Lava All You Need Is Lava
Nthat Pixar does things the easy way. Take the studio’s latest short, Lava ( in cinemas this summer in front of Inside Out). In most animations, characters express themselves through movement. But in this musical tale of a lonely volcano looking for love in what will eventually become today’s Hawaiian Islands, the massive Uku – and Lele, his heart’s desire – had to remain still.
“As an animator I love challenges,” director James Ford Murphy tells Red Alert, “and I love the challenge that these characters can’t move. What are you gonna do to make them entertaining and likeable so an audience can identify with them? It frustrated us incredibly, but it forced us to come up with solutions we wouldn’t have if we just animated it the way that we always animated something.”
Murphy’s Lava was inspired by the Disney musical shorts of the ’ 40s and ’ 50s – films like Susie The Little Blue Coupe and Willie The Operatic Whale that told their stories through song – as well as Murphy’s own love of music, particularly the melodies of the South Seas.
“Visually I was going for the feeling of an old ’ 40s or ’ 50s cartoon, almost like a lost Fantasia [ segment]. At the end of the day we really wanted to create characters that were also believable as places. That was the balance I was trying to walk – have a sweet story told by song that harkens back to those old cartoons, but do what we can do in this medium to bring a singing mountain to life in a way that you believe.”
Murphy wound up basing Lava on over a million years of geological history. “If you know the history and the geology of the Hawaiian islands, it’s fascinating how they just go over this hot spot and then they just kind of melt back into the sea and another one pops up… That just seemed like a love story to me – ‘ Does this one know? Do they have any idea? So it’s kind of taking poetic licence with geology.”
The filmmaker – a veteran of movies such as Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles – says he spent a year making Lava, after an initial eight months of listening to every piece of Hawaiian music he could find. His research paid off in the Polynesian- style song he wrote for the film, sung by its anthropomorphised lovers. While Pixar chief John Lasseter greenlit the film in part for the sense of scale it required.
“One of the things that John got really excited about was scale. He’s like, ‘ We’re just not really good at establishing a true sense of scale.’ What we learned as we got into it was scale is defined by the speed of the vehicle with the camera on it. I imagined this would be shot by helicopters. But if you go any faster than a real helicopter, all of a sudden your model shrinks.”
“That,” laughs Murphy, “was our big revelation.” Lava can be seen before all screenings of Inside Out, released 24 July. Check back next month for an in- depth look at Inside Out.
A heartwarming tale of volcanic love and Hawaiian singing.
Lava director James Ford Murphy.