How they made those fire and water characters for Pixar’s ‘Elemental’


Bringing Ember to life technically was one of the biggest challenges for the makers of Pixar’s Elemental. According to Sanjay Bakshi, visual effects supervisor, their efforts were about much more than creating fire. “The balance of making the characters stylized but representative of the elements was a tricky line to walk,” he says. “Ember looks like fire, but she doesn’t look like the fire that we know. So how they made those fire and water characters for Pixar’s ‘Elemental’

To achieve Ember and the other Fire characters’ unique, stylized look, Pixar tapped resources at Disney Research Studios in Zurich, Switzerland. Researchers with expertise in visual computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence helped shape ideas into technological innovations. “We engaged them early on to work on our machine learning technique called Volumetric Neural Style Transfer [NST],” says visual effects supervisor Sanjay Bakshi. “The idea is to use a painting to stylize a simulation. So, we did these paintings of what the flames should look like and then we ran this machine learning technique on the realistic fire simulation to stylize it and make it more of a 2D representation.”

ELEMENTAL – Bernie, Ember and Cinder. � 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

According to Bakshi, the technique was applied to every frame of the movie that features Ember. “What’s also interesting is that it uses graphics processing units [GPUs], which are used in machine learning. We didn’t really use them here for final rendering here at Pixar until now,” he says. 5 you photograph. It’s a very carefully curated depiction of fire that makes her believable but also invites you to look in her eyes and see her expressions and really get captivated by her performance.” According to character supervisor Junyi Ling, building Ember’s range of expressions was challenging considering her fiery makeup. “You want to keep true to the design of the character,” she says.

“Ember has a specific look. But at the same time, her flame—in her eyebrow, lips—is like a fluid. “The shape of the fire is also iconic,” Ling continues. “Each Fire character has an iconic shape that’s constantly moving. Three predominant cones form the shape of Ember’s hair. Their fire is always moving through space, but that movement is actually respecting these shapes without feeling like geometric solid shape anymore. It’s this like moving fluid that constantly goes back to the iconic shape so that the audience can recognize her quickly.”

Animators developed a new approach to build performances for Ember that set the stage for all of the Fire characters. The fact that Ember is Fire—not on fire—was always top of mind. According to effects supervisor Stephen Marshall, creating a character that is fire effectively eliminated any interior structure for the character, making the entire character an effect. “There’s a transparency,” he says, “well-designed transparencies within layers and layers of fire.” The look of Ember’s flames is highly curated, allowing for the character’s expression and ensuring that the speed of her flames—real fire is quite fast, says Marshall—isn’t distracting. “We put a lot of effort into designing a system in which animation could have as much control as possible,” he says.

Directing animator Allison Rutland says the animation team created performances that capitalized on the fact that the character is made of fire. “It really was about how adding enough drift, enough shape-change to her head to keep that constant motion on the base geometry to match the amount of constant motion that’s in play as a volume.” Adds directing animator Gwendelyn Enderoğlu, “We ended up building more and more controls throughout the first half of production. We added controls to Ember’s rig to dial in these curated settings that effects was discovering so we could change the speed of her fire—like if it’s a sad, quiet moment, her fire shouldn’t be quite as active and we’d slow it down a little. Or we could tighten up the silhouette if she’s really moving quickly and it’s giving us a kind of blurry result in the default render—we could trim some of that away.”

David Bianchi, director of photography for camera and layout, and his team studied touchstone films that Sohn suggested. “It was a lot of ’80s cinema, 1.85:1 aspect ratio,” says Bianchi. “Ember’s flames will reach two to three feet higher at times—lower at other times. There was a going to be a lot more character to fit within a frame. We were concerned that her animated flames would be cut off with a more rectangular view of the film versus 1.85:1, which is taller and a little closer to square.”

For Jean-Claude Kalache, director of photography-lighting, and his team, lighting a character that’s made of fire called for a deep dive into how fire looks in varying levels of light. At times, filmmakers tweaked what might happen in real life to align with what the brain wants to see. And Ember, says Kalache, is emissive. “She’s a light source—she’s a 6 like a light bulb,” he says. “Early tests suggested she’s around 100 watts. But since her performance and emotions drive the brightness and the colors, it didn’t make sense for lighting to override what animation was doing, so we developed a system that allowed us to expose everything in the environment except for Ember. “I like to think of Ember as an emissive character on a dimmer switch,” Kalache continues. “When she’s angry or has a temper she can be dialed up—but not too far or you’ll lose details. Then when she’s vulnerable or guilty, you can dial it down.”

Director Peter Sohn says that technically, Wade was the toughest character to pull off. “He is Water,” says the director. “But as we worked for the right look, it was so easy to make him anything but water. If the movement was too slow, he looked like jelly. When we first started to test lighting the Water characters, we could see right through them.” According to character supervisor Junyi Ling, the design for Wade is the culmination of a series of small choices. “There are color choices, shape choices—the shape of his hair, his lips, body—he’s a unique character,” Ling says, adding that it was important that the stylization of all characters was consistent. “We wanted to make it clear that Wade and Ember are in the same movie, too.” Adds character supervisor Jeremie Talbot, “One big challenge that Peter [Sohn] laid out for Water, Fire and Air characters was that they shouldn’t look skeletal. Our tools are usually based around building characters that have flesh and bone. Fire and Water don’t have knees and elbows that are in fixed places like humans. When Wade takes footsteps, his foot can come and go—his whole leg can disappear into a blob and then come back. It’s 7 controllable by the animator to reinforce the idea that he is Water. It was a real challenge to loosen up our characters to allow them to work in a more dynamic way.”

Artists wanted to give Wade identifiable characteristics and have fun with his look and style. Says Maria Yi, character & look development art director, “A lot of attention, love and care went into Wade’s hair. We wanted it to have movement, without being too distracting. It’s a friendly reminder that this character is made out of water.” The character effects team played a key role in ensuring that Wade’s signature style could be maintained while also looking like water. “The character moves a lot,” says effects supervisor Stephen Marshall. “His hair can shift from side to side to support his movement in the shot. We had to come up with a hair simulation that was very targeted so it would lock on to the animation as much as possible. “We identified three shapes that appear and disappear on the top of his head,” continues Marshall. “That’s his most important feature for his hair simulation. It can’t just be static. It has to feel like water. It has to be dynamic like water.”

According to animation supervisor Michael Venturini, Wade’s eyebrows were also a key aspect to Wade’s overall performance. “Peter didn’t want that graphic feel of eyebrows painted on the water,” says Venturini. “He wanted them to have a transparency or a shimmering highlight. We used the eyebrows a tremendous amount to express Wade’s feelings, so there was a lot of iteration on how to get the look of Wade’s eyebrows to feel holistic with the rest of his design, and emotive at the level that we wanted. His eyes called for similar attention because they are extra glassy to get that watery feel. We wanted his eyes to pop and his brows to read clearly so you could really feel his expressions.”

“Water is an amorphous substance that is in constant motion, which made shading water characters a challenging task,” says visual effects supervisor Sanjay Bakshi. “In order to create visually appealing characters, we must determine which rules of physics to follow and which to disregard. “We developed an artificial meniscus layer that accentuates the facial features of Water characters, making their expressions more visible,” continues Bakshi. “Additionally, to achieve better control over the hair simulation, we created a dynamic target field through procedural animation based on Wade’s hair shape, which is then used as the attraction point for a constrained liquid simulation operating within a reduced dynamics space.” 8 and his willingness to share exactly how he feels all the time is what I aspire to be like. There’s something really beautiful about his earnestness and his acceptance of everyone.”

Athie found the story and its themes very relatable. “I’m an immigrant myself, so it spoke to me immediately in that sense,” he says. “But the parent-child relationship and that feeling of responsibility to make our parents proud really hit me. My parents are very supportive of me—even when there’s not a lot of reason to be. That sacrifice a parent makes for their children so they can have a better life is something Pete [Sohn] and I connected with very deeply.” Jean-Claude Kalache and his lighting team had no idea Wade and the Water characters would be as complicated as they were. “To be honest, I thought Ember was going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done,” he says.

“Wade was by far the hardest thing we’ve ever done. “It’s as if you put a chrome ball in a CG environment,” continues Kalache. “It’s a mirror and would be very distracting, showing you the whole environment. We did early tests with Wade reflected in an environment, but you couldn’t see him—his eyes, his mouth, his teeth. You see everything else, and it looks 100 percent like water, but it doesn’t look like a character. It took a good year working very closely with the character department—there was so much back and forth. He needed to be integrated into the background. We convinced Pete [Sohn] that Wade is going to be a chameleon and whatever he is in front of, he will change.”

Wade has more than 50 controls—allowing filmmakers to tweak everything from the bubble activity within the character to the incorporation of edges to his nose, tongue, teeth—filmmakers referred to this edge as a meniscus. The ability to read the character’s performance—his emotions—was paramount. “We developed areas that are ‘animationsafe’ on his face where highlights would fall off,” says Kalache. “You’ll notice the majority of the time his face is fairly clean. Every now and then we’ll put up one highlight so it gives you a wobble and it feels like water.” In scenes in which Wade and Ember appear on screen together—which is often— filmmakers developed a protocol that would allow for the look of reflection of Fire on Water—ensuring it wouldn’t be distracting. “In some very specific shots, we would light Wade’s bubbles to have Ember’s colors so you would appreciate that proximity,” says Kalache. “In others in which she’s vulnerable, we actually projected a slide of her onto him—physically, it makes no sense, but it serves the story moment beautifully.

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