Recently we had an opportunity to speak with Paula Assadourian, a Story Artist at Pixar who gave insight into the creation and development of the story within the sprawling world of Pixar’s newest film, Elemental, which hits theaters June 16, 2023.
This immigrant-inspired story takes place in a world where elements of the periodic table live together in one big city, and follows opposites Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) and Wade Ripple (voiced by Mamoudou Athie), who are literally made of water and fire, respectively. Their story is one of family duty, immigrant viewpoints, and love.
Assadourian, who is originally from Mexico, has been at Pixar for five years, originally starting on the 2021 film Soul, then jumping to work on Turning Red, and now working on the highly anticipated Inside Out 2.
While working on Elemental, Assadourian helped the story team on several aspects of the narrative alongside Director Peter Sohn, trying to fine tune the main idea of the movie while bringing her personality into the script, specifically aspects of family, love, and her favorite genre, romcoms.
In this interview find out more about the teamwork that led to the creation of the story of Elemental, and how Assadourian relates to the movie’s immigrant story and the quest to find oneself.
Can you tell me a little bit about what your journey was to end up in the animation field and to work at Pixar?
Yeah, so I’ve always loved drawing since I was little, but I never knew you could have a job as an artist. And so it took me a long time to get here. In Mexico at some point I went to a school called Tecnológico de Monterrey, and over there they have a program that is like animation, but it’s very technical and it’s like programming and coding and math and all this stuff.
And so I started there, and then slowly I found, like, I kind of fell in love with drawing again, and I started watching a lot of movies and got very inspired by Japanese and French and animation and eventually made my way to Canada, where I made a short film. And from there I ended up going to school in Los Angeles.
So I’ve always felt that it took me kind of longer than everyone else, I feel, because I feel like people who grew up in California, they grew up knowing that animation was a job. And it took me longer, but I think it also helped me kind of grow a little bit outside of that world and bring my experiences back into the field.
And especially being a story artist, it’s very much about how you can plug in the ideas from the director and bring your own personal experience to it. And I’m very proud of how my origins in Mexico and growing up there has shaped me to who I am, and then I can bring all these ideas into my work here at Pixar.
From your perspective as a story artist, at which point in the timeline of creating the film do you come in?
It depends on when they bring you in. Usually the director has already found a writer, and they’ve worked together on giving life to this project. So as a story artist, you either get a general prompt, like, “can you please explore this aspect of this character?” Or “what are fun things that could happen between these two characters?” Or “we need more comedy,” or they need help here or there. It can be vaguer or it can also be like, you get a scene with script pages and you kind of board exactly the vision that the director already has.
In my case, I started out pretty early, so I kind of got an early pass at kind of their love story. And we got to have a lot of conversations about love and what is that like, and how do you fall in love and how does your perception of the person change over time, and kind of what are the preconceived notions that you come for when you’re meeting a person, especially as a woman?
Ember, I think she’s a very strong character, and so she might have very kind of fixed ideas of what men are like, or she’s had bad experiences dating, and then kind of how someone could completely change these expectations.
And so it was really fun, it was a very open room where people could contribute, and I remember having lots of conversations with the director about just, like, dating life and what it’s like, and so we could bring these things to just make it feel more authentic and real and nuanced.
What are some aspects of your contributions on Elemental that people can look out for when watching the film?
Yeah, the movie has changed a lot, and especially it’s such a collaborative process that we all kind of build on top of each other’s ideas. But I think a section I’m really proud of, it’s in the trailer, but when Ember has a moment alone, and she has already kind of started to fall for Wade. And she lives in a city where all the elements are interacting together. And she used to think, like, water = bad, air = bad, or just to think things are dangerous and you need to stay in your lane. And then because her relationship to not only Wade, but water, now water represents Wade.
And so I drew inspiration from books and other things. So, if she sees water in the city after meeting Wade, she’s going to kind of identify it with him. And so there’s like a very sweet moment in which she looks at water in a different way. And I remember when we talked about that. I’m proud of little things like that.
So what were some challenges as a story artist for this project?
I think just for all the movies, “what is exactly what you’re trying to say?” because this is mostly a story about family and a story about individuality versus family or kind of duty versus your own path. We were kind of like, “what is heavier in this movie? Should it be the father’s relationship with Ember? Should we just embrace the full love story? Which one is it?”
Both are related and both are going to inform each other, but I think it’s really the director’s [task], they have to go through this long process of soul searching, and then the story will tell you what it wants to be.
I think it’s kind of like presenting so many options to the director and then having to pick. I think that’s the thing, because I love stories and I want to make a romcom, and I think that’s one of my favorite genres. But I think for Peter Sohn, it was very important, the part about kind of the family dynamics and what gets inherited and the expectations that are put on you from parents, especially immigrant parents, and how in the story, Wade is a very big part of unlocking something for Ember, but it’s not only about that.
And so I think it was a process itself, but it was a very enjoyable process.
As an immigrant to this country, how do you connect with this story that is about not only unlocking yourself, but coming to a new place and establishing yourself?
Yeah, no, definitely. I think because I was the one who immigrated to the US to come to study and then work, it’s different than Ember’s story because it’s not that my parents sacrificed everything to give me a better life here or anything like that. It’s a different kind of immigrant story.
I think the part that I can relate is where you have to make a very clear choice of whether you stay near your family and kind of respond to that kind of duty that is so ingrained in our culture, in Latin culture.
Or do you make yourself so happy by being, in my case, an artist? It’s like a thing that is very hard to figure out. And so that’s why I relate to Ember. But I think I didn’t have that kind of pressure from my parents. They never told me “no,” it’s more like an internal struggle.
But I think ultimately, doing what makes you happy, especially if it’s like a kind of soul-level happy, then I feel like it helps you show up for your community better. At least I hope so, even though it’s hard. But, yeah, I am very proud that we’re making a story about immigrants in the studio, and I think people are really going to like it.
Elemental is in theaters June 16, 2023.