‘Elemental’: How Director Peter Sohn’s Experience on ‘The Good Dinosaur’ Informed His New Pixar Film

“Elemental,” the new Pixar feature where the elements (earth, air, water and fire) are andromorphic characters living in a vast, technologically advanced city, is nearly here. It’ll premiere at the Cannes Film Festival later this month and you can buy your tickets now for the stateside debut on June 16. And for director Peter Sohn, it serves as the culmination of seven – yes, seven – years of hard work on his sophomore film and the culmination of a journey that began at the end of his first feature, “The Good Dinosaur.”

TheWrap spoke with Sohn and producer Denise Ream at Pixar Animation Studios about the unlikely origins of the film and why it took so long.

“So much of the time was figuring out the pipeline,” Sohn explained. “Because none of this had been done before. We were pulling people together for these experimental runs. There was a lot of happened in seven years for us.”

The lengthy production was actually something he knew he needed, from experience.

Sohn recalled making his short film “Partly Cloudy,” which was released in 2009 and attached theatrically to Pete Docter’s “Up.” At the time, making a character out of clouds was super difficult; the technical team asked if he wanted to push back the project a couple of years so they could noodle with the technology. Sohn refused. “But the film, in terms of the look, you can see the places where it suffers that choice,” Sohn admits now. This helped him inform his decision to push for a longer time on “Elemental.”

“I understood that moving down the deadline was going to be very helpful for us,” Sohn said.

Ream said that they maybe could have made the movie in five years, but even that would have been pushing it.

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Time has never been on Sohn’s side. And “Elemental” feels like Sohn’s first true movie, especially after he was given “The Good Dinosaur” after the original director was removed and the storyline heavily reworked (for a while the movie had no director, with several filmmakers at Pixar contributing to the project). He had a truncated schedule and a movie that had to be reworked, almost from the ground up. And after that big crush the film was met with a decidedly muted response.

“I definitely remember feeling that the film wasn’t connecting, and how hard it was. I’m feeling very proud of the film that we have done in such a short amount of time,” Sohn said. “But I it did do one thing for me that was really interesting was it mirrored the journey, meaning the story making of itself, I didn’t see it at the time until after it was all done, did I see like holy cow that’s really parallel to what I went through – Arlo  was thrown into this wilderness, that I was also thrown into this job that I had never done before.”

“I was really sad. I was heartbroken,” said Ream, who also produced “The Good Dinosaur.” “It represented the hard work so many people. It was really hard to do a whole movie in such a short amount of time. I felt really badly for our team and for Pixar.”

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Sohn new that his next film had to be deeply personal. “I had only had heard stories, that there’s a danger that when you do something personal, you’re going to start to lock down and you won’t let it evolve,” Sohn said. “There are moments of the film where it was like that for me. I lost my dad early on in the development and I started getting really like tight about things. I didn’t know consciously what was going on. There was just processing,” Sohn said.

In fact, the beginnings of “Elemental” are actually connected to something from “The Good Dinosaur.” When “The Good Dinosaur” was opening, Sohn would talk about how he was from the Bronx. That led to an opportunity for Sohn to do a speech in the Bronx about what it was like growing up there. His parents came and got dressed up and when Sohn was standing in front of the crowd, he threw away the note cards he had (which were scribbled with notes). He says that, now, he doesn’t remember what he said but he was so moved to be there and to be able to thank his parents for all the things that he appreciated now that he didn’t appreciate as a kid.

When he got back to Pixar, after “The Good Dinosaur” underperformed and he had done this engagement, he told this story. And Pixar brass said (according to Sohn), “Pete that’s your next film. That’s the film you have to do.” Sohn said that was when the idea “began forming.” “It was from this hard experience that turned into something that has been very positive in different ways,” Sohn said.

The resulting film, which centers on an immigrant family of fire characters and their impetuous daughter Ember (Leah Lewis), who has to navigate a world that was, quite literally, not built for her, feels warm and relatable and imaginative. It’s the kind of movie that Sohn was always meant to make and one that he finally has. His father would have been very proud.

“Elemental” debuts in theaters June 16.

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