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Elemental: Finding Inspiration In Reality For The Elements Cultures

Elemental director Peter Sohn talks about how real world cultures helped inspire the cultures of the various elements.

Pixar is looking to make a comeback in a big way with Elemental. After getting the shortest stick from the pandemic, where one of its movies came out right before lockdown, getting three features moved from theatrical to streaming, and then having the return to theaters underperform, the studio hasn't had it easy these last couple of years. However, where Pixar has always and will always thrive is with its original movies. Elemental is yet another Pixar labor of love from director Peter Sohn that explores the ideas of culture, immigration, and relationships through the concept of elements not mixing. It's breaking down complex ideas to its most fundamental, which is what Pixar has always been great at. When you watch the film, and in the footage we got to see during the early press day in March, you can see hints of different cultures from the real world integrated into the various cultures of the elements. Sohn went on to explain how they went about developing the different cultures.

"Yeah, there were several pathways," Sohn explained. "When I first started pitching it, there were things of my own life that I would think of in terms of, like, "Oh, I love spicy food. Wouldn't that be funny if fire food was really spicy?" You know, that kind of thing, and all that kind of fun. Like once people start saying or asking, "Oh, are they Asian?" It's like, "No, no, they're not meant to be Asian," or "Is air meant to be this culture?" And quickly, I realized, like, no, no, these have to be universal. And my biggest goal was to try to find and take the element itself and pull from there to make the culture. Obviously, if you go too far, it could become alien. And so you do have little grounding ways to do that. Something that was interesting was disruption, meaning you think there is a piece of a culture that you think is mixed with a fire element. But then the next one should take you into another place where it's giving you other values of cultures that we know, but without it pointing to anything.

Elemental: New Poster And Two New Images
FUTURE'S SO BRIGHT — In Disney and Pixar's "Elemental," fiery young woman Ember (voice of Leah Lewis) lives with her immigrant parents in Firetown—a borough of Element City, where fire-, water-, land- and air-residents live together. Directed by Peter Sohn ("The Good Dinosaur," "Party Cloudy" short) and produced by Denise Ream ("The Good Dinosaur," "Cars 2"), Disney and Pixar's "Elemental" releases on June 16th, 2023. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

"But more than anything, it was just saying, "Oh, they're fire people. They eat wood, but earth people wouldn't eat wood in this way. How can we exploit that? What kind of plates would they have?" Sohn continued. "And so we would be extrapolating everything we could from the culture. We also had a language made by David Peterson, who did Game of Thrones, and this amazing, brilliant team tried to take fireplace sound effects and then try to make a language of it. And so when we first started adding fire sound effects to the characters, it just didn't sound like a performance. And so they came up with this language again, based on what we did from fire."

It's natural that people will look at the different cultures of Elemental and try to make real-world correlations, but it sounds like Sohn and his team were very cognizant of that fact and tried to avoid it. The idea of feeling like you only fit in when it comes to one place and wanting to explore the world outside of your immediate family and culture are universal human experiences that they hoped to draw from to inspire the world of Elemental. So if you see someone trying to say that "Fire is X" or "Water is Y," that's how this world was created.

Elemental: Finding Inspiration In The Real For The Elementals Cultures
The Elemental Long Lead Press Days, including a filmmaker presentation with Production Designer Don Shank in the Steve Jobs Building Theater, from March 26th, 2023, to March 28th, 2023, at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Elemental will debut at the Cannes Film Festival on May 27th and will be released in theaters on June 16th. Tickets went on sale today.

Elemental: Summary, Release Date, Cast List

It's easy to imagine the wind having attitude or fire being angry. A happy bunch of flowers
could absolutely brighten the day of a lonely pot of dirt. And water might be calm and collected one day and in a big hurry the next. Disney and Pixar's Elemental is an all-new, original feature film set in Element City, where fire-, water-, earth- and air-residents live together. The story introduces Ember, a tough, quick-witted and fiery young woman, whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow guy named Wade challenges her beliefs about the world they live in and the person she wants to be.

Joining the previously announced voice cast, including Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade, respectively, are Ronnie del Carmen as Ember's soon-to-be-retired dad, Bernie; Shila Ommi as Ember's love-seeking mom, Cinder; Wendi McLendon-Covey as Wade's stormy and Air-Ball-loving boss, Gale; Catherine O'Hara as Wade's welcoming mom, Brook; Mason Wertheimer as Ember's admiring earth neighbor, Clod; and Joe Pera as an overgrown city bureaucrat, Fern. Directed by Peter Sohn, produced by Denise Ream, p.g.a., and executive produced by Pete Docter, Elemental features a screenplay by John Hoberg & Kat Likkel and Brenda Hsueh with story by Sohn, Hoberg & Likkel and Hsueh. The film's original score was composed and conducted by Thomas Newman.

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Kaitlyn BoothAbout Kaitlyn Booth

Kaitlyn is the Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Film critic and pop culture writer since 2013. Ace. Leftist. Nerd. Feminist. Writer. Replicant Translator. Cinephillic Virtue Signaler. She/Her. UFCA/GALECA Member. 🍅 Approved. Follow her on Twitter @katiesmovies and @safaiagem on Instagram.
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