Ember and Wade, the principal characters in Disney and Pixar’s ‘Elemental’, are visual effects in their own right – one is Fire, the other, Water. Director Peter Sohn, from the onset, accentuated that Ember is made of fire (not on fire), and Wade is comprised of water (not a container of water), while also challenging his crew to find a balance between realism and stylisation.
“Pete was adamant that Ember should be composed of fire, and her movements should mimic the characteristics of fire, without adhering to a rigid, skeletal structure,” visual effects supervisor, Sanjay Bakshi, explains. “For instance, when she reaches for an object, her arm can elongate and become very slender, just like fire. We not only wanted to portray Ember’s anger through her posture, eyebrows, and facial expression, but we also intended to alter the characteristics of the fire when she became angry.”
This is where effects supervisor Stephen Marshall and his team came into the picture.
“A major part of our task was to figure out how to portray Fire and Water as sentient characters that exhibit relatable emotions without being overly distracting,” Marshall states. “We had to develop a lot of that technology at the initial stages and it required ample resources. This included technologies we hadn’t utilised before, like machine learning. A large part of it involved deconstructing our previous knowledge about our effects pipeline and constructing a new pipeline around it.”
In order to bring Ember and Wade to life, along with a complex backdrop, an additional phase of production was implemented to run simulations on the characters in every frame of the film. Marshall points out that the filmmakers adjusted their pipeline to allow more time after animation to tackle the massive effects and intricate lighting needs. Every effort was made in the service of the story as artists, storytellers, and technicians collaborated to tell the story of a spirited Fire woman on her journey of self-discovery with a laid-back Water man.
To accomplish Ember and the other Fire characters’ unique, stylised look, Pixar tapped into resources at Disney Research Studios in Zurich, Switzerland. Bakshi explains that this allowed them to “organise the flames into more stylised shapes using a machine learning technique called Volumetric Neural Style Transfer, something we’ve never done before.”
If the flames were “too realistic,” he adds, it would have been “distracting and not as illustrative as we would have liked.”
He further adds, “Utilising techniques developed by crowds technical supervisor Paul Kanyuk and the Disney Research Studios team, it organises the flames into much more appealing shapes. This really unlocked a lot for us – like a magic trick!”
Throughout the production, Marshall adds, “There was a dialogue between the technology and art department to discover what was working and what wasn’t. It involved gathering a bunch of experts – a fire expert, a shading expert, an animation expert, a rigging expert, and a lighting expert – in the same room and iterating until we found the right balance. It was about assembling different technologies and teaching them to work together.”
Without the team’s persistent efforts to balance realism with stylisation, Bakshi concludes, “I don’t believe people could connect with the characters on an emotional level.”
Disney and Pixar’s ‘Elemental’ is now showing in cinemas.