Pixar has been a part of my life since Woody decided to challenge a space ranger, since Sully became “kitty,” and since that forgetful blue fish dropped the iconic, “Just keep swimming.” And it wasn’t until I visited Pixar Studios to learn about their newest animated film Elemental did I understand the many moving parts that come with bringing an immigrant story like this to life. That’s where Mexican story artist Paula Assadourian Martinez and Colombian animator Luis Uribe Córdoba come in, as Remezcla got a chance to interview them both when visiting Pixar.
For those that need a little refresher, Elemental tells the story of Ember. She’s a second-generation immigrant that lives in a tight-knit community in Element City with her parents. Ember is proud of who she is, her community, and the life her parents have made for her. This all comes about while living in a place where fire-, water-, earth-, and air-residents live together but fire is treated differently. Her world, and the views she has on it, tilts on its axis when she meets Wade. He’s a water element resident and nothing like she expected from the very moment that they meet. And Martinez and Córdoba help bring it all to life.
Paula Assadourian Martinez is a story artist for Elemental who left Mexico when she was 18 to pursue her dream in animation. She creates storyboards based on the script and “helped create the characters by bringing my experience into the movie.” And for her, doing this job and creating this kind of art makes her feel proud of who she is as a Latina and as a Mexican. Martinez told Remezcla, “I think art is the best way to find that sweet spot where you can be aligned with a greater source and be messy and be yourself.” And sure, she’s stumbled sometimes, thinking she needed to fit a specific mold to be in this business. But now, working on projects like Elemental, she feels like “I’m slowly coming back my origin” and making peace with who she is.
When working on something as monumental as Elemental, and as an immigrant working on an immigrant story, we also wanted to know what parts of herself did she connect with personally. And for her, it was about “the push and pull of family and home against pursuing your dream and becoming an individual on your own.” Like Ember, she’s had moments where she questioned what self-acceptance means and how she can “balance assimilating into a different culture while staying true to myself.” And the only solution she has found is by bringing “in all that you are (and all the people who make you up) into the room with you.” That’s how you create a more inclusive world.
Martinez also connected to the love story blossoming between Ember and Wade became love has been a big theme in her personal art. For her, she’s always been curious “about what happens inside your head when you’re falling in love.” And when it comes to Ember, she sees a “daughter of immigrants that has had to really fight her way forward in life.” A daughter that has these “very clear boxes where she puts people into” and that feels like the only way to “be safe is [to] stay with your people.” And Martinez feels like ultimately “love is one of the catalysts that kind of helps her start to dissolve those kinds of very strict limits and boundaries” she has.
And then there’s Luis Uribe Córdoba.
Remezcla also got time to sit down and interview Córdoba about working on Pixar’s Elemental. Hailing from Colombia, Córdoba is an animator that helped “create the movement, gestures, and performance of the characters” in Elemental. That means he helped figure out how things like water would move on screen for a character like Wade. As an animator for this movie, Córdoba felt especially connected to his work because he also moved to another country in pursuit of a dream. And like Ember’s parents, it wasn’t easy. Córdoba explained that “leaving my family behind was difficult.” But his connection to animation, and limited options in Colombia, made the “sacrifices worth it.”
“My experiences aren’t exactly the same because my parents are still in Colombia. But I’ve been here for 13 years and I had to restart my life, find a job, and had no friends,” Córdoba said. He persevered and took these experiences into his work as they “helped me understand the obstacles and the good things that have come to me from living here.” That was especially important with Elemental as it helped him connect with other artists with similar experiences like director Peter Sohn, who used his own immigrant story to inspire Elemental as a whole alongside many other immigrants at Pixar.
At the end of the day, Córdoba has seen firsthand how telling these stories and bringing them to our screens has opened people up to new experiences and ways of life. For example, after working on the 2017 film Coco, he had a friend come to him because they were curious about visiting Latin America. “The best thing about that experience is that everyone who’s working on this, the crew, learned about our cultures and had that exposure,” Córdoba explained, firm in the belief that knowledge about other cultures breeds empathy for others’ experiences and makes for a better world.
This is why Elemental is so important.
Elemental is a story about immigrants by immigrants. It’s a community, behind the scenes and on the screen. One where creators from all over the world can take their experiences and bring them into their work through journeys like Ember and Wade’s. That’s why I find Paula Assadourian Martinez and Luis Uribe Córdoba so inspiring. They had a dream, made it a reality, and are working on a film with a message close to their hearts and unlike any that Pixar has ever worked on: A relatable animated film that respects the immigrant story and honors the sacrifices our parents have made, the cultures we hold close to our hearts, and the communities that carry us forward in life.
Elemental hits theaters on June 16, 2023.