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The Personal Stories That Inspired Pixar's Elemental

Animation is an inherently collaborative art form. When you consider the number of artists it takes to make audiences fall in love with pencil lines, puppets, or pixels, it's a wonder that a singular creative vision can shine through it all. If it doesn't work, you can end up with a product made by committee. When it does, though, you get a story made by community. When Looper made a visit to Pixar Animation Studios for a special preview of their new film "Elemental," we saw firsthand that their staff of artists, storytellers, and technical wizards have come together to create one of their most personal films yet. 

"Elemental" marks the second feature directorial credit for Pixar veteran Pete Sohn, who previously helmed the studio's 2015 adventure "The Good Dinosaur." But as Sohn explained during a Q&A at Pixar's Emeryville campus, the experience was very different this time around. Where "The Good Dinosaur" was a project he inherited and shepherded to the finish line, "Elemental" was his pitch from the start, and it's built from some very personal pieces of his life. The process of getting it to the screen involved an enormous team bringing their own perspectives to the table — not to extinguish that initial spark, but to fan the flames of its unique love story.

Elemental presents a cultural melting pot

Sohn traces the origins of "Elemental" to three specific stories from his own life. At its foundation are his parents, who immigrated to New York from Korea and opened a grocery store in the Bronx. His childhood spent watching them run their business for a diverse community of customers is reflected in the film from the very start, as audiences are introduced to the Lumens, a (literally) fiery family who own a shop in the melting pot of Element City.

The city itself is another of the personal pieces Sohn brought to the table, born out of a memory that feels like pure Pixar whimsy. "When I saw the periodic table of elements when I was a kid," the director recalls, "all I thought about was that these were apartment complexes, and that they all lived next to each other." It's clear that this image, stuck in his mind since childhood, has evolved into the vision of Element City that Pixar has brought to the screen, with beings of fire, water, earth, and air living side-by-side, in all the harmonies and tensions you'd expect from a bustling city full of diverse cultures.

Opposites attract at the heart of Elemental

Young Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) is primed to take over the family business from her parents — that is, if she can keep her temper in check when faced with obnoxious customers. When one of her fiery outbursts leaves the shop's basement damaged, Ember gets entangled with city inspector Wade Ripple (voiced by Mamoudou Athie), an emotional water element who soon endears himself to Ember with his openness and earnestness.

"Even with these sort of key pieces in place, it could go anywhere," Sohn continues. "The possibilities were endless ... until we came into the idea of opposites attracting, you know, fire and water."

That's where the third piece of Sohn's life came into play, as his own romance with his wife — who isn't Korean — informed the culture clash in the love story at the heart of the movie. It's the source of not only the dramatic and romantic tension of "Elemental," but some of its funniest gags. "Growing up, my grandmother's dying words were, like, 'Marry Korean!'" Sohn says. It's a memory that's found its way directly into the film's opening moments, with the dying wish of Ember's grandmother: "Marry fire!"

The Pixar team rallied around Elemental's themes

As producer Denise Ream explains, Pixar proved the perfect place for these pieces of Sohn's life and imagination to become an endearing story set in a uniquely vibrant animated world. "After finishing 'The Good Dinosaur' with Pete, I was excited to see what he wanted to do next," she recalls. "So, when he pitched a story about a daughter and her immigrant parents in a new community ... featuring characters made up of classical elements, I was really all in."

Ream herself could immediately relate to the story's themes, as her great-grandmother had come to Boston from Ireland, her father had worked hard to provide for the family, and she supported her own husband as he became an American citizen. "Our time together has really shown me what it means to leave your family and friends and start over in a new country," the producer says.

It soon became apparent that there were many more staff members at Pixar with their own experiences to bring to the periodic table of "Elemental," as first- or second-generation immigrants from all over the studio came onboard the project. "Their accounts were really inspiring and influenced the story, and we were thrilled to see that sort of authenticity show up on the screen as we were making the movie," Ream says.

The cultures of Elemental are fully realized

As much as the neighborhoods of Element City are rooted in the real-life immigrant experiences of the Pixar crew and their families, Sohn was always careful to avoid caricaturing specific cultures. "Quickly I realized these have to be universal, and my biggest goal was to take the element itself and pull from there to make the culture," he explains.

To that end, the world of "Elemental" is grounded in ideas about how beings made of fire, water, earth, and air would move through life and interact with each other. The team even enlisted David Peterson, who's been behind languages heard in the worlds of "Game of Thrones," "Shadow and Bone," and "Dune," just to name a few, to create a language of fire sounds to represent the Lumen family's native tongue. Though this "Firish" is used only briefly in the film, it goes a long way toward creating a world that's fully different from our own, even as it's grounded in very human emotions.

Pixar has made audiences fall in love with toys, bugs, monsters, fish, and even the personifications of emotions themselves. Now, "Elemental" promises to do the same for fire and water. As always, the secret ingredient is a community of storytellers coming together to make something special.

"Elemental" opens exclusively in theaters June 16.