Breaking News: Pixar’s Most Unexpected Film Comes to Life Through Elemental’s VFX Supervisor

On paper, the concept of Elemental aligns well with Pixar’s storytelling style. Directed by Pete Sohn, the film poses an interesting question – What if elements had emotions and lived in a society? However, upon first glance, it becomes clear that the movie’s aesthetics are quite different from traditional Pixar films. With a charming romance between Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) and Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie), two characters made of fire and water, Elemental delves into weighty themes like immigration and racial discrimination.

As the story takes us into Element City, home to fire, water, land, and air, the creators drew inspiration from a range of sources, from Miyazaki’s works to The Godfather II. In an exclusive interview with Filmfare, Sanjay Bakshi, Elemental’s VFX Supervisor known for his work on The Good Dinosaur and Onward, provides insights into the film’s visual design.

What was the director’s brief for you?

Having previously worked with Pete Sohn, I had early conversations with him about the story. He wanted to explore his own experiences as an immigrant through the world of elements, drawing parallels to moving to New York City. As my parents had also emigrated from India to Canada, I could relate to his vision. He wanted to discuss my experiences and see if they could resonate universally.

The visuals in Elemental are distinctive compared to other Pixar movies. What were some of the experimental elements you incorporated?

I appreciate your observation because our goal was indeed to create a unique visual style. We aimed to strike a balance between realism and stylization. Pete’s vision was for the film to have the aesthetics of computer graphics rather than mimic a comic book or a graphic novel. You’ll notice that Ember has dynamic outline work on her face, while Wade exhibits line work on his silhouette reminiscent of pencil strokes. Wade’s appearance reflects the meniscus effect of water, reacting to light and constantly in motion. I believe these elements contribute to the film’s distinctiveness, embodying the essence of computer-generated graphics.
How did the elements evolve from their initial visual designs?
This is an intriguing question. The early versions of Wade differed significantly from the character depicted in the final film. We dedicated substantial time to capture the watery essence of his character, paying close attention to his facial features. Initially, when his mouth changed shape, ripples would cascade from it, accompanied by subtle bubbles throughout his head. However, during the animation process, we realized that this approach didn’t convey the desired performance. Therefore, we had to scale back these effects, leaving them for other parts of Wade’s body. Despite the adjustments, Wade’s appearance still conveys his watery nature while allowing for nuanced acting abilities.

How did you achieve Ember’s fiery look without making it intimidating?

To stylize Ember’s character, we employed a technique called pyro simulation to depict the simulation of heat. Fire captivates viewers with its constant change and mesmerizing nature. However, applying this level of detail to Ember’s head would have been distracting. Consequently, we utilized neural-style transfer to organize the flames, simplifying them into shapes inspired by painted artwork. This approach enabled us to strike the perfect balance between dynamic flames and stylization for Ember.

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Which movies served as references during the production?

We drew inspiration from various sources. Pete, being a cinephile, holds a deep appreciation for movies. We referenced Calcifer, a character from Hayao Miyazaki’s films, known for its comedic and cartoony nature. We aimed to infuse similar qualities into our fire character’s ability to change form while maintaining a sense of realism. Additionally, we explored immigration-themed movies, specifically referencing a memorable sequence in The Godfather Part II. This particular sequence unfolds without dialogue and portrays Vito Corleone’s journey from Italy to Ellis Island, capturing the steps of the immigration process. While we didn’t draw heavily from Bollywood films, there were initial references to Indian cinema.
The musical score seemed to incorporate Indian instruments. Was there a deliberate intention to do so?
Indeed, in the initial stages, we did reference a few Indian films. However, as the production progressed, we aimed to make the music more universally relatable, eliminating any specific country associations. This approach allows for a broader audience appeal.
How has Pixar’s animation evolved over the years?
Pixar’s animation has undergone significant evolution. For me, Elemental posed the most challenging technical project to date. The industry is constantly changing, and I appreciate the trend of movies veering slightly away from realism and embracing stylization. This shift in approach is something I find immensely satisfying. Films like Spider-Verse perfectly exemplify this trend. With Elemental, our goal was to create an imaginative world without overwhelming audiences with excessive vibrancy. I hope this trend of stylization in animated movies continues to prosper.

Elemental is set to release on June 23, 2023.



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