A question as simple as “What if the elements we all know were alive?” from director Pete Sohn can spark a spiral of imagination that only the minds at Pixar Animation Studios could tackle. So, how did Pixar create Elemental’s characters?
This post follows up on our visit to Pixar Animation Studios to learn all about the making of Elemental. Additionally, check out our prior post filled with Elemental Fun Facts.
CHARACTERS AS ELEMENTS
Pixar is known for its imaginative and epic storytelling, and in Elemental, storytelling comes center stage as we meet Ember Lumen and Wade Ripple. Ember and Wade are two elements that couldn’t be more opposite, as one is fire and the other water.
Prior to Elemental, a film with two main characters that are visual effects hadn’t been attempted. Sohn’s notes were always clear: Ember is fire—she’s not on fire. And Wade, naturally, is water—not a vessel holding water. This was the challenge of all challenges.
HOW TO MAKE THEM APPEALING
With the team unable to make a virtual skeleton-like rig (which is typical), this made the task of making the Elemental characters appealing a little more daunting. Visual effects supervisor Sanjay Bakshi noted, “Every frame of this movie has a fire or water simulation happening—often both. The scale of the effects is unprecedented for a Pixar film.“
AN EXPANSIVE EFFECTS TEAM
If you think that sounds like a lot of effects, you’d be correct. Associate producer Krissy Cababa shared that the effects efforts called for more than 50 effects artists. “We added a whole new department to our pipeline,” she says. “We have two effects teams for this show—one handles those effects we’d normally see, like explosions or floods, which are already pretty significant in ‘Elemental.’ The other, “character effects,” took on all of the fire-, water- and air-characters. That team touched every shot in the movie.”
Not only did the effects team have to create the characters, but as effects supervisor Stephen Marshall explains, his team had to make sure the audience didn’t get distracted by the compounding effects, “As an effects artist, you kind of have a certain wheelhouse, and you know what to do. But characters are a whole different ball game because you have to make sure that the effects aren’t distracting so that audiences can read the animated performances. There’s a high level of scrutiny on the characters, plus the sheer number of shots we’re touching is very different from any other show.”
A TEAM EFFORT
While it may seem that the effects department took center stage when making Elemental, Pixar films are always a team effort. Making these complex characters, along with the similarly complex backdrop of Elemental City, took the efforts of every department at the studio.
As the development of Elemental was underway, the so-called normal pipeline timeline was completely rewritten, allowing the team to run additional simulations and tackle complex lighting needs.
Artists, storytellers, and technicians worked hand-in-hand to make possible Sohn’s vision of a spirited firewoman and her special journey of self-discovery alongside a chill water guy. “If you took Peter Sohn and separated him into two characters,” says story supervisor Jason Katz, “you’d get Ember and Wade.”
In a city where fire, water, land, and air residents live together, a fiery young woman and a go-with-the-flow guy are about to discover something elemental: How much they actually have in common.
Be sure to watch Elemental in theaters on June 16, 2023.