Elementary, my dear Peter Sohn
In Element City, fire, water, air and earth coexist in harmony. Ember is bound to Wade, a fire character and a water character voiced by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Vincent Lacoste in the French version of the film by Korean-born New York director Peter Sohn. Elemental closes the Festival in a celebration of the elements that brings Cannes to an end in dazzling style. In this unusual story of friendship, Disney-Pixar’s animated Out of Competition film portrays a universal theme: harmony between peoples and cultures. We meet Peter Sohn and Denise Ream, the film’s producer.
How did you start with the idea of the movie?
Peter Sohn: It all started off with drawings, with a fire and water drawing. They had some tension that reminded me of when I first started seeing my wife-to-be, who wasn’t Korean. That idea of tackling different cultures started to resonate. That mix with this world of elements started to come together. When I was looking at the periodic table of elements, they looked like apartment complexes to me with different communities, different people living together, some mixing, some not. That started to form the world. Then building in this other piece of thanking our parents was the last ingredient. All of that formed the journey of the film.
Would you say it is all about questioning the multicultural relationships?
Peter Sohn: Yeah, it’s a huge theme in our film. What does it mean to live in a multicultural world, to assimilate that?
How would you describe the personalities of Ember and Wade? How much of yourself did you put into those characters?
Peter Sohn: A lot of our personal lives inspired these two characters, they’re always evolving. Ember is very much a fiery personality. She’s very, very in love with her parents and her culture, very proud. She has this creative spark. For Wade, he’s transparent. He can’t hide any of his emotions. He goes with the flow and he’s very empathetic. He cries all the time. There are a lot of pieces of who they are in us.
Why those two elements, and not the others?
Peter Sohn: In drawing them really early on, earth and fire didn’t have a lot of tension. Outside of fire and water, air and water were the most opposite.
What about the technical aspect? Can you tell us a little bit about the difficulties you had?
Denise Ream: We had these two gas-like elements, and it was extremely difficult to then create something that could emote. That was complicated for Pixar, we had to make them appealing so that you liked them and it was easy to watch them.
So what tips were there to make them more appealing?
Denise Ream: We did so many tests.
Peter Sohn: When Ember first blinked, there was a light that we saw. It was about controlling her exterior flames. How to control that? Because in real fire, it’s so busy, it’s so frantic. And then there was an artist who discovered a new way of making this more graphic. That was the biggest challenge, making that fire look appealing. Water was just a monster.
Denise Ream: Yeah, just because of the lighting. It reflects so much. His hair was really difficult, the moving hair that you’ll notice. It’s subtle, but that was really hard. Peter Sohn: My tip for water is never do water. Never make a water character.
It’s too hard. Water was a dilemma all the way to the end of the film, because with fire, there’s no shadow on fire. It’s a source of light. When you put it in a setting, it glows on everything. And the water character reflected, refracted everything for every scene.