Interview: “Elemental” Director Peter Sohn and Producer Denise Ream

Ahead of the release of Pixar’s Elemental, we had the chance to talk to director Peter Sohn and producer Denise Ream about their emotional connection to the project, how the Disney Parks provided inspiration, the technical challenges, and a very special easter egg.

Laughing Place: Peter, you've been at Pixar but this is the first time you've had a chance to, I think, really tell a personal story. Can you talk a little bit about what Elemental and developing it meant to you?

Peter Sohn: I love how you asked that. It started from a personal place, meaning wanting to be really grateful to my parents and honoring them. And then it started growing into the crew and then all that resonance. But for me personally, I'm really scared of doing something personal because you can just get beat up and everything like that. But as it was going on, the support of the crew was amazing. But I lost my parents through this whole process. And so the journey was full of emotions, up and down. But as we now finish the film, I have this sense of pride that they're looking down on me and the work that we had done. I hope they feel like it honored them, but, yeah, it was an emotional ride for damn sure.

Laughing Place: Pixar's always been known to push the technical envelope. But with this, you don't just have characters that are on fire or wet, you have characters that are made of fire and water. What was it like to address the technical challenges of this particular film?

Denise Ream: It was something that I was really excited about, but something that was like, "I don't know how we're going to do this." And literally, I would say within two weeks of hearing Pete's pitch, I started talking to some really smart people here to start figuring out how to do it. It took a lot of experimentation. It took developing a whole new pipeline that we don't do that often really here. A new department we had to add. And the water character was so much more complicated than fire, which we did not expect just because he refracts and reflects light. So he changed in every lighting setup, which is pretty unusual.

Laughing Place: And over at the parks, you currently have a World of Color preshow, and one place where fire and water meet is these spectacles at the parks. Did you look at any of those sort of big spectacles as sort of inspiration?

Peter Sohn: Yeah, we did. Denise and I think our early writer, Brenda, went to Disneyland to see the fireworks show and how they worked with those pyrotechnics, the danger of it, the sort of musicality of it all.

Denise Ream: The choreography.

Peter Sohn: Yeah, the choreography. And I had an experience on a previous job, getting to see the water canals for the Pirates ride and seeing how that worked. And there was a lot of inspiration from that that sort of found its way into the canals of Element City.

Laughing Place: And one thing that is something that happens when you make a Pixar movie, it becomes part of the pantheon of Pixar films and Disney Pixar films. And this film plays tribute to several people, both Pixar employees as well as your family, and is a great legacy for them. Can you talk about what it's like to have this sort of ongoing monument to their accomplishments?

Peter Sohn: Yeah. Ralph Eggleston gave me my job here. And so I came on to Finding Nemo in the art department as a sketch artist designing scuba gear for Ralph. And that was 23 years ago, and I've gotten to know him for this long. And when he passed away last year, getting to put his name on the credits, it was not only emotional, but the whole studio saw it and it was very emotional. But they also put an Easter egg of him. I don't know if you caught this in the film, but there's a little sign when Ember first comes after chasing Wade deep into the city, you'll see it's called Ralph's Cafe, “2 cents a cup of Joe.” And it's a little inside joke because Ralph, when he gave his opinion, he'd always go, "This is my 2 cents." Meaning, it's just an honor to carve out something like that for him.

Elemental will be released on June 16, 2023.