The director of Pixar's short film 'Lava' on his emotional gem's Hawaiian origin
If you want to know about the film itself, you should check out my reaction piece from the event, which I'll post on Wednesday, but before I left the Pixar campus, I sat down with Murphy to talk about his film, the inspiration behind it, and the odd effect it had on the animators who worked on it.
When I walked into the room, he looked at my shirt, which read “Cassius Clay,” and immediately remarked on it. We talked about boxing and Ali specifically for a few before the publicist asked us to start. It put us in a great mood as the conversation opened.
DREW MCWEENY: I enjoyed the short last night, and one of the things I’m always fascinated by with the short film process here at Pixar is the freedom it gives you guys to explore things both thematically and technically. I think “Lava” feels like there are advances in both. Can we talk first about the technical challenges of animating two volcanoes who are your only characters?
JAMES FORD MURPHY: Yeah it a was huge one. It’s one of those things where it’s “Careful what you wish for,” you know? I just love volcanoes, but you’re setting yourself up to make a film about things that can’t move in animation. Once it got greenlit, we dove in and even before the technicality of it, it was a challenge in story. Huge. “What can they do?” Like they can’t do anything, and I remember our first review with John [Lasseter] where we started digging into the reels, and it was terrible. It couldn’t have gone worse. So I was working with Louis Gonzalez, one of our story artists, and I said, “You know what? Screw it. Let’s not worry about it. They can get up and walk around if they want. Let’s just think of whatever.” So we came up with these ridiculous ideas, and we ended up pitching three ridiculous possibilities for who this character could be. None of them was exactly who he was, but in every single one of them, there’s some piece of it that ended up in the final film. It broke us out of that mindset, like, “There are a lot of things we can do. We just have to think outside the box and be clever about it. That’s what I love about animation. I love having the limitations that force you to try different things. Like “WALL-E” is a perfect example, with the rule of no dialogue. That’s fantastic. Or “Cars.” I worked on “Cars,” and I just loved the limitations of all the things that “Cars” had.
The other big limitation with this was keeping the sense that these are mountains first, not cartoon characters, and they’re three and a half miles by three and a half miles. What we found in that is first of all, we didn’t want to have the faces fleshy and feel like skin. We really wanted it to feel like rock. So we ended up breaking the faces into moveable parts and non-movable parts so that the majority of their face kind of stayed intact. We created these plates that slide so they don’t squash and stretch, but you’re getting what you want out of the squash and stretch while it stayed true to the character of the rock. Then the brows were three giant pieces that just slid up and down and you moved that. Then the lids, the lids we just opened and closed like big garage doors, but we could cheat those. We would do it into a pose and out of a pose so that you didn’t see it bending. The other thing was the eyeballs. You can’t have white cartoon eyeballs, so we were banging our heads and I said, “What if we just do a boulder?” I took a ball of clay and I just dug it out and then we built the eyelid as another chunk of clay. That worked great. It’s perfect. That’ll work, because we really wanted to keep that Polynesian eye. We also found in animating them that less was more. The less we did, the more they felt grounded. The boards we had were much more cartoony, but as soon as you had them bouncing up and around, it’s like, “No, we can’t do that.” If they did, they would create tidal waves.
I like the way you use birds and fish to set scale and to sell the idea of how big the volcanoes are, and how alone they are. You don’t go overboard. It’s still very much about the mountains and their POV.
Exactly. We wanted that to support what they want. By showing, “Look at that beautiful turtle. Look how happy they are. I want that. Oh, look at these birds. That’s what I want. They also gave us that sense of movement. We helped these characters move by having the animals locked in this really graceful movement around them like the hula. We were really inspired by the hula. We gave them movement with our cameras and our editing. The way we got scale was keeping our camera’s speed and physics exactly the same as that of a real helicopter. We built this speedometer for our cameras so we never went faster than 120 miles an hour. It gave us these long helicopter shots, but made them feel giant. Then we would cross-dissolve between those shots, like it took about four hours to get up to them to sing that song. But with the cross dissolves and the gestural camera flow, it was really emulating how the hula dancer’s hands flow into the next thing. We also tried to have the birds and the whales kind of all emulating that, which I think goes really well with the rhythm of the ukulele and the song. So you had this Hawaiian feel to everything around them.
In the preamble before the screening last night, you talked about animators on the project having to book vacations. The people that I know that love Hawaii, it gets into your blood. It’s the thing where you go once and that’s it and you’re hooked and then you have to go back. I don’t know what it is, because I don’t know any other tourist spot where people have that kind of connection.
I agree with you. Visceral. Yes, you’re exactly right. That was our goal. I’m one of those people and it’s hard to describe it, but in making a film inspired by it, you want to use it and tap into that. You have to start to understand what it is and what those components are. Then as a filmmaker, you have to decide which of those components should we use to convey that? We can’t use them all because it would get too confusing, but, like, what’s the color of the sky? What are the cloud patterns? What are the times of day like? How can we use that?
It’s even as simple as your closing credits, just the sound, that particular sound of surf and combination of other things is instantly identifiable. It all speaks to that.
I agree with you. I just... I’m so happy to hear you say that, because that’s just poetry to my ears. Because that’s exactly what we’re going for and what I love and what I worked so hard to get right. I felt this tremendous responsibility to not be the cliché, to speak to the heart of it. The more I got to know about the culture, I really wanted to honor that.
The singers that you found, their voices are immediately evocative of what we think of as traditional Polynesian or traditional Hawaiian music. You’ve got those voices. How hard was it to convey what you wanted to the animators that you brought onto the project? Was there a moment when it clicked for them? What was that process, because I assume it was something you had to sell people on?
My biggest rule was I only wanted people to work on it that wanted to work on it, that had a vision for it themselves. What I’ve learned is that your job as a director, the first half of your job is all sales. That’s all you’re doing, pitching the idea. You’re pitching potential and you’re pitching inspiration. To me, I love this stuff so much, and I was so into it. I had so much reference and it was not only Hawaii that we talked about, but there were some very specific cartoons. Like we looked at “Feed the Kitty” a lot for Marc Antony. I was so inspired by those moments because if you just look at his close ups…
[MURPHY SMILES BROADLY, LIKE MARC ANTONY. OR THE VOLCANO IN “LAVA.” MCWEENY LAUGHS FOR A LONG TIME.]
When you look at him... now that you say that, I can clearly see it...
That was a huge one for me. All the close-ups of his facial expressions. He’s a volcano. When you pull out from his close-up, he’s Marc Antony. You just put him in water, he’s a volcano. Another one is Jackie Gleason.
[MCWEENY LAUGHS AGAIN.]
There’s a great Jackie Gleason clip where Ed Norton’s playing “Swanee River.” Check it out. The whole episode, he’s just driving Ralph nuts by playing “Swanee River,” because Ralph Kramden is studying to go on “Name That Tune.” So he finally gets on “Name That Tune,” and it’s “Swanee River.” And the look on his face… because Jackie Gleason’s eyes are great. They’re like these slits. But when he hears “Swanee River,” he goes…
[At this point, you should see it for yourself --
It is a pretty great clip, and he’s right… I can see exactly why he’d show it to his animators.]
it’s unbelievable. That was a clip I showed the animators for the moment when Uku [the male volcano in the short film], when you see him under there it’s Jackie Gleason’s look. And when he sees Lele, his eyes go wide. That’s the first time you want to see him wide eyed, so I had them look at Jackie Gleason. I think first you start from the inspiration and then let the animators do their thing. Also, you accept the limitations of what they are and work within those and cool things come out of this. Shaun Chacko did all those shots of Uku eroded when he’s sad or when he’s singing. And it’s just amazing. It’s so delicate and subtle and just right. It’s what he didn’t put in there that makes what is in there so much more effective.
When you’re working on one of the shorts, do you know what film you’ll end up paired with, or is that just a process of when you’re ready and when they’re ready?
You have an idea, because, “Okay, we’re looking for a thing,” but you don’t really know, and there’s not really a whole lot of thought into, “Oh, that would be perfect in front of that.” It is what it is. In our case, I feel like this pairing is going to be a homerun.
What’s lovely is that your short is pure emotion and then it leads into something that is about how we come to those things and how emotion plays a role in our lives. Your piece is almost pure longing, and I think that’s kind of lovely as a pairing.
I couldn’t be more excited. I agree with you. It’s such a pleasure talking to you. I mean... a boxing fan that loves cartoons. [LAUGHS]
Can I conclude by saying that, almost universally, the artists I’ve met at Pixar over the years have been enormously nice people? Easy to talk with about their artistry and their craft and storytelling as a whole, Pixar seems to be populated by a group of people who take every element of every one of their films seriously. I always enjoy the conversations I have up there, because I know that I’m talking to people who are incredibly focused on making sure you see something special there in the dark.
You’ll see for yourself when “Lava” arrives in theaters June 19, 2015.