and Wade, but it’s about how Wade is a mirror. What I loved about Wade as a water character is that he’s reflective. He’s emotional and he’s transparent, but in certain moments of light, he can be very reflective and that would help Ember understand who she is.

But without someone teaching her, I didn’t want a character who’s like, oh, you have to be this way. He’s just a safe place that water can be and in that reflection, Ember can begin to see another part of herself, that she didn’t see before.

It’s also vulnerable love, it’s a very raw and sort of fragile love that we’ve been trying to build and what that means. Meaning, Ember starts off very fiery and walled off, but how can water break through that and how can fire open up to that.

Elemental was inspired by your personal experiences growing up in New York, but do you have an actual anecdote that was used in the movie?

Peter Sohn: Yes, I married someone who wasn’t Korean. I married someone that was from California. My parents and my grandmother were like, you have to marry Korean. But I fell in love with another artist, we shared art together. But she wasn’t Korean and it created a lot of drama in our family. I remember taking my wife’s family to a Korean restaurant and they were not used to spicy food.

There’s a moment in the film where Wade has to try really fiery hot food and it was definitely taken directly from my experiences with mixing of cultures.

I assume that it’s usually really challenging to animate normal fire and water, but Elemental has living fire and water as characters. What was the most challenging aspect of bringing all that to life?

Peter Sohn: Trying to find a look that was appealing yet served those two purposes of feeling like it could burn, and be a source of light, and feel like fire. We tried making realistic fire and it was scary, like Balrog from The Lord Of The Rings. It was such a scary thing.

Then, we tried a much more two-dimensional look but it didn’t look hot. It didn’t feel like it was going to burn anything. And so, an artist named Daniel Lopez Munoz did a painting off of his iPhone, so he took his iPhone and recorded fire and he painted it over the fire and then he animated it and that was our first balance of like, oh, it can feel like heat but still have the features of a character that can be appealing.

That was the biggest challenge and the same with water. Those two characters still remain a challenge, we’ve got several more months to finish the film and water has become the hardest thing in the film.

What element do you think you are?

Peter Sohn: I am definitely a water character because I’m an emotional person. I am a sap, for sure. You know, like those Olympic commercials where they show like the mom taking the kid to the swimming class and then they’re older and they’re winning the Olympics, I cried my eyes out of those type of commercials. I’m just very emotional so I would consider myself a water person.

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