The Elements of an Immigrant Story

Immigration, Community, Fire and Water Mix in Pixar’s Latest
Wade and Ember, two very different elements, make a connection in Elemental City. Photo Credit: © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Arturo Hilario
El Observador

“What if the elements we all know were alive?”

Those were some of the first words we heard at Pixar’s press day from Peter Sohn, the Korean-American director of Pixar’s latest work, Elemental, which tells a story of immigration, cities, and most importantly, acknowledging the sacrifices of one’s own family.

You may ask how earth elements have to do with the emotional themes of family and immigration?

Elemental explores cities, diversity, society and of course, family, in a brand-new setting that has pushed Pixar’s creative forces more than ever. Over the course of seven years this film has sprouted from its own mix of elements into one of Pixar’s most personal and moving stories.

Elemental City is a metropolis made up of different elemental boroughs, like NYC, which encompass elemental beings made up of wind, water, fire and earth. The main characters of this story are Ember and Wade, two highly different elements, fire and water, from two highly different backgrounds and families.

The two meet in a random encounter, and as the story hits its stride we are introduced to more and more of the incredible art and architecture of the city, the pulsating and color-washed neighborhoods reminiscent of brownstones and skyscrapers, busy commutes on the metro which glides over waterways like the most impressive water slide that never plummets.

While the incredibly imaginative and diverse world of Element City is built on Pixar’s custom, cutting edge technology, the story and its motivations are taken straight from the immigrant experiences of its director, producer, as well as the people at Pixar Studios and beyond.

Elemental Director Peter Sohn & Elemental Producer Denise Ream. Photo Credit: Deborah Coleman / Pixar

An Idea & Korean Parents

Peter Sohn first had the idea for Elemental in his youth, where he drew a busy neighborhood street on paper, the apartments housed the different elements of the periodic table and he found humor in how the different chemical substances interacted.

Sohn says, “I had messed around in school a lot, just a daydreamer. And my mom yelled at me all the time for all my textbooks, [they] just had drawings in them and she would get so mad.”

That’s where the idea ended then. Just some doodles for fun.

“And then this idea of the parents came from just personal experiences of growing up, not understanding my parents and what they had done, what they had gone through.”

It wasn’t until years later that the secondary piece of the equation, the meat of the story, revealed itself when Sohn, coming back to his hometown of the Bronx to accept an award, gave a personal speech with his Korean immigrant parents in the audience.

As he spoke, he saw his parents sitting there, watching him thank them for giving him the opportunity at a life where he could become an animator, a director, someone who could bring life to his dreams in the US. The emotions of watching their reactions had Sohn reflect on his life growing up as a first-generation Korean-American in a bustling, diverse Bronx neighborhood in the cultural center of the world.

“They went through the Korean war, they had all this stuff that you had heard stories of, but I was just so immature that I was like, “whatever, just get me a sandwich.” I was just very disrespectful because I didn’t understand. But as I grew up, I just started really appreciating everything that they had done. And the older I got, the more sort of milestones that I had through. When I had kids, I was like, “how did they do this?” My father had Lyme disease, my mother couldn’t run their shop, and how did they even do this without the language? They didn’t have a community.”

He adds, “and then it’s just this insane gratefulness grew inside me that became that ingredient. So then by the time I got to this part, at this point, it was just sort of a lucky sort of connection of these disparate elements that somehow symbolically, metaphorically started to work together.”

Immigrant Stories & a Good Dino

As the story of Elemental harnesses the story of Peter and his family, it also tells the the stories of many other immigrant stories from Pixar, and people outside of the company that shared their stories during the course of production, it became a celebration of parents, and the power of family love over any obstacles. “You can point to so many moments in the film that came from my story, from our friends and coworkers here,” says Sohn.

Producer Denise Ream expanded on this with her own family story. “My great grandmother, Mary Keegan, came from Ireland to Boston all by herself in 1880. Like all of my ancestors before her, she came to America hoping for a better life.”

“As Pete and I were developing the story, we spoke to many of our coworkers about their experiences with immigration. Their accounts were really inspiring, influenced the story, and we were really thrilled to see that kind of authenticity show up on screen as we were making the movie. ”

Sohn and Ream had previously worked together on 2015’s The Good Dinosaur, where they first collaborated as a Director/Producer tandem. For this film, the stakes were much higher and the simplicity of that movie’s story was just a memory as they took on the complex and highly personal story of Elemental.

It’s even made more personal because during the course of production, Sohn lost both his parents, and Ream lost her father.

“[The Good Dinosaur] wasn’t as personal as this one. And so that was a very different experience for me. There were times where the experience of losing someone, like a support system, we didn’t need to talk about stuff that I didn’t really talk to her about [then]. I wasn’t going through anything personal other than the job being really freaking crazy. But on this show, I went through a lot,” says Sohn.

Ream adds, “Yeah, the pandemic was hard, us not being together. There have been ups and downs. I lost my mother as well. So we’ve lived quite a big life, you know, in the seven years.”

But just as there is loss and struggle in the stories of many immigrants and families, there is also uplifting joy that comes from raising generations in a new place and creating communities and connections.

Sohn says, “there were fun stories, too. There were so many crazy stories about interracial love and parents that were pushing on certain foods and tasting American food for the first time. And there are such rich stories that were sad, but then hilarious too. it’s that richness that was so amazing that we wanted to honor.”

The Product of Reactions

So with the power of Pixar’s animation and the power of Pixar’s immigrant stories, there is now a highly personal tale that weaves so many of the lives that we have heard from in our own communities, those that journeyed to faraway places for a chance at a better opportunity.

The large technical feats that Pixar has created in order to elevate the storytelling is one huge compelling story on its own, but this story is the one about the people and their experiences, and how an immigrant story becomes a Pixar story.

Now that the film gets polished and finalized for release in June, both Sohn and Ream are preparing for the end of this journey with some final thoughts on the process of making Elemental.

Ream says, “it’s emotional, but I’m proud. And what I want to do is I want to enjoy – I love the movie. It’s not out there yet. And I just want to enjoy and honor the great work that everyone did. That’s what I want the next couple of months to be about. We’re going to go start [finalizing] at the studio and we get to see all the music and the sound effects together. And I just want to enjoy every minute. But I’m so proud.”

Sohn adds, “so proud. It’s bittersweet, for sure. We were talking about it earlier; it just feels like you raised this child and now it’s going off. And you hope you taught the child well enough. And “do your laundry, kid.””

“We put everything we had in this movie, everything we could. I can tell you without a doubt, I put everything I could for the last seven years into this thing. And so now that it’s going out, there’s sort of a bittersweet thing to say bye. Bye project that we worked on and put everything we could put into it. I hope you have a good life.”

Elemental is out only in theaters June 16, 2023.

Photo Caption1: Wade and Ember, two very different elements, make a connection in Elemental City. Photo Credit: © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Photo Caption2: Elemental Director Peter Sohn. Photo Credit: Deborah Coleman / Pixar

Photo Caption3: Elemental Producer Denise Ream. Photo Credit: Deborah Coleman / Pixar

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