“Elemental,” the 27th feature film from Pixar, marks yet another level of innovation for the animation studio. The movie, out June 16, tells the story of a city in which the residents are all anthropomorphic elements of nature.
Ember Lumen (voiced by Leah Lewis) is a fire element, prone to scorching outbursts. Wade Ripple (Mamoudou Athie) is an emotional water element who wells up easily. They’re attracted to each other, but they literally can’t mix.
Director Peter Sohn based the story in part on his own upbringing in New York City, where both his parents moved from Korea, knowing no one. He grew up in the Bronx amid various ethnic cultures and neighborhoods, longing to fit in.
This is the longtime Pixar animator’s second feature as director, following “The Good Dinosaur” (2015). While he and his creative team drew inspiration from previous Pixar films — the personified emotions of “Inside Out” (2015), the spirit figures of “Soul” (2020) — “Elemental” required previously untried techniques, Sohn said. We spoke with him via Zoom soon after his movie closed the Cannes Film Festival.
Q. I love the fact that the seed for this film came from science class and the periodic table.
A. Yeah. To me, it looked like a bunch of apartment complexes. Each box and square with the atomic number just reminded me of another window with some family back there. Then when I was pitching this, no one really understood what argon or boron was, so I boiled it down to the classic elements. And it all started from there.
Because I worked at Pixar, I got invited to the Festival of the Arts in the Bronx, and I invited my parents. I had this really silly speech. When I got there, I saw my family — my mom, my dad, my brother, and his wife — and I got extremely emotional. I saw their faces and what hit me was, I saw the city miles on my family. And how much they had worked, coming from another country, not knowing the language. Not having any money, and what they gave my brother and me. So onstage, I got overwhelmed, and I just thanked them for the sacrifices they made. I went back to the studio, and people were asking what the experience was like. I told them what I just told you, and they were like, “Peter, that’s your next movie.”
Q. When you said, “I want to go to CalArts and study animation,” your parents were probably like, “What?!?”
A. [Laughs] Yeah. So many of my friends have the same story: “There’s no way arts is going to make money. You’re gonna take over the store. You don’t have the education to be a doctor, so this is your future here.” Some people accepted that, and some fought it.
My father, he had these grocery stores, but then ultimately he had a frame shop. A guy came in who worked at an animated TV show, and my dad straight up asked him, “How much money do you make?” Once my father heard those numbers, he switched on a dime. But my mother still pushed back. When she was growing up, during the Korean War, she had a rough childhood. She wanted to be an artist, I found out later in my life. My brother found these drawings she had done when we were little kids, these beautiful drawings, and I was just gobsmacked.
Q. The characters in the film are amorphous. Was it easier to portray them because they could morph into anything, or harder?
A. It was so hard. When we first turned on these characters, the effect on Ember, she looked like a demon from “The Lord of the Rings.” The fire was so realistic, so scary-looking, that once we put eyes on it, she looked so weird. We didn’t want it looking like a suit that was on fire, or the Human Torch. We wanted a character that looked like it was made of fire, that had no understructure.
And then as hard as fire was, water was the monster. We started off with clear water, and you just saw right through him and it reflected everything behind him. But we got to the end. Many boffins died trying to get there, but it was a labor of love, for damn sure.
Q. You’ve talked about the lead characters and their fraught romance being based on classic romances. The best, like “Moonstruck,” are ones where the characters seem completely mismatched. Did you bring all those ideas to this film?
A. My grandmother’s dying words were, in Korean, “Marry Korean.” Growing up with that created a lot of culture clash and miscommunication. I fell in love with someone who was half-Italian, essentially a European mix, and that brought so many funny stories up — when I introduced her to my family, when I met her family.
I love that you bring up “Moonstruck.” Yes, they’re opposites, but they also have these holes in their lives. They’re both missing something. Some of my favorite movies have that concept, which is different from what the Pixar formula was, of a buddy movie, where they go through this misunderstanding and then they learn about each other. . . . I’m trying to deepen what a connection could be between fire and water.
Once we started using the element or the effect as a metaphor for human connection — for example, these characters are about to touch, and the boiling that happens in the arm could be goosebumps — [the story came together]. When Ember is angry, her fire explodes. Or the fire shrinks and she becomes candlelight — then she is vulnerable. Fragile, like a candle being blown out by the softest wind.
Q. Tell me about directing your first film, the short “Partly Cloudy.” You were probably about 10 years in at Pixar. What did it feel like to take that big step up for the first time?
A. Um, it was terrifying. All I wanted to do was bring characters to life. I loved storytelling and storyboarding, but taking that job was not something that was in my cards. But then my boss was like, “Hey, we love the work you’re doing. We want you to take a shot at making a short for ‘Up.’”
It’s a huge, scary responsibility. “The Good Dinosaur” didn’t perform as well as we all would have liked, but that thing was made very quickly — 18 months? The average film takes about five years here. I’m very proud of that film, but it wasn’t personal. This one is a very personal one. Both my parents passed away during the making of this film, and that brought some challenges. There were some dark versions of this film that I can now look back at and say, “Wow, that’s totally grief right there.”
Q. It’s been said that Russell [from “Up”] was based on your appearance. I love the character even more now.
A. [Laughs] We caricature each other all the time, and this artist drew me as a giant thumb with a hat. And that became the character.
Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of a voice actor in the movie “Elemental.” The actor’s name is Mamoudou Athie. The Globe regrets the error.