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Exclusive Interview with the Director of Pixar's Lava

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Pixar's most recent short animation is Lava, which is going to be released before their next feature film, Inside Out, on June 19th of this year. Unlike many other Pixar shorts, Lava's story is narrated through a song. We had the chance to sit down with Lava's director James Ford Murphy at SXSW to learn more about what went into making Lava.
Q

How did Lava’s story originate? Was it a personal project for you?

Yes it was. The way it works at Pixar is anyone can pitch an idea for a short film, but you can’t pitch one you have to pitch three ideas. So when I decided I wanted to do this I was going to go 100%. For me, I wanted to come up with stories for things I really, really love and that I could really connect with emotionally.

I’ve always had this fascination with Hawaii. Even when I was a little kid to when I finally got married, my wife and I honeymooned on the big island. Seeing the big island in Hawaii there completely changed me. I fell in love with this place.

To be on this place that has an active volcano blew my mind. This really exists; I just thought it was something you read about in science books, not really see it. So I’ve always had this feeling about it.

And then several years ago, my wife and I were watching ER – it’s that drama show with George Clooney – and one of the characters was dying and they featured the song Over the Rainbow by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.

And I knew that song from The Wizard of Oz but this rendition just floored me. I couldn’t believe the emotional depth of just the ukulele and this sweet, lonely, beautiful voice.

So all those components went down to come up with an idea: I just thought Hawaii, volcanoes, and an ukulele song. I started messing around. I drew a volcano with a face on it and I wrote “I Lava You” on a napkin and it just seemed like, “Boy that sounds like a song”. That was kind of the seed of the idea.

James had his short chosen by singing his pitch.

 

I started to develop it. Then in working with development at Pixar, they really encouraged me to when I pitched it to sing it. So when I actually pitched the short, the song was done. You know it changed a little bit when we got into it, but I had the whole song so I pitched the entire short while singing it.

And that’s the one that got picked. One of the things I pitched in the original pitch was that this would be sung by traditional Hawaiian singers, so to find that authenticity. I actually went to an awards show in Hawaii called the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards to research musicians and that’s where we found our two singers. Kuana Torres Kahele and Napua Greig.

It’s been such a fun ride, finding things that I loved, seeing where they lead you and then it leads you somewhere and just find the other stuff follow your heart. Find what you love in it and see where it leads.

That’s kind of been a passion project, labor of love and kind of an obsessive thing where just instilling the love that I have into the crew that came onto it.

And hopefully it comes out in the film that there’s a real feeling – it’s a love story, so you want it to just kind of wash over you of all the feelings that I have.

Q

Of the three that you pitched, was that the one you wanted them to pick? Was that your favorite?

No, it wasn’t and that was my other goal was to come up with three ideas that I loved equally. For two reasons, so if they picked one over another I wouldn’t really care. And also if they picked none of them, then at least I knew I gave them my best shot. I put my best effort out there.

So, it wasn’t. And I still love the other two ideas and I’d still love to do something with them, whether it’s a film or a book or whatever I would still love to do them.

To me that’s the fun part of what we’re lucky enough to do in animation. If you can come up with something you love so much, that’s not a bad way to make a living, right? Everyone’s dream. even when we were making the film I’d be sitting there in dailies with the crew and be like, “Can you believe we’re getting paid to do this? This is ridiculous; this is the best job in the world!”

And what other studio would green light a project about singing volcanoes. Pixar – I love it! That’s the great thing about these shorts, you can take chances on stuff like, “Yeah, that’s kind of cool. let’s try it.”

One of the biggest challenges for Lava was accurately capturing the scale. Image © 2015 Disney Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Q

Pixar is known for using shorts to showcase innovations in their visual work. Was there anything new on Lava you guys were trying to showcase?

Yeah, I would say the biggest thing would be scale. One of the things that John [Lasseter] got really excited about with this is that we’re just not that good at capturing scale for our films.

And this is all about scale, because your characters are mountains.

That was one thing we really tried to push, and also a big challenge was the scale of the size and then also the scale of all the vegetation that would have to be on these islands.

Being able to do that in an efficient enough way that it wouldn’t just choke down the system so that you have all this vegetation that you’re flying towards so you know it’s getting bigger and bigger and more complex and more complex, and not just explode the system.

Q

The story happens over millions of years. Was there any way you guys tried to indicate that, other than the fact that they’re volcanoes?

Yes, there’s a big time-lapse sequence really early in the film that i think really sets the metronome that it’s time. It’s more a poetic use of time rather than literal.

Originally, a lyric I had that he sang out loud was, “For millions and millions of years” or something like that. Then I took that out and just had, “For years and years” and kept it not literal. It’s more of a poetic, symbolic thing.

And I think once you set the clock with the time-lapse and you see the mountain kind of erode, you kind of set that time. It’s almost like we’re not actually witnessing this happening. We’re witnessing the telling of this story that they’ve told for generations on how your mom and dad the mountain met and how they were formed.

I always had this image of an old Hawaiian guy sitting with his legs up on the earth in the universe, playing ukulele and telling you this story of how the mountain was formed.

Q

Did you have this idea from the beginning that you wanted the narrator to be a song or some kind of troubadour character like that?

Yeah! Susie the Little Blue Coupe is a great Disney film about a car and it’s kind of the story of her life. And it’s just this wonderful tale. But it’s all told with Sterling Holloway as the narrator. He was the voice of Mr. Stork in Dumbo. He’s got that really sweet, kind of charming voice. And it just makes you feel – it’s like Burl Ives, you know Burl Ives and the old Christmas stuff – that’s what I was going for.

Just that feeling of how when a narrator’s telling you this story that you feel like you’re in your pajamas and you’re like, “Aww I love this! Tell it again! Tell it again!” But in more of a Polynesian way.

Like the Israel Kamakawiwo’ole thing, just to hear his voice you’re just floating on this vocal.And I felt like if we could do that where you have this really elegant vocal, which I think Kuana and Napua’s vocals are just phenomenal, that you’re almost floating above the islands and you’re part of this experience of this story being told and you’re like, “Tell us again Uncle! Tell us again Uncle! Tell us the story about the mountains!”

Official clip from Disney Pixar’s Lava. Clip © 2015 Disney Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Q

I was thinking at first that maybe the story came from a local folklore and there were actually mountains that were shaped like that, but it all came from you, right?

It did, yeah, it all came from me. But one of the things I admire and respect so much cultures like the Hawaiians, and all cultures are like this, is where they do create stories and songs about their land. And they make up these stories about, “Oh it’s a sleeping mother mountain” and I just love that stuff.

And I just thought, wow, if we could do something like that but it’s more connected to a love story and you can really have fun with it in animation. But really paying homage to these cultural tales that have been told for generations, even before movies. And that’s what’s so cool about the Hawaiians is they write so much of their music about their lands because their land is such a mystery and so beautiful.

They have a lot of their own folklore about their mountains and volcanoes and I didn’t want to go anywhere near their wonderful traditions. I didn’t want to disrespect their stories, I just wanted to do something that was in our vein.

Q

You don’t hear a lot of songs or even ideas or folk tales from an American standpoint.

What’s funny is you don’t, but I would argue that Susie the Little Blue Coupe kind of is, but it’s about a car’s life and I just love that kind of stuff. It’s mixing metaphors and mixing mediums and being inspired by what came before you.

Q

What kind of challenges did you guys run into from a design standpoint?

You know, the biggest challenge for us was to create a face that looked like it was formed by years and years of lava flow and was created by nature and not by man, but also moved and articulated enough but wasn’t fleshy. So when he moved you bought that it was rocks and boulders and the scale.

That was really challenging to figure out a scheme so we could get the range of motion we needed for the acting and the animation and not blow the believability of the rock texture and the mountain.

Q

Was it different for the male and female characters as far as the design?

It was a little bit different, but it was the same concept. He moves a lot more than she does, and she’s a lot more delicate in her features. So we were able to get away with more with him, and he’s more of a prominently featured character.

We ended up doing all these vertical plates that slide for brows and mouths. Once we figured it out it was like, “Duh” but we have some ugly tests getting there.

Q

Thanks so much for your time!

Thank you!

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