He Was Thrilled to Be at the Helm of the Newest Disney Film. Then the Unthinkable Happened. Twice.

pixar elemental background and director peter sohn
Credit: PIXAR/PIXAR Wiki/Canva

The director of Disney’s upcoming animated film was thrilled to be at the helm of an exciting new flick for PIXAR. And when the unthinkable happened–twice–he decided to make something beautiful within the story of his new film.

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peter sohn director pixar's elemental

Credit: Disney Wiki/PIXAR Animation Studios/Canva

Peter Sohn might not be a household name, but to fans of PIXAR films, his voice may be familiar. That’s because he has shared his voice with several PIXAR characters over the year, including Emile, Remy’s brother in Ratatouille (2007), Squishy in Monsters University (2013), and Sox the robotic kitten in Lightyear (2022). He directed PIXAR’s The Good Dinosaur (2015) and voiced the Styracosaurus in the film named Forrest Woodbush. And Russell, the young boy and Wilderness Explorer in PIXAR’s Up (2009) was drawn based on Sohn’s appearance.

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In May 2022, PIXAR announced its latest project, the studio’s 27th animated feature film titled Elemental, set in Element City, a bustling place where all the elements–air, earth, water, fire, etc.–live and work. The main characters are Ember, a fiery female full of quick wit who has chosen to remain close to home in Firetown, and Wade, an empathetic, 20-something water guy who’s a great listener, very observant, and brimming with compassion and emotions and works in Element City as an inspector.

Elemental Screencap - Ember looks nervous - Pixar Post

Credit: PIXAR Animation Studios

“In a city where fire, water, land, and air residents live together, a fiery young woman and a go-with-the-flow guy are about to discover something elemental–how much they actually have in common.” That’s the story of Elemental in a nutshell, as described by PIXAR Animation Studios. But for Sohn, that’s just the beginning, though he says the source of inspiration for the story of Elemental started very simply, with a drawing of a campfire and a bucket of water.

“That’s the first [idea], and then they became characters,” Sohn explained. “Fire would be a smoky voice, and then water would be a cooler voice, so that idea of trying to find the external layer of the voice to have some characteristic that would tie to the element.”

But both the inspiration and the story of PIXAR’s Elemental have grown and changed a great deal since Sohn’s initial ideas, as evidenced by the film’s newest trailer, released by the studios on Friday after the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival as its closing offering.

PIXAR’s latest trailer for Elemental shows fans one final look inside the world of Elemental City before the film opens at the box office next month, but what it doesn’t show is the heartbreak and tragedy that took place during the production of the film–heartbreak and tragedy that ultimately lent themselves to the development of the final story.

As usual for a film from PIXAR, Elemental showcases state-of-the-art, incomparable visual effects. The bodies of the elements, some of which are made totally of fire or water, are constantly in motion, giving PIXAR’s artists a tall order, and the creation of Element City took some of PIXAR’s finest thousands of hours to complete. But even in a PIXAR film, the brilliant animation and visual effects mean very little unless they are breathing life into a story equally as brilliant and developed–a story writers are excited to tell and the audience is excited to hear.

Elemental | Disney Movies

Credit: PIXAR Animation Studios

Peter Sohn, in his capacity as the film’s director, had that kind of story. In fact, he had so much to tell in the storyline that early on in the film’s development, the story took a dark turn, as if serving as a reflection of Sohn’s own inner turmoil and grief. Shortly after production started for Elemental, Sohn’s father, one of the main inspirations for the film, unexpectedly died. Sohn, a second-generation Korean immigrant, began to think about the many hardships both of his parents faced when they came to the United States, and resentment took over, ultimately seeping into the earliest versions of the Elemental story.

“I wanted to capture [my parents’ experiences] in the film, but I did it in a very dark way when my dad died,” Sohn said. “I definitely went off the rails. It was rage. I had [presented] a set of reels that were really dark, and no one on the team was connecting with it. That was a really dark place for me.”

But just before the filmmaking process wrapped, the unthinkable happened again. Sohn’s mother died, shaking the ambitious director to his core. Thankfully, the film was already in a much more positive and hopeful place, as Sohn’s PIXAR family had worked hard to support him through the loss of his father, reminding him that the story itself wasn’t born from a place of anger.

“That darker aspect of the story is still part of the movie,” Sohn explained. “But as I started to find closure with my father, I started to find balance in the story to honor his experience without the story being about that. I wanted the story to be about inclusion and love.”

Together, Peter Sohn and the team at PIXAR re-infused optimism and hope into the story of Elemental, and the result is beautiful.

Per Den of Geek Magazine:

“On its surface, Elemental may appear to be another PIXAR family drama, with its cute non-human characters and vibrant colors. But the film’s subject matter couldn’t be more grounded and real and hasn’t been covered in any of the studio’s previous films. Sohn had a difficult time being vulnerable enough to share some of the more personal aspects of his family’s story. But for him, going to that uncomfortable place was an absolute necessity. ‘The hunt to try to find something real in the work that we’re doing demands vulnerability,’ Sohn says. ‘It’s very scary, but that’s just a part of making art.'”

Designing Element City & Its Residents For Pixar's Elemental

Credit: PIXAR Animation Studios

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!