By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Disney/Pixar.
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By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Disney/Pixar.
Hardly elementary to put together is the original romantic comedy Elemental from Pixar, where a new arrival to a city inhabited by Water, Earth, Air and Fire enters into a relationship that crosses the class divide. The story was inspired in part by a science class joke. “When I looked at the Periodic Table, all I could see was this apartment complex,” chuckles filmmaker Peter Sohn (The Good Dinosaur). “To make the pitch more acceptable to everyone, I boiled it down to the classical elements fire, water, earth and air.” The subject matter is personal in nature, he reveals. “I lost both of my parents during the making of Elemental, and this film has a great deal to do with appreciating our parents and the sacrifices that they make for us. It has been this interesting emotional ride.”
Given the nature of the characters, effects were an essential aspect of their design, with Sohn having to readjust his expectations. “There were lots of articles last year about how tremendously difficult the hours can be in the visual effects industry, and with so many projects going into streaming and features getting so big, that there were some eye-opening ways to produce this material that I was guilty of. I pulled back on a lot of that in the middle of last year. I went in knowing the gameplan of what we were going to get to do, but because my parents had died, I was like, ‘This is to honor them! We’ve got to go further.’ The crew has been a tremendous support in this process, and they have lifted the film in ways that I will forever be grateful for.”
One of the hardest aspects was to make sure that the characters actually look like they are made from their designated element, such as “Ember [Leah Lewis] and Wade [Mamoudou Athie] as our main characters, Fire and Water,” states Sohn. “Ember was the most challenging to get to her look. I remember seeing Ghost Rider as a kid and going, ‘A character with a fiery head.’ The fire was so realistic and meant to be scary. Then there was Jack-Jack in The Incredibles who goes on fire. It’s hard to make a fire character that does gaseous without a solid substructure there. Character Designer Daniel López Muñoz took iPhone footage of a fire in his backyard, pulled out the frames and painted over them this fire character; he made these eyes blink on it that was caricature enough where these eyes could fit. Ember’s fire was more forgiving, where Wade became more difficult as the production went on because of the way his rig worked and simulations on top of his shaders and the caustics inside of him; there weren’t a lot of places to hide.”
Reinventing the character pipeline was Bill Reeves, Global Technology Supervisor. “The character gets animated in animation using the standard Pixar pipeline in terms of what you see on the animator’s screens. Its surfaces, polygons as you will. You don’t see the fire. Then they check in their work saying, ‘This shot is done.’ We convert it over to feed into Katana and RenderMan and we render. In the course of that conversion, we feed it into Houdini to generate volumetric pyro simulations and stylize it. It comes out the back end and eventually gets into Katana and then into RenderMan. [For] the part of the pipeline that goes into Houdini and back out again, we had little bits of it here and there. However, Ember is in 95% of the shots, so we had to run that pipeline over and over again. There is a lot of simulation involved with Wade because his hair is like a fountain that is bubbling. That’s another Houdini set of tasks. Then the Air character is another set of simulations to generate the flowing air wisps. The only simple set of characters are the Earth characters, but they’ve got a lot more geometry than Woody and Buzz Lightyear.
An effort was made to limit the number of elemental characters to 10 in a shot. “But we blew passed that,” Reeves laughs. “There is a sequence called Air Stadium in the movie where there are thousands of them.” A new approach was developed for crowd simulations. “It doesn’t actually go into Houdini for every character, but it is volume deform kind of thing. When the characters are further away, it’s one simulation that we’re copying around and deforming in Houdini, but it’s a 10- to 20-second Houdini call rather than an Ember simulation, which is four or five hours easy.”
Compositing was leaned on heavily when it came to lighting. “It’s mainly a way of dealing with the complexities of this world of pushing a lot more lighting layers into Nuke and composting and tweaking the end result there, rather than having to go back and re-render. You can work faster because it’s a more interactive system when you have the data. That was something we worked hard on and did a lot more on this show than on other ones,” Reeves observes.
To assist animators, a toolkit was developed by Sanjay Bakshi, Visual Effects Supervisor. Comments Bakshi, “We had to animate things like when Ember gets mad, not just the facial expression and the body language, but what does the fire do? Since animators are experts at the timing of that, it had to be synchronized with their acting choices. We had to give them some visual indication. Our simulation and shading artists were changing a bunch of knobs to get it to feel like what sadness is. Then we map that to one number so there is a sadness control. It was like a zero to 10 kind of thing. More effort was put into fire because Ember is the main character and goes through the most emotions.” Transparency and the speed of the fire help to convey emotion. “When Ember becomes vulnerable her flames become a lot more transparent and candle-like in the movement,” Bakshi notes. “For anger, we did use color. Ember goes into more purple; that’s her signature anger look. A lot of the story is about her being angry and not understanding why, then learning through the movie how to control her anger and why she is angry.”
Much of the action takes place in Element City. “The Fire folks live in Firetown, and there are Water, Air and Earth districts,” Bakshi explains. “Pete wanted these districts to have the elements built into the architecture and infrastructure, so we did a bunch of set dressings, like a streetlamp in the Fire district would have some fire on it. Our set dressers could place them, and the fire simulations would come along for the ride. The buildings and architecture have fire and water simulations built into them, so that the set dressers could do their work and get these simulations that would just happen. That was another big component.” Instancing was essential in making rendering manageable. “For fire simulations in Firetown, there were probably 25 to 30 of them that get reused over and over and instanced. The lamps are all instanced. It’s all of the same simulation, just offset in time so they don’t look identical,” Bakshi notes.
Getting the look of the characters locked down was difficult with them being effects dependent. “We partnered with Dan Lund who is a traditional effects animator from Disney,” remarks Gwendelyn Enderoglu, Directing Animator. “He talked about applying animation principles into 2D effects and how the same principles that we use in 3D in our characters, we could still pull and learn from that. One of them being, what are you trying to tell in the shot is key and how can effects support that? What we did learn from our 2D tests early on was that there was going to be a lot of fun to be had with volumetric changes, which is something that our characters don’t typically do. We also learned quickly how tear-offs of fire or water droplets added an immediate believability to their ‘elementalness,’ so we worked with our rigging team to develop prop fire and water, which we could then use in our animation testing early on. That became a critical element in the film. If Ember has a limb detached, rather than breaking off the rig of the limb, we would cheat into prop fire that would match the traits of Ember’s fire and then it could dissipate.”
Essential was a close collaboration established between animation and character effects departments. “We worked closely with simulations typically on a film, but jumping all of the ways to character effects, that was a new relationship that was formed,” Enderoglu notes. “A term that one of us might use in animation about stylization could be interpreted so differently by a different department. It took us awhile to create a more common language to be able to talk about shots, problems and issues or what looks we were chasing in animation.”
Most of the animators came from working on Lightyear, which was grounded in real human acting. Enderoglu adds, “It did take a bit to adjust to the looseness and constant sense of motion that we needed to have for these characters to feel believable. Something would be funny in the Presto version because of the snappy timing, but we needed those four frames for the pyro to catch up. We did have to learn the language of that as we went.” Lattice controls were overhauled. “Those were far more robust in terms of regional controls than what we have had in the past. That was critical. A quarter of the shots required lattices to do some organic and major shape changes. Beyond that, a lot of the animation was within the rigs themselves.”
Unlike previous Pixar movies where the top portion of a character’s head or the chin could be cropped out of frame, this was not possible for Elemental. “We knew right away talking early on with Pete that 1.85:1 was going have to be the way to shoot something like this,” remarks David Juan Bianchi, DP, Camera. “We were aware that the pyro and flames of Ember were going to be so important, not just for her look but how to tell her emotional state. What is it doing? What is the color in her flames? We needed to go wide and vertical. I asked the engineering teams to try to give us a camera that matched large format photography, and this allowed me to shoot wider lenses. We wanted to have that extra dial of being able to have a shallow depth of field at certain moments, and having this large format version of our Pixar camera allowed us to do that.”
Reflecting various emotional tones and worlds throughout Elemental is the camera style. “There was a language for Firetown,” Bianchi explains. “We primarily shot that with wide-angle lenses, and the camera is more at the character’s eye level as if someone was hand-operating the camera. When going to Element City we introduced Water characters like Wade’s family living in an apartment made of water. Then we started to have a different camera language. There were Steadicam and Technocrane moves so it felt like the camera was rotating and floating, and longer lenses. When Ember and Wade from these two worlds intersect and interact with each other, we cherry-picked elements from both to make what I called the romance love element or Ember Wade language. Hopefully, it underscores and supports the story of where our two characters are at and where they ended up.”
Rather than just dealing with practical sources like lamps and natural ones such as sunlight, for Jean-Claude (JC) Kalache, DP, lighting had to take in account the characters themselves being light sources. “Ember is a self-illuminated gas, and the way we solved the exposure issue is we exposed everything except Ember. We made a conscious decision that animation would drive her energy, and lighting we’ll treat almost like a lightbulb on dimmer switch. When you think of water, everything is a light source. Water is reflective, refractive and shows through. It captures the whole environment. It was a big mind-bender. The brain is good at realizing what water looks like, but lucky for us, we were stylizing water, so you can break down the five or 10 components that make water look like water, but then you can move them around. It took a good part of the full year just to learn how to make our main Water character appealing.” Then there were the Air characters. Adds Kalache, “I remember looking at the overnight render and it was wonderfully beautiful pink light filling the whole train. Offscreen there was an Air character that was blasted by the sun.”
“The premise of this whole movie is that these elements cannot exist together,” Kalache remarks. “Yin and yang. Firetown is dry, smoky and less reflective. What is the opposite of that? It is a city with glass, water, reflections, and everything is bouncing. Lighting a glass building is a pain because you can’t shape them. We literally treated the buildings of Element City as a character, and we were lighting them as if we were studio-lighting a human, putting special rim and kick lights [on them]. One thing that was revealed quickly was a Water character is dependent on the environment around them, especially what is behind them. When Wade goes to or is in Element City, we quickly noticed if the buildings behind him were busy, it was impossible to look at him because you could see right through him. However, if we took the sunlight and made it slightly ramped down right behind him, conveniently things calmed down and he looked appealing.”
Kalache made an observation that surprised the director. “I remember telling Pete, ‘The world is the light. What do you expect in your character?’ Soon after, animation would come in to talk to him about what they expected from the performance. Then soon after, the effects people would come and talk about what they expected from their character effects. It took all of these conversations to eventually end up with characters that worked for Pete.”