Geek Interview: ‘Elemental’ Director Peter Sohn Shares Elements Of A Good Pixar Story

If there’s one thing Pixar is good at doing, it’s telling a good story. From Toy Story and Finding Nemo to the recent Lightyear, Luca and Turning Red animated movies, the leading American animated studio has constantly tugged at the heartstrings with stories of family, friendship, love and life, and complimented them with beautiful animation to leave a lasting impact on viewers. 

And director Peter Sohn hopes that his upcoming film Elemental, follows in the footsteps of those that came before. 

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Like most Pixar films, don’t expect a normal adventure. Elemental takes place in Element City, a city where the elements of fire, water, land and air reside, and follows Ember and Wade, a fiery young woman and a go-with-the-flow guy who in time learn that their differences make the world more beautiful.

A romance story at the heart of it, Elemental is actually a rather personal story to Sohn and is one that has been in the making for seven years. The first couple of years were spent developing the idea, and the next five years were mainly figuring out the story, as well as seeing the idea through various stages of change.

Whilst seven years is a long duration, Sohn is happy to see the project through with close attention and care, now that it’s been influenced by his own personal life too. 

“One version of the film reflected everything that was going on in our lives, I didn’t realize how much of the things that we go through just get into whatever you’re drawing! It just goes in there and you don’t even know it,” explained Sohn in a roundtable interview with Geek Culture. 

“The original concept was like – What if fire fell in love with water? And how was that a problem? – and for me, it was like, ‘Oh, I fell in love with someone that wasn’t Korean and it was a problem for my parents, and so there’s this sort of love story between these two characters – fire and water – but then a daughter and a father started to form, and that started to change and evolve through the years of making the story.” 

Sohn’s parents also serve as great inspiration for this film. In fact, Sohn has incredibly fond memories of watching animated films with his mother as a child before he became a story artist, and then a voice actor, and now, a director for Pixar. 


“Because [this movie took] so long, so many different things happened in my life that would change the story – both my parents died during the making of this thing,” shared an emotional Sohn, who was born to Korean immigrant parents. 

“My mom took me to the movies all the time but it was American movies so she didn’t understand English, so I would sit there and will have to translate everything. But I remember seeing some Disney movies where I didn’t have to translate anything, that she would just watch it and she would cry and I didn’t realise at that time as a kid, but as an adult in animation, that’s my favourite thing.” 

This experience with his mother led to why the characters in Elemental are distinguished by elements. Not by their race, ethnicity or even species, but rather pure elements that any viewer of any cultural background would be able to understand and hopefully, relate to.

“It’s not like it’s a white person, or it’s an Asian person, these are elements and meaning anyone can connect to. I was also trying to find, you know, how to make them universal in a way that a kid or adult could understand what they’re going through. That’s what I loved about fire and water was that immediately visually, like, that’s impossible. They can’t [be together] and so that type of visual storytelling is something that I enjoy a great deal and I hope that’s something that can translate with everyone,” said Sohn. 

The various Elements in Elemental.

After finding a universal concept that was not only unique but still understandable for audiences of all ages and backgrounds, the next thing Sohn had to do was develop the technology that could bring his idea to life. 

“There was no technology that we have there. We had to come up with a new pipeline and that’s why the film took so long. We could have gone earlier, but we just didn’t have the technology to make a character that was an effect. We also didn’t have the pipeline to make every shot of the film have an effect in it so those two challenges were really difficult,” confessed Sohn. 

It’s times like this the 45-year-old director is thankful for collaboration. When attempting to draw Ember and bring the fire element to life, Sohn remembers facing difficulties in making her seem appealing, friendly and approachable. Character designer and development artist Daniel Lopez Muñoz came up with a rather ingenious solution that later became the Ember fans will later catch in the film. 

“Some of our early tests of Ember were real fire with eyes and they were terrifying! It was so scary, like you’d just want an exorcist to like, pick the demon out of Ember here! But I remember Daniel, our artist, took an iPhone footage of a fire in his backyard, then took frames out and then painted each frame and animated a fire character that felt like it could burn you to the touch and still be really appealing but it was a very long process,” shared the director. 


As for Wade and other water characters, Sohn and his team are still in the midst of perfecting the way they look and animate. According to the director, Water characters are difficult because they’re constantly animated. It’s also an element that isn’t entirely solid or can exist in one shape like Earth, for example. 

“Water character right now is still the hardest. We still have three months to finish the film and water continues to be very difficult because he’s constantly moving. His face is so simple that sometimes it looks weird, and the light goes through his face,” explained the director. 

“It’s just really hard but there are a lot of talented people at Pixar that are way smarter than me and they’ve been able to find a way to translate this stuff in a way that I hope we can finish the film.” 

Sohn is grateful for the amount of support he’s received from his peers at Pixar thus far. From his early days as a story artist for Finding Nemo, to his voice acting roles as Emile in Ratatouille, Squishy in Monsters University and most recently the voice of Sox in Lightyear, Sohn has also taken on a new role: director. Sohn’s first directing project for Pixar was Partly Cloudy and six years later, he took over the reins and directed The Good Dinosaur. 

What kept him motivated all this while? What keeps him going?

“The people,” said Sohn. 


“I know if it’s such a cliche thing to say but like my first job was as an artist. I was designing scuba gear for Finding Nemo. I was designing like scuba glasses, the watch, the tank and you’re in a small world, and then you move into another small world. As a director, you can see all the worlds, you move from departments and as you know, seven years, five years on the show, the amount of artists that you’re seeing on a day-to-day basis is so inspiring because these people love what they do. And, you know, it’s part of a tribe.” 

Pixar is where Sohn feels the highest sense of belonging, especially after growing up as an Asian-American in New York. At Pixar, folks are united by their passion for storytelling. It doesn’t matter where they come from, how they got there and what they look like and that, for Sohn, was incredibly refreshing and welcoming. 

“I grew up in New York, where there was a lot of racism and so there’s a lot of places where like, ‘You’re this colour, you don’t belong here, get out of here!’ and you’re like, ‘Screw you! I was born here!’ and then when you start to meet other artists, you would go ‘Oh, this is my tribe. You are my people,’” shared a heartfelt Sohn. 

“Working at Pixar, it doesn’t matter what your skin colour is. We’re all passionate about the same work and that’s the thing that you just keep going back to for sure.” 

For aspiring artists who wish to work at Pixar one day, Sohn has one golden piece of advice, “Observe life and have an opinion on it.” 

“I know that sounds so silly. But my favourite artists, all come with a point of view. They all come with a specific point of view and when you hear a diverse point of view, you just want to go ‘Let’s put that up, make that louder! No one’s heard that,’” continued Sohn. 

“And with artists today,  like I just hope that they’re able to not copy other things, observe the life around them and find a way to communicate that and not be judgmental about it, having fun with it and having a way to present it and communicate it in a way that is positive, I think this is such a powerful thing for young artists to learn.” 

Of course, Sohn speaks from experience. He confessed that he wished he knew to not follow the crowd and to develop his own individuality much earlier on. Nonetheless, he is thankful for the journey thus far and hopes that he makes a positive impact on audiences. 

“I didn’t know it. I was always copying other things. These people don’t want that from me. They’re just like ‘Tell that story you told when you were growing up, tell that story!’ and it took a while for me to realize that the value of the individual voice is so important,” shared Sohn. 

“And I hope that artists can learn that at a young age because when they get older, they can make films that really have an impact because it’s from a point of view that’s very real.” 

Elemental is currently slated to release on 15 June 2023.