5 questions with Disney/Pixar’s ‘LAVA’ director James Ford Murphy

'Lava' publicity still provided by Pixar Creative Services


Hawaii residents will get the chance to watch Disney/Pixar’s new animated short film, “LAVA,” at the Hawaii International Film Festival.

The seven-minute film is a fiery love story of two volcanoes, inspired by the sights, sounds and people of the islands.

A free screening will be held this Friday, Nov. 7, at the IBM Building Courtyard in Ward Village. Click here for more information. The film will be shown again on Sunday, Nov. 9, as part of Animation Ground Control, a collection of short films.

KHON2.com got a chance to interview director James Ford Murphy about the film, its authenticity and the inspiration behind it all.

What was the inspiration behind “LAVA”?

Since I was a kid, I’ve always been fascinated by tropical islands and active volcanoes, and it was this interest that led to my discovery of the Hawaiian Islands in books and in Elvis Presley movies I found at a very young age. But it wasn’t until my wife, Kathy, and I honeymooned on the Big Island in 1989 that I was able to witness my fascination of this place in person. Ever since that trip, I’ve been in love with Hawaii, active volcanoes, and Hawaiian music and culture.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Israel Kamakawiwoole sing “Over the Rainbow.” It was on an episode of “ER” that I was watching with my wife. I immediately recognized this song from one of my favorite films, “The Wizard of Oz,” but when I heard Iz’s version, I was reminded of the love affair I have with Hawaii and it instantly reignited the powerful connection I feel for the love I shared with my wife there in 1989.

So when it came time for me to develop short film ideas I thought to myself, what if I could write a song that makes me feel the way that song does, and combine it with the love, admiration and powerful connect I feel to the Hawaiian islands.

Fun fact: The two letter As in LAVA represent the stature, position and silhouette of volcano characters UKU and LELE.

How did you make this film authentic and true to Hawaii?

We did an enormous amount of research for this film because authenticity and respect for Hawaiian culture was the most important thing for us. We felt a great responsibility to get everything that inspired us right, and make it all believable.

My first research trip happened in 2011, when I had the initial idea for LAVA and I took my family on vacation back to the Big Island where my love affair with Hawaii all began. This trip was so inspiring for me because I was able to reconnect emotionally with Hawaii and Hawaiian music and culture. I got to visit the volcano Kilauea again with my family, and I also bought a Kamaka ukulele that I used to compose the song on, and I also play on the soundtrack for LAVA.

But most importantly, on that trip I learned about the underwater volcano Loihi and I found out how the Hawaiian islands are formed by volcanoes over a “hot spot” in the sea floor, and the history of the islands are on display in a chain of islands called the Hawaiian-Emperor Seamount Chain.

When I got back from this trip, serendipitously, my sister was getting married for the first time at the age of 43. As my sister stood up on the altar, I thought about how happy she was and how long she’d waited for her very special day. There, at my sister’s wedding, I remembered Loihi and I had an epiphany…

What if my sister was a volcano? And what if volcanoes spend their entire lives searching for love, like humans do?

Another big research project on LAVA was how to create characters in this film that would be appealing and believable as both a character and a place. I knew that if we really wanted to create characters that would also be believable as places, I needed to pick very specific places in Hawaii for our artists to use as reference in their designs. Our goal was, after seeing our film, you’d be inspired to want to go visit our characters someday.

Here are some of the places in Hawaii that inspired our designs: the sea cliffs of Molokai, Hanalei Bay, Kipu Kai Bay, Mt. Waialeale, the stratified rocks around the Waipoo Falls of the Waimea Canyon, the Na Pali Coast, the lava fields and Ohia forests of Kilauea, Papalaua Falls, Diamond Head, Molokini, the lei-draped statue of King Kamehameha and of course the mysterious and magical Loihi Seamount.

We also did a lot of research deconstructing the ingredients and details that make a place like Hawaii recognizable as Hawaii. By understanding the personality and details of Hawaiian lava, clouds, skies, sunsets, types of rock, ocean details, vegetation, animal life and sea life, we were able to use these recognizable ingredients to support the believability of our characters as a place.

What was the animation process like?

From the very beginning I always wanted LAVA to have the same charm and appeal as a classic Disney or Warner Brother cartoons from the 1940s and 1950s, but with the allure and photographic scale of a National Geographic travel documentary on Hawaii.

These contrasting goals made our animation process a balancing act of how to animate the giant mountain scale of a place with the intimate charm and appeal of a character. We needed our characters to be believable as iconic land formations whose features looked like they were formed by years and years of lava flows and erosion, but have the range of motion and emotion needed for acting without squashing or stretching the rock surfaces or the vegetation on our characters at all.

We found that the more we over-animated our characters, the quicker we broke the scale and believability that we were trying so hard to achieve. So animating our characters turned out to be a lesson in subtlety and an exercise in less is more.

To capture the sense of National Geographic scale we were going for in this film, we researched what makes real helicopter photography believable and what we found out was really quite simple. We learned that by obeying the limitations of real helicopter speed and real helicopter physics we were able to capture the scale of the world we wanted. We even went so far as to build a speedometer for our cameras, so that we never went faster than 120 mph.

Another aspect of Hawaiian culture we studied and we’re inspired by was hula. You can see the influence of hula in the long gestural movement of our cameras, in our animation, in our special effects and in the breezy flowing transitions of our cross dissolves and edits.

What was the casting process like?

After LAVA was green-lit for production, for one year all I did was listen to Hawaiian music as I searched for the perfect Hawaiian singers for LAVA. Not only did I become a connoisseur of Hawaiian music, I also learned about the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards and festival. As soon as I found out about this festival, I immediately convinced our producer Andrea Warren that we had to go because all of the musicians I was interested in were going to be there, and this would be our opportunity to see, hear and meet who we wanted to work with on LAVA.

I’m so glad we went, because that’s where we met Kuana Torres Kahele and Napua Greig. Working with Kuana and Napua has been a wonderful gift, and I can’t imagine what our film would be without their incomparable contributions.

Andrea and I left this weekend at the 2012 Na Hoku Hanohano awards forever changed and feeling a tremendous responsibility to honor the people we met, to capture the music and the culture we experienced, and to celebrate the spirit of aloha for the land and the people we felt.

We also hope that in some small way, our film can help expose more people to the incredible musical treasure trove that is Hawaiian music.

How do you feel now that the film is complete?

Making a film is a lot like raising a child. When you raise a child, you pour all the love and inspiration you have in your heart to help your child become the best individual they can be. You plan and prepare them to go out into the world, but when that day comes for them to leave the nest, your emotions are bittersweet. You’re sad their childhood is over, but you’re proud and excited for them to find their place out in the world.

Filmmaking is quite similar. As you make your film, you pour all the love and inspiration you have in your heart into the wonderful relationships you have with everyone on your team, so together you can make the best film you can. You plan and prepare for your film to go out into the world, but when that day comes for your film to leave the nest, your emotions are also bittersweet. You’re sad because all your wonderful obsessions and inspirations are done and the experience of making your film with your team is over, but you’re proud and excited to share your film with the world.

But by far the most satisfying feeling of all is the sheer bliss you feel every time an enthusiastic audience reacts positively to your film. Whether it’s laughter, sighs, gasps, tears or applause, you feel like a proud parent watching the world love and appreciate your child as much as you love and appreciate your child.

And hearing the audience buzzing after a screening, appreciating all the loving details you obsessed over and having them respond to the emotional intentions that inspired you on this journey, makes it all so satisfying and so worth the trip.

“Lava” will make its official U.S. debut in June 2015 as an opening short to Disney/Pixar’s animated feature “Inside Out.”

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