BGN was invited to an exclusive event to screen Disney and Pixar’s latest film Elemental due for release on June 16, 2023. A small group of the press was allowed to screen footage from the film, which tells the whimsical tale of a fiery young gal and a guy drenched with swagger who discover something elemental about how much they actually have in common.
This film is set in Element City, where fire, water, earth, and air residents live together. The story introduces Ember, a tough, quick-witted ball of fire whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow Wade challenges her beliefs about their world and the person she wants to be. Elemental stars Leah Lewis as Ember and Mamoudou Athie as Wade. The film also stars Ronnie del Carmen, Shila Ommi, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Catherine O’Hara, Mason Wertheimer, and Joe Pera.
It is directed by Peter Sohn and produced by Denise Ream, executive produced by Pete Docter (Soul) with a screenplay by John Hoberg & Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh with a story by Sohn, Hoberg & Likkel, and Hsueh. The film’s original score was composed and conducted by Thomas Newman.
What’s pretty remarkable about this particular film is the world-building behind its story. The team at Pixar worked hard and ensured that the elements created in the animation process captured the essence of fire, earth, air, and water.
Production designer Don Shank is tasked with identifying the visual goals and themes of the movie. Don first worked for Pixar as a freelance artist on films such as Monsters, Inc. and The Incredibles. He also contributed to the design of Ratatouille. Various technical choices informed his team’s abilities and designs to create a delicate balance between physics and logic, which gives the characters a “cartoonish” appeal.
For Don, it was important for his team to create a stylized fire. “Let’s invent architectural details out of fire-related things,” says Don. This included building Ember’s home and community out of stove burners and gas lamps. Don Shenk describes his role as the production designer in Elemental as someone who figures out the characters’ goals.
They say image is everything. First, there’s building the world of Elemental, and then there’s rendering the look of the characters. That’s where Sanjay’s role comes in within this process. Sanjay Bakshi, who has worked on Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Cars, leads the visual effects team for Elemental. During pre-production and throughout production, there were different versions of Ember and Wade created until the team got the look they wanted. Bakshi states that it was a “balance between realism and stylization” when finding that sweet spot between getting the look that inevitably got to the big screen. “We knew what we were creating for Ember and had fewer notes to work on,” he says.
The visual effects team didn’t put a timeline of 3 months or so on Ember to get her character right. Instead, they worked on her constantly until they finally hit their mark. Sanjay also had a unique role as a visual effects supervisor as he was responsible for ensuring there was enough computing power to make the film which is a crucial component to building this fantastical world of Elemental. He also served as the bridge between the director, who is more on the artistic side, and the technical teams.
As director Peter Sohn described to Sanjay what he wanted in the story, Sanjay dictated if that effect made sense logistically to the narrative and if the effect could even be executed efficiently. Something as simple as requesting a water wave across the screen may seem like an effortless request, but for the visual effects team, it can turn out to be an incredibly challenging task.
The water characters were particularly challenging when forming into waves for Sanjay and his team. They challenged what should be understood as visual storytelling in these scenes and communicated that to the audience. The scenes with no dialogue that required storytelling were the ones Sanjay found to be the most challenging. He referred to creating those shots as a “magic trick.”
This film is quite magical indeed. From the production design to special effects building, the world of Elemental came with teams tasked with completing a vision, goal, and patience for the right image for everything to fall into place.
You can check out the trailer for the film here:
You can experience all of the elements of Elemental exclusively in theaters on June 16.
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Jamie Broadnax is the creator of the online publication and multimedia space for Black women called Black Girl Nerds. Jamie has appeared on MSNBC's The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association and executive producer of the Black Girl Nerds Podcast.