Elemental Director on the Film’s Slow Burn Success and the Most Expensive Shot

Thứ sáu - 17/05/2024 23:42
With Elemental now on 4K, Peter Sohn looks back on the wild ride it took from perceived bomb to word of mouth hit and the film's trickiest sequence.

When Elemental opened with just under $30 million at the domestic box office in June, the initial coverage was rather dire, with many outright declaring it a bomb. And yes, that was a notably low number, given it was less than any Pixar movie had opened with since the original Toy Story launched the studio as a dominant force in feature animation in 1995. But as it turned out, the story of Elemental’s box office performance and reception was far from cemented from one weekend and those early headlines began to look very foolish, as the movie turned out to have tremendously strong legs, frequently dropping an impressively small amount week to week. Meanwhile, as it opened in more and more countries across the world, it also proved to be a big hit in markets such as Mexico, France, and the UK., not to mention Korea, where it became the most successful Pixar movie ever.

Slowly but surely, in a way few films accomplish these days – where a larger opening weekend is then followed by a more rapid decline – Elemental ended up bringing in nearly half a billion dollars (at the moment, it’s total is $486.7 million) and is now able to boast a much happier comparison to Toy Story as having the best box office multiplier from any Pixar movie’s opening weekend since the film that started it all.

Last month, Elemental was released on Digital and in anticipation of next week’s release on Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD, I spoke with the film’s director, longtime Pixar veteran Peter Sohn, about what it was like seeing the film rebound so spectacularly and connect with audiences in the way he and his collaborators hoped, as the positive word of mouth spread. We also spoke about Sohn’s mention of worldbuilding on the film’s audio commentary and his idea of “immaculate reality” to suggest things left unsaid about a world like the one here, where beings made of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air live. We also spoke about the specific challenges that animating an all-water character like Wade posed, and more, including Sohn’s surprising second career as a voice actor for characters like Ratatouille’s Emile, Monsters University’s Squishy, and Lightyear’s Sox, among others at Pixar, and now Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’s Ganke Lee for Sony Animation Studios, thanks to his college friendship with Into the Spider-Verse Co-Director (and Across the Spider-Verse Executive Producer) Bob Persichetti.

I should note this interview was conducted shortly before it was reported that Elemental had the best viewing numbers of any movie debut on Disney+ this year, or we probably would have discussed that too!

Fandom: The movie opens, the opening weekend is disappointing, and in this day and age, everyone is instantly pronouncing it dead. How gratifying and rewarding did it feel to have it be this great sort of old school success that built and built as it went on?

Peter Sohn: It was an emotional roller coaster, to say the least, Eric. When it first opened, I mean, it just opened in the lowest of all time [for Pixar]. And it was surprising, because there was so much love put into the film that we just really wanted audiences to connect to. It was such a sincere intent. And there were a lot of people that hadn’t seen the film yet that were just judging it in this sort of light that was very disheartening for the crew and I. But at the same time, we were still very proud of the film. There were some folks that were like ‘It’ll find legs. That’s why they’re giving it the whole summer!’ You’re like, ‘Okay, okay…’ And then I got these emails about, ‘Oh, Korea is starting… Something’s going on there.’ And then in France, ‘Something’s happening.’ And ‘Oh yeah, last weekend, domestically, it held! It only dropped 14%!’ ‘What?!’

There was a real sort of… I guess it was happiness, I would say, that started forming with those numbers, but I think there was some emotional layer of pride and healing that started to come that was just from the responses of people connecting to the film and falling in love with it that really started to overwhelm members of the crew and I. Because they started sharing with me fan art or a comment from someone that said ‘Oh, my parents had come here and I really connected to it…’ And it was beautiful. It was a healing thing that I’ll never forget.

Fandom: As you just referred to, this was a very personal story for you inspired by your dynamic with your parents and their initial reservations when you met your wife. I love on the special features for the home release seeing so many of the crew talking about the story resonating for them as children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. 

Peter Sohn: We made it to try to connect to as many people as we could, so yes, it was very gratifying, very emotional. I can’t tell you… There were some evenings where I would get a message from someone connected to the movie that I would just be… You know, a Wade!

Fandom: We can all get in touch with our inner Wade sometimes! I was listening to the commentary, and you mentioned something you call ‘immaculate reality’ when it comes to suggesting a larger world. Can you elaborate on that a bit in relation to Pixar films?

Peter Sohn: I always took it from this explanation from George Lucas about building up that first Star Wars in ‘77 and that world. That there would be details back there that you would never get an explanation of, but it would just be specific enough for you to believe that there was either history behind it, or some more story behind it that really made the world that much richer. And it was something that I really love in movies. Even if they’re not fantasies, that they’re still adding details or acknowledge something that leans into something deeper. We talked about it at every level on this film. The history of the place that they would move into for the first time, that it was an Earth neighborhood, but then what would make it an Earth neighborhood? What details would you add?

Then outside of the sets, the crowd animators started adding history into the crowds. Like there’s this little Easter egg of this couple, these two characters in the background that are going through their own love story through the film. If you ever watch it again, you might notice this couple noticing each other in one scene in the background. And then another [scene], where you see them walking together at the mineral lake. They’re on a date. And then by another sequence later, one is proposing. You see them getting on a knee. And there are just so many layers of stuff that I really love because of these types of movies.

Fandom: Fans can go deep on these conversations, sometimes to a rather intense degree. Whether it’s something like the Cars universe or now Elemental, they’ll have these questions about ‘How does it work? What’s the religion like?’ and things like that. You guys live with these movies for years, so is it likely that you’ve had all those conversations too along the way?

Peter Sohn: I would say that 75%, yes. I’ve been realizing that I get some DMs and questions for things that I never thought about. It’s been really eye opening of like, ‘Holy cow, I thought we were going deep for the last several years.’ But nope, we didn’t go deep enough, you know? [Laughs]

Fandom: On the special features, they show a test of Wade and the background is the main floor at Pixar. What’s it like to like work in that environment, where people all around you are working on different projects at different points? I thought that must be so interesting, because you’re getting these glimpses of everyone’s projects. 

Peter Sohn: Yeah, it’s a very inspirational sort of cycle of life here where you start to get into the project that you’re on and all the ups and downs of that project. But then the serendipity of bumping into someone or seeing someone’s work or walking into another meeting where you’re seeing what’s on the screen from another show, all of a sudden, will light you up in a way that reinvigorates. And that cycle is something that I think Steve Jobs knew very clearly when he built this building. He so wanted that serendipity to happen in the way that it was built. As silly as this sounds, he built all the bathrooms to the center of the building. So everyone would need to come out from their offices and gather in the main atrium to trigger that sort of spontaneous conversation on something and it still really happens today.

A test of Wade, using footage of Pixar's atrium, as seen on the Elemental special features

Fandom: Planned spontaneity.

Peter Sohn: Yeah, exactly!

Fandom: You’ve spoken about how tricky this movie was animation-wise, because the characters were made completely from elements, not human skeletal forms. Is there a sequence in particular that was just a really tough one to crack?

Peter Sohn: Yeah, I can go right to when Wade is with Ember at the dam and the doors are cracking and the water’s pushing and Wade brings a sandbag and steps into the incoming water. That was one of the most difficult sequences in the film. And there’s one shot in there that is the most expensive shot in the film. Wade steps in, he puts his hand out, and water starts to infuse into his hand going into his arm, making him bigger. And then he’s taking some more steps to try to push deeper toward the crack of the door. There’s a closeup of the hand, where the hand, the palm, smacks into the wall of that water that’s coming in. That close up is the most expensive shot in the film. It was that difficult to try to get all that clear water, a hand that’s also clear, an internal structure of bubbles going in the forearm or wrist, and then all of that that’s happening behind it and trying to see all of that… It was just a crazy shot.

The most expensive shot in Elemental

Fandom: How long did it take to complete that shot altogether?

Peter Sohn: Oh boy, I don’t know, maybe at least a minimum of three months on that one for sure. But lighting it was so different, because the way that they light the effects water and then the sentient water is so different and then just combining those things… Because he’s a cartoon. He’s more caricatured in the deepness of his blue versus the sort of see through water that we use for the non-sentient water. It was nuts.

Fandom: You’ve mentioned that with Wade in particular, you didn’t need or necessarily even want him to be 100% realistic in terms of how he and the water he’s made of looked, because it needed to work in a certain way for him and the story. Do you think sometimes people might get hung up on whether it looks more ‘real’ vs. what is right for the specific character?

Peter Sohn: Oh yeah, we fought that the whole time. I would say even to this day, after the movie’s done, Wade, still… It’s like, oh, I wish we could have pushed that! We thought Ember was going to be hard but Wade was a monster. Every shot, the lighting on him was so difficult. Those early tests that you were mentioning, those Wade shots inside the Pixar atrium, when he was that see through… What actual water does reflecting and refracting those bricks behind him and the people walking in the background, you couldn’t see his face. It was such a difficult challenge to try to find… We want something water. We don’t want Jell-O Man. But he just kept flip flopping between those two worlds very quickly, you know?

(L-R) Director Peter Sohn, Leah Lewis (the voice of Ember) and Mamoudou Athie (the voice of Wade) attend an Elemental screening in London, England in June

Fandom: I have to ask you about your other career, as it were, as a voice actor. Was this something you also had aspirations for or was it just a fun lark that started happening because people you knew invited you to be in these films?

Peter Sohn: No, never! I never thought I would. Most artists and animators just like to hide behind cubes and just draw. It just came out of pitching storyboards at Pixar. And I feel very lucky because some of these characters, people come up and go ‘Oh, I love Sox!’ or this other character, but nope, I never thought that would ever be a thing.

Fandom: Beyond the movies themselves, there are toys with your voice now. There are theme park attractions with your voice. Is that just kind of another level of surreallness?

Peter Sohn: It is. Whatever nerd appendage that was vestigial on me exploded when some of that stuff happened. I can only just say, that’s just the luckiest thing. I don’t know… I’ll just keep focusing on trying to make cool stuff with friends, but that’s just been a really weird surprise into all this whole time here at Pixar.

Peter Sohn voices Ganke in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Fandom: This summer you had this great, long term success with Elemental and then you’ve got this small role in Across the Spider-Verse. Was that just a bit of an icing on the cake situation?

Peter Sohn: Yeah, I love Miller and Lord so much. And that whole team there, Kemp [Powers]… The animation industry is so small and everyone is working so hard. What they’ve been doing over there has been unbelievable. And just getting to see or be a little bit a part of it has just been, again, lucky stardust stuff that… I don’t know what happened, how that happened!

Fandom: Your 2009 Pixar short, Partly Cloudy, had a cloud character in it. Was there any burgeoning idea there with Elemental or is that just something you’re attracted to as far as characters that might be from the elements like that?

Peter Sohn: Yeah, I just have always been attracted to amorphous characters. I just love the idea of trying to break these [animation character] rigs, and trying to create something that you hadn’t seen before. It’s a moving cloud, which at the time when we made the short, they were also like ‘We can’t do the type of simulations you’re talking about. We can take cotton and spin them.’ So essentially, that cloud character is just these digital cotton balls that are just spinning in place on top of each other. There’s no simulations whatsoever.

Peter Sohn's 2009 Pixar short, Partly Cloudy

But now, as they’re able to simulate the characters, it was also the same thing. We still can’t see the characters in this way because they’re caricatures. Caricaturing simulations is very, very hard. You can make something look real, but trying to cartoonify a simulation is challenging. But yeah, they sort of live in the same world. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to bring one of those characters?’ It was just this weird coincidence that started to start to form as we were designing the characters and understanding, honestly, how much money we had left, because we spent so much on Fire and Water that by the time we got to Earth and Air, you know that pool was really diminished.

Fandom: Pool not being a pun in this case.

Peter Sohn: Right!

Elemental is now on Digital and will be released September 26 on Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD.

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