Playing in front of Disney’s new movie, “Inside Out”, is an excellent 5 minute Pixar short film: Lava.
LAVA, a Pixar movie (5 minutes): LAVA
Watch the 1 minute preview here: LAVA Preview
Lava’s “I Have A Dream” song is available on iTunes: I Have A Dream Song
Interview with the director of Lava, James Ford Murphy:
Entertainment Weekly: Anyone who has ever visited Hawaii or Tahiti or any of the Polynesian islands knows there is an overwhelmingly enchanting quality about them—they are literally what we think of when we hear the word paradise. Where did this idea originate?
James Ford Murphy: When I got married in 1989, my wife and I honeymooned on the Big Island in Hawaii and that completely captivated me. The Big Island has an active volcano called Kilauea. Then about 12 or 13 years ago my wife and I were watching an episode of ER that featured a version of a song that I new so well from The Wizard of Oz called “Over The Rainbow.” But this was sung by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. And I was absolutely floored when I heard that version and I never forgot it.
That’s been in many films and TV shows. Such a heartbreakingly sweet version of “Over the Rainbow.” I think it’s meshed with “What a Wonderful World,” too?
Correct. So when it came time for me to sit down and really think about ideas for short films, I went to this very special place in my heart for tropical islands, active volcanos, and this song. And I thought, what if I could write a song that made me feel the way that song did the first time I heard it.
The short is essentially a music video performed by a singing island.
That was one of my goals, to see if could I tell a story that’s told completely in a song. With a ukulele that kind of drives the emotional beat of the whole piece.
What was the pitch process like getting your short film made at Pixar? Did you just barge into John Lasseter’s office and drag Ed Catmull in and play them a love song?
Basically, yeah! I did. It was a song that I’d written, and every time I pitched it I would sing the entire song on ukulele. I didn’t know how to play the ukulele before this, but I knew how to play the guitar.
As you’re performing it in pitch meetings, are you stopping mid-song to say “Okay, now here’s what you’re seeing while this part of the song plays”?
No. I did about 25 drawings and I would have somebody there with me that would kind of roll the drawings and those tell the story. I didn’t want to break out of the song ever, once you’ve captivated them. People were so stunned that I was singing to them. As you said, it’s just John Lasseter in a conference room, and me singing straight to him, but once you get that engagement, you don’t want to let go of it, you know?
Did the song get rewritten many times during the production process?
Once the story was green-lit, the structure of the song never really changed but the lyrics changed a bit here and there as the story evolved.
Tell me about the two singers that you have in the short, Kuana Torres Kahele and Napua Greig. What was the process like getting them into the rocky skin of these characters?
So when I first pitched this, I promised that this would be sung by traditional Hawaiian singers, and so one year after we were green-lit all I did was listen to Hawaiian music. We found out when Kuana and Napua got [to the recording session] that they actually grew up together and they were in hula school together. And they’re what they call hula brother and sister. So it was really one of those serendipitous things that we were very lucky to get them and have this wonderful recording session that the whole film kind of embodies.
Did they contribute anything to your thinking about the story and the music and the depiction of the islands—because you are not from Hawaii, right? You were raised in Detroit?
That’s right, I’m from Detroit. And they contributed I a lot vocally… When I sing the song I’m, you know, very—
You don’t bring any Motown to it do you?
No… [laughs] I did whatever I could to just get the idea across and to get the emotion across. But I don’t have a beautiful voice like they do. The reason we picked them both is because both their voices sound like they could come from the earth. That there is a very powerful quality to both their vocals.
The main character is Uku. He’s a volcano. He’s anthropomorphic in the sense that his face moves but he’s rooted to the earth in the middle of the sea. He’s big and when we first meet him he’s lush and lovely. I thought the vegetation around his arms and his torso looked like a big green sweater. And he has this volcanic crater that’s angled, almost looks like a crew cut. I kept thinking of Ernest Borgnine. And I wondered if that was an inspiration for you on the human side?
[Laughs] No, it wasn’t, but I could totally see that. You know some of the inspirations for us, besides Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, was Kuana, the singer—we looked at him a lot for inspiration. As well as, believe it or not, Jackie Gleason. Jackie Gleason is a huge inspiration, not just for his personality, but the way he uses his face. There’s just some amazing eye movements.
Did you take inspiration from any places?
We looked at a lot of places, in particular with Uku, we really looked at the Waimea Canyon in Kauai, we looked at the sea cliffs of Molokai a lot. We looked at Hanalei Bay.
The other character in Lava is Lele. Uku is singing but he is alone above the surface of the ocean and he’s hoping to find a companion, but he can’t see anyone. But we see below the surface, there’s this other formation that’s coming together.
I did an incredible amount of research into the geology of the Hawaiian islands and that’s what inspired this love story. And the geology tells us that all of these islands are formed by a hot spot on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. As the tectonic plates move over this hot spot these volcanoes form and as these volcanoes slide three-and-a-half inches a year, they eventually slide off that hot spot and erode back into the sea.
Isn’t The Big Island over the hot spot right now?
That’s why it’s the biggest island and the newest and has the most activity. Whereas Kauai and Niihau are the oldest islands. That is why they are so eroded and have so much character. And I just found that so beautifully profound. As I continued my research, I found out there is an underwater volcano just off the coast of the big island called Lo’ihi that’s expected to reach the surface and join the big island in the next 10,000 to 100,000 years.
There’s your story!
That’s where I was thinking, “Oh my God, does Lo’ihi know The Big Island is there? And does The Big Island know Lo’ihi is there?”
What about personal experiences? Did anything like that inspire Lava?
Right around the time I was contemplating all this, my sister was getting married at the age of 43. That’s really where I had this epiphany when I saw my sister up there on the altar and I thought about how long she’d waited. So that was kinda taking geology or science and making it more poetic.
Two Girls and a Mouse Tale
by Elly Collins & Caroline Collins
We worked at WDW for a year in the Disney College Program and have written a book about what it’s like to be a cast member working for Disney.
We included advice on how to successfully get into the DCP program, including some of the actual phone interview questions, how to have a successful internship, and how not self-term before your program ends. Our book is filled with lots of behind-the-scene stories of the magic of Disney.
Available now at Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle formats. Published by Theme Park Press.