When it comes to the world of animated storytelling and filmmaking, Peter Sohn is a legend in his own right and of his own making. Elemental may only be his second directorial feature, but Sohn has been a staple of Pixar Animation Studios since the early 2000s. While attending the prestigious CalArts, Sohn worked on major animated projects like The Iron Giant and Osmosis Jones. It wasn’t until after graduating from CalArts that Sohn found himself at Pixar during the production of Finding Nemo. He’s been at Pixar ever since, serving as an animator, story and production artist, writer, director, producer, and more over the past two decades. This also includes voice acting, with Emile in Ratatouille, Squishy in Monsters University, and Sox in Lightyear being Sohn’s most beloved voice roles.
Peter Sohn made his true directorial debut with the short Partly Cloudy, which played before screenings of Up in 2009. A few years later, when director Bob Peterson stepped down from The Good Dinosaur, Sohn was brought in to fulfill the role of director and complete the movie. So while Elemental may technically only be his sophomore effort with the studio, Sohn has clearly put in the needed time to tackle Pixar’s latest feature film with the right confidence and experience. Elemental takes place in Element City, a metropolitan society where anthropomorphic elements – fire, water, earth, and air – coexist as long as they play by the rules of nature. However, after an unexpected meeting, fire element Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) and water element Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) learn that opposites attract and that norms are sometimes meant to be broken.
Elemental is Pixar’s first romantic comedy, focusing on Ember and Wade as they explore the complexities of their newfound romance. But there’s more to this “fire meets water” story than meets the eye. We see that Ember and her family’s origins as fire elements in Element City touch upon themes of immigration, which further complicates her relationship with Wade as two elements with different physical properties that are also from different cultural backgrounds. This piece of the film closely reflects Peter Sohn’s own life as the son of Korean immigrants who made a new life for themselves in New York. The Korean-American filmmaker originally didn’t think he would include so much of his family’s story when making Elemental, yet it felt like the right path to take given how so much of this movie is meant to honor the sacrifices that parents make for their kids.
The film’s messaging has resonated deeply with audiences around the globe. After opening to a lackluster box office weekend in June, many were ready to dismiss Elemental as just another Disney flop. Yet, it proved to have considerable legs in the months that followed. Positive word-of-mouth steadily carried the animated rom-com to considerable financial and critical success. Elemental has now gone on to match box office records set by the original Toy Story, becoming the first original animated film to earn over $400 million in theaters since 2017 (before the COVID-19 pandemic). Much of its gains have come from international audiences, most notably from South Korea. Elemental is not only the most-viewed foreign film of the year there but also the most-viewed Pixar film in the country’s history. According to the Walt Disney Company, one out of every eight people in Korea have seen Elemental – a stunning feat.
To celebrate the film’s streaming debut on Disney+ as well as its physical release on 4K UHD, Blu-Ray, and DVD, we sat down with director Peter Sohn to discuss his work on Elemental. In his own words, it was a filmmaking journey that he never expected to grow as personal as it did. The Pixar poster boy breaks down the challenges of creating such a fantastical world and characters, the personal connections that made the story what it is, and why he thinks Elemental has resonated so strongly in Korea and other international markets. We learn how that heart-warming photo of Sohn’s parents made it into the movie’s ending as well!
Exclusive Interview with Elemental Director Peter Sohn
What were the biggest differences between working on The Good Dinosaur versus Elemental?
Peter Sohn: There were two big differences. The Good Dinosaur was started by a good friend of mine, Bob Peterson. He was the original director on it. When I got asked on, I felt like I was trying to honor what he had originally wanted, but in a very small amount of time. That was one part of it. Then realizing how personal Elemental became for me, I really understood how The Good Dinosaur wasn’t in that way. So those are the two things – it was about time and how personal the project became. With Elemental, I had a lot more time. But that had a lot to do with how difficult the effects of the characters would become.
When you were first developing the concept for Elemental, was it your intention to really pour all of your personal feelings into the story, or did that happen naturally?
Peter Sohn: It naturally came about. I came in not wanting to do anything this personal at all, it’s very vulnerable. It was initially about wanting to have fun with these elemental characters and to see if we could feel them fall in love in this crazy setting of a world. But some personal things happened to me during the process of this movie, so that sort of shifted.
Just like with anything that you’re creative on, what’s happening in your life starts to fold in. It was the loss of my parents that was a big deal to me, and trying to understand what they meant to me in my brother and I’s life and our family’s lives. And that reverberated through a lot of people on the project. That’s not only personal for me but for a big portion of the crew.
Parts of Elemental resemble the American immigrant experience, do you think this relates to why the film has become so appealing to international audiences as well?
Peter Sohn: It is such a great question. I have gone around the bend thinking about those different pieces. When first starting Elemental, I was hoping that there was a universality between two people falling in love from different worlds. It’s a classic story, the idea of Romeo and Juliet has been around forever. However, trying to do it through the lens of a first-gen, second-gen experience, I thought was new.
Also, some of these countries that Elemental has done so well in don’t have the same amount of immigrant diversity. The bottom line is that I think the family drama mixed with this love story is what has connected so strongly, ultimately. More so than, you know, “Oh, it’s a story about people coming from another country.” Maybe in one location, they take it more like, “Oh, it’s someone coming from the country to the city,” versus from an entire other culture. There are lots of different angles that I’m sure people have connected to, but the father-daughter and Ember-Wade triangle is what I hope is the main connection.
I read some pretty staggering statistics about how popular Elemental has become in Korea. What parts of your own Korean background do you think have been resonating there?
Peter Sohn: There are definitely themes of respect. There’s a word called God Saeng in Korean that I thought about a lot in the making of Elemental – it means understanding someone who’s working hard through love. That concept was the burden, essentially, to Ember. It is a big deal in Korea, or at least, from my knowledge because I grew up here, not in Korea. On top of that, there are a lot of nods to the culture in itself; eating spicy foods, the concept of other languages, and the idea of having parental respect were all ingrained into me.
How subconscious that was, I don’t know, but we talked a lot about these different pieces. We have a very diverse crew with many people from different countries – from the South Americas to Europe to Africa to Asia. They all had their version of similar themes and concepts that gave me hope that this movie could be universal in that way. But for Korea, I don’t know. I had heard some people saying they didn’t even know it was a Korean director. And I was like, “Wow, what other pieces from the story really resonated in this country in that way?”
There’s a photo of my family, my parents, at the end of the film that says their names, but like, I don’t know how Korean they are. Maybe people can really tell by the photo, though I never thought about putting it in. That was the idea of my executive producer Pete Docter because he had known that they both passed away during the making of Elemental. Honoring our parents is a huge thing in Korea so maybe that was a big piece. But I have to tell you, it was overwhelming. It’s very emotional how much Korea has connected to it, because of my parents and where they come from. That was huge. It’s something I’ll have for the rest of my life, somehow honoring them in that way.
What was it like to work on such a significant chunk of this Pixar movie from home with everyone during the pandemic?
Peter Sohn: I guess you hear a lot of like, it was both positive and negative. I did not enjoy working from home as much as we did. I am such a social creature and so much of my belief in making movies is that the energy that you are fostering or creating with a team gets up on the screen, you know? There were many passionate people working on the film – it’s a miracle that we even made Elemental through that process.
I totally give credit to the crew in terms of how they pushed it forward because I had a tough time with it. They were so infectious with their love for not only the film but the actual process of how difficult it was. They just kept pushing, and that kept pulling me through in return. So, I didn’t care for Zoom, but the process itself, I fell in love with.
When you’re working at a highly regarded studio like Pixar, is there any pressure to make your ideas feel wholly unique and imaginative?
Peter Sohn: Yes, Pixar is definitely wanting to make an original film as original as it can possibly be. What was interesting about Elemental was that, because all the characters were fantastical and it wasn’t based in the human world, there were some parameters that started to show themselves. When you flip the script on something, all of a sudden an audience that we would show it to would get confused. Like, “Wait, are they people?”
I realized that we had to really spell some of this out for people because it’s such a fantastical world. So that gave us some license to ground it into, maybe tropes. You don’t ever want to do anything “trope-y,” but there were some things where you simply needed to go, “Oh, that’s like a man.” Like, even having a water character, even assigning gender, you just had to find things that were universal to start giving them qualities because they were so abstract.
It’s hard to say now because the film is done and you can clearly see who’s a water and fire person. However, before any of those were designed, there were weird conversations. So yes, there were some challenges in trying to build up a completely new world from scratch and how to allow the audience to sit with the emotions, because so much of it was left-brained. Those are some of the comments that I still get. There are rules between non-sentient water and sentient water. “Are water people walking on water people that are dead?” Like, no, no! There are all these rules that have to be set up, right? It was a crazy challenge.
Is that part of the process that you enjoy, building out the world and trying to figure out how it actually works? Or are you someone who prefers to focus on characters and story?
Peter Sohn: Both! In the beginning, it’s so fun coming up with ideas that fulfill the world and really exploit what elements can be. Same thing with the characters – like, where you’re coming up with the types of different characters that would live in there. That’s really fun! When you start getting into heavy production and heavy story solutions; that breaking and trying to fix a story mode – yeah, there’s a part of me that’s just like, “Oh, well, there’s no way around this one (chuckles), could we get help on this one, please?” So it’s a mixed bag for sure, though I would say it’s seasonal.
I really appreciate you taking the time to answer some questions today. My father was one of the first in his family to move to the U.S. from Nicaragua, and this movie really resonated with me in that respect and how I grew up here.
Peter Sohn: Thank you Nicolás, I really appreciate it. I love the first-gen/second-gen connection, man. It’s been one of the most positive things about Elemental. More and more people DM and connect through social media about that and I didn’t realize when making this film that these themes would be such a powerful thing, but they really are. So, thank you, Nicolás, for sharing that.