‘Elemental’ Craftspeople On “Exploiting The Elemental Nature” Of Characters & Creating A Collaborative Workflow

For Elemental, Pixar’s creative team quickly realized that they needed a new approach to streamline their animation process. While each department generally worked alone, an early collaboration was needed to animate characters that were comprised of so many visual effects.

“It was all about collaborating, not just with the people making the characters and building the environments, but with what the render would look like and how we could change that to help support the characters and the way they looked,” says production designer Don Shank.

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Elemental, directed by Peter Sohn, takes place in Element City, a sprawling metropolis filled with residents made of fire, water, earth and air. The story follows Ember (Leah Lewis), a fire resident working in her parents’ market, whose fiery temper leads her to a chance meeting with Wade (Mamoudou Athie), a sappy water resident working as a city inspector. While fire and water do not mix well, Ember and Wade find themselves forming an unlikely friendship.

“Animation and effects don’t usually collaborate,” says directing animator Allison Rutland. “We had to figure out our own little pipeline to communicate with them… where we could talk to them about what they were going to do in effects and how the animator could help achieve that.”

“A lot of our effects we [usually] do really late, when everything is done,” says visual effects supervisor Sanjay Bakshi. “Whereas we knew Ember and Wade are in so much of the movie, so we had to build the effects into the characters themselves… and exploit the elemental nature of the characters.”

That new pipeline became essential as director Peter Sohn’s vision for the film was characters made out of elements, not characters affected by elements. This presented a challenge for the team, to balance the realism of the elements and the stylization needed to create characters with the ability for subtle performances.

“We all, including Peter [Sohn], were seduced by all of the things that make water look like water,” says Bakshi about designing Wade. “There’s a lot of factors like the reflections and refractions… so we started layering that all into Wade and had a really complicated hose-like simulation on his head.” After the first animation test, it became apparent to the animators that the realism needed to be dialed back for the characters to be able to express emotion.

Pixar's 'Elemental'

“You couldn’t connect with the characters,” says animating director Gwen Enderoglu. “We learned so much from that and really went through an editing pass… and [Wade’s] appeal really leveled up after that.”

They encountered a similar issue with Ember, who was made entirely of fire. “We were shooting for more control and so we wanted [Ember] to be less realistic, but we also wanted the visceral impact of a real fire,” says Shank. “When the movie is about the elements, you really want to not just embrace that interest for the audience, but also bring a lot of excitement about the visceral impact of the elements. Like, that fire could burn something. And [Ember] is not just this idea of fire. She is fire, right?”

Since there was no point of reference for what they were trying to accomplish, the team learned how to craft the balance from a trial and error approach. “If we went too hard into the elemental-ness of the shot, you’re not really thinking about the performance anymore,” says Enderoglu. “We came to a ground rule of one elemental moment per shot. If we could at least find one moment that could add a little elemental life to it, that would bridge the other shots around it and create a more cohesive sequence.”

“As we developed the tools and our style, we figured out how we would affect the render with our tools,” says Rutland. “Like, if Ember got angry, the animators would start to build in a tiny little flare that would match her performance… We had a lot of that with heat and color, and there were all these different ways we could do it and it was just a delicate balance of adding these little sprinkles of this stuff in when it was needed.”

“I really think that this is going to open doors for us in the future,” adds Enderoglu. “By collaborating so closely on this film, every film is going to benefit from that openness and the new workflow.”

Elemental is in theaters on June 16, 2023.

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