Pixar takes the animation crown when it comes to dreaming up complicated characters that leave their marks on viewers’ minds. From Finding Dory’s camouflaging Septopus, Hank, who took the design team two years to finalize, to the light-emitting Joy from Inside Out, Pixar is no stranger to animation innovation.
This time, the personification pros at Pixar have taken on the monumental task of developing the protagonist in this summer’s brand-new film: Elemental. Directed by Peter Sohn and produced by Denise Ream, Elemental explores an existential question posed by Sohn, “what if elements had feelings?”
With animated movies like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles in Sohn’s repertoire, his newest film follows four elements—fire, water, earth, and air—as they converge in Element City. Wade (water) is happy to go with the flow, but his counterpart on-screen tends to get a little more fiery. Enter Ember, the hot-headed protagonist in Elemental and Pixar’s most complex animated character to date.
Related: Pixar Announces New Movie ‘Elemental’
To ignite the design process, Pixar’s production designer Don Shank said in an IndieWire article that the animation needed “a delicate balance between physics, logic, and cartoony appeal.” In a Pixar first, Elemental was reverse-engineered to capture the physical nature of the characters as they defined the environments around them.
The production designers enlisted groundbreaking rigging tools and a new VFX-driven workflow to bring Pixar’s most simulated characters to life. But before the designers could tackle the visual effects for the scene-setting elements, they had to dream up the most destructive one: fire.
How Ember Sparked New Animation Methods
According to Shank, Ember (Leah Lewis) spends the most time on screen. And since her elemental nature can destroy properties in the other elements’ neighborhoods, the rest of the film is built around her. With close to 10,000 individual controls, intricate sculpting, and 2D outlining, Ember gradually grew into a fully-realized fire.
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Ember’s complexity called on independent Pixar departments to converge like the movie’s elements, bringing the animation and effects teams together in an unusual way. In the IndieWire article, co-directing animator Gwen Enderoglu shared the Pixar teams’ unconventional approach:
Usually animation and effects don’t interact. That was a totally new pipeline for us. Ember has this kind of fiery agitation to her and so much was leveled up once they brought in [voice actor Louis]. When we started our first sequence in animation back in December 2021, we didn’t know what the final look of the film was gonna be. We didn’t know what we were making until we got in there and made it, and so that was unusual for us.
Meant to emulate a flame on a gas range, Ember’s meticulous sculpting ebbs and flows with her emotions and movements throughout the film. The production designers had to put enormous effort into Ember’s layered animation as she transferred from her home, Fire Town, to Element City.
According to Sohn, the goal of Ember’s appearance was to “look 70 percent realistic and 30 percent stylized or cartoony.” With all the meticulous details behind the design of the fiery Ember and the elements, it bodes well for how deeply the characters can connect with the audience as they experience complex emotions.
Set to hit theaters on June 16, 2023; the highly-anticipated animated film features Leah Lewis as Ember Lumen, Mamoudou Athie voicing Wade, Catherine O’Hara portraying Brooke Ripple, Joe Perna as Fern, Wendy Mclendon-Covey playing Gale, Sheila Vosough as Cinder, Matthew Yang King behind Alan Ripple, and Ronnie del Carmen voicing Bernie.