The Digital Alchemy of Pixar's Elemental

How two Austin creatives found ways to mix fire and water

The physics of attraction: Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) and Wade (Mamoudou), the embodiments of the massive technical challenges tackled by the team behind Elemental. (Image Courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

If you're the kind of person to stick around through the closing credits of animated films – say for example, Pixar's Elemental – to see the little playful details added just for fun, you may see a job title and wonder, exactly what does that mean?

Take the job of global technology technical director. As former Austinite Aksel Taylan explains, "We're in charge of solving big technical challenges."

Same question for another ex-Austinite, Production Manager Dana Frankoff. "Basically we manage the pipeline, make sure that everything gets done from A to Z," she explains. "Production works under the producer, we make sure that everything stays on time, it's within the budget."

Specifically, she worked with the light team, and that's a particular challenge in Elemental. Most animated scenes or features, you have a character, and you light them. Not here. In Elemental, surfaces don't just bounce light back. Clouds dissipate light, fire emits its own illumination and flickers, and water refracts and reflects. And this time, they're not just part of the scenery. They are the characters. In Elemental, fiery Ember Lumen (Leah Lewis) and her family live in the ghetto in Element City reserved for fire people – literal fire people. So how can she possibly find herself attracted to the watery Wade (Mamoudou), as they are not just culturally divided, but to touch seems against the laws of physics. And how did the team animated that?

Taylan called Elemental "one of the most challenging films Pixar's ever done, technically. ... Every single character was essentially this dynamic complex simulation that had to be animated and be an emoting character, and we had to render all of that. And we had huge crowd scenes." This meant pushing their Volumetric character technology and the Crowds team to work on innovative and novel solutions "without blowing up our computers."

Austin Chronicle: This isn't just about recreating real world physics. Every animated feature is aiming for a particular look and feel, so what was that look and feel for Elemental?

Dana Frankoff, production manager on Pixar's Elemental
Dana Frankoff: You have very different kinds of characters interacting. So Ember, she's made of fire, so there are some moments where you can see what we called her inner light. And there's like four or five scenes where you can see this radiance around her, and every time I see the film I'm like, 'Oh, wow, here's this little effect and then it passes, and people have no idea what we put into all of that.' It was six months to a year figuring our the pre-viz, and then getting on the same page with the director and then fine-tuning it.

It was very specific to each character, so in typical Pixar fashion we took a lot of time to make it very deliberate and get on the same page that it really resembled her emotions. And then you've got Wade, and it's the same thing, but it's internal bubbles, and there were a lot of questions about the quantity of his bubbles, and when he starts to get hot and morphs. And so many times we had to go, 'Is Ember reflecting well in his eyes?'

Pixar's such a well-oiled machine, except for the fact that we keep coming up with all these very innovative ideas, and we have to come up with new technology and work around it.

AC: And that's a major part of what Pixar does, innovate technology. At the same time, technology changes while you're in production, so how do you integrate all of that?

Aksel Taylan, global technology technical director on Pixar's Elemental
Aksel Taylan: At the beginning of the film, the leaders of the show knew there were going to be some big technical projects to get this film made. Luckily, we were coming after Soul, which had Volumetric characters in it, so a lot of the groundwork was done on that film to create a pipeline where we could achieve these Volumetric characters.

The characters on Soul, they're not exactly as complicated or dynamic or as many of them, and half the film is in the human world, so it wasn't as intense as Elemental, so we knew we had to make improvements to that infrastructure.

The system, which we call Hexport, is a wraparound for Houdini, which is usually for visual effects – smoke, fire, water. It's what the visual effects team generally uses, but in this film we used it in multiple departments.

The other side is that we knew that that pipeline is really expensive in time and memory and disc space. So, for example, Ember's runtime through Hexport, is something like 20 hours for a single shot. So we had these sequences in the film that have thousands of characters, and we knew that it wasn't going to be possible to run Hexport on every character for every frame for every shot. That would be thousands of terabytes that we would be writing out and then rendering.

So we needed a different method, and that was one of the biggest things I worked on, which was this system that I developed in collaboration with one of my coworkers. Instead of running Hexport, which is this offline process, we would run some Houdini code at render time, trying to model the look of the Hexport as closely as possible in a cheap way, and doing it at render time meant that we didn't take any disc space at all.

AC: Dana, one of your big projects was producing the original teaser. They're always a big challenge, because you want to get people interested without giving everything away.

DF: It was all original shots, so none of the shots from the teaser are in the actual film – which, from a production standpoint can sound kind of daunting, because you are in the middle of production and you have all these new shots to make.

AC: How heavy was the sigh from everyone when they found out?

DF: Exactly. Every team was like, 'Here we go! This is going to make us work double overtime.' But it wasn't really too bad. Somehow our producers and leadership got the show to a place – and maybe it was also luck – so people had the bandwidth to work on the teaser and not be too impacted. I do know animation did put in some extra hours, so I don't want to say it was easy.

In the past, we have done teasers where it is something from the film, and they often think, 'Well, what do we have that's ready, or what will be ready by this time?' and then they off of that will decide. But at the end of the day it's about what will build intrigue for this film for people to go see this film.

I really like that this is an original. In my mind, it's more like a music video because it has a really good song, and it's kind of fun that you got to see a new little episodic with Wade and Ember.

Elemental is in theatres now. Find our review and showtimes here.

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Elemental, Pixar, Disney, Aksel Taylan, Dana Frankoff

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