James Ford Murphy

Lava: The Pixar Short of The Week

James Ford Murphy, Lava, Pixar Short Films Collection, Pixar Short of the Week, Short Film, Shorts

Posted by Simoa • December 14, 2018

This week, “Lava” was the overwhelming favorite in our latest twitter short film poll.

I have to admit, I was more than a bit surprised that “Lava” won, and by such a large margin. I remember the short being distinctly unpopular when it first premiered in 2015, paired with Inside Out. There were lots of complaints about “Lava,” ranging from the story (or lack thereof) to the character designs. And while some of those negative responses are reasonable (to an extent), I think this short does have its merits. Maybe “Lava” isn’t technically or narratively groundbreaking, but it doesn’t have to be.

I saw Inside Out nine times in theaters, which means I also saw “Lava” nine times! And at almost every viewing, the reaction to Uku, the male volcano, opening his mouth to sing was derisive laughter. I couldn’t ever see what was so funny about it. What made me laugh wasn’t the short itself, but my mother’s wry observation at its conclusion: “Well, there’s someone for everybody.” And isn’t that just like Pixar, to not only anthropomorphize volcanoes, but make them yearn for romance and everlasting love? Sure, as someone in one of the above critical pieces noted, Pixar already did it before with umbrellas…but these are volcanoes! Massive ruptures in the earth’s crust that literally erupt fire and destroy everything in their path. But the volcanoes in “Lava” are gentle, with friendly faces and sweet singing voices.

Uku (Kuana Torres Kahele) is a lonely volcano in the middle of the sea who sings about finding his one true love.

“I wish that the earth, sea, and the sky up above-a
Will send me someone to lava.”

Thousands of years pass and he remains alone, literally eroded and sinking into the sea. One of the most brilliant moments of the short is the time lapse representing all these years.

via Giphy

And how quietly devastating is the sight of a volcano on the brink of extinction, never once experiencing the love that all the animals around him do? Turtles, dolphins, birds — all have a special someone, except for this craggy mountain of rock. He once bloomed in verdant greens, with bright sparks of red-orange lava, but all of that rich color and life disappear.

But not all hope is lost. Lele (Napua Greig) is an underwater volcano who believes Uku’s song is for her. She bursts forth to the surface while Uku descends into the sea. When she starts singing his song, Uku, reinvigorated by music and love, rises back up to join her, and they form an island called Ukulele.

“Lava” is considered by many to be Pixar’s weakest. Some people are a bit more extreme in their assessment, calling it the worst thing Pixar has ever made, offensive (!), worthless, total garbage. Dana Stevens over at Slate declared it an embarrassingly terrible horror show, but only after she spent four long winded paragraphs talking about other film releases in 2015. Truly bizarre! I might not agree with my nephew that “Lava” is Pixar’s greatest short, but I definitely trust his opinion more than anyone else’s.

concept art

Director James Ford Murphy was inspired by his love of Hawaii, where he honeymooned with his wife over 25 years ago. He also wrote the short’s eponymous song and first pitched it at Pixar by singing and playing it on his ukulele. The song’s inspiration came from Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s beautifully haunting rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” which is very meaningful to Murphy. What he really wanted was to create something just like it in movie form.

There’s also the level of immaculate detail we usually expect from Pixar, particularly the inspiration from actual volcanic geology. Murphy also incorporated Lōʻihi, an underwater volcano, into the short. Lōʻihi formed the basis for “Lava,” as Murphy wondered if this volcano knew about Hawaii (the Big Island) and vice versa.

What I love most about the short’s backstory is that Lōʻihi came to represent Murphy’s sister, who married in her 40s.

“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?”

We got the answer in a sweet 7 minute musical.

Some fun facts:

  • Uku and Lele’s eyes were originally lava, but the result was creepy and they ended up looking too much like jack-o-lanterns.
  • The clouds around the two volcanoes were based on weather patterns and were also meant to resemble hula skirts and leis.
  • The voices of Uku and Lele, Kuana Torres Kahele and Napua Greig, found out they had both attended hula school together when they met in the recording studio.
  • Did you know the Pizza Planet Truck appears in the short? Look very closely at one of the constellations in the sky during the time lapse!

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Inside Out: highly emotional and highly clever

Inside Out, James Ford Murphy, Lava, Pete Docter, Review

Posted by Simoa • June 18, 2015

For all the technical feats and visual artistry of Pixar films, storytelling remains the true marker of their success. “Story is king” is the mantra oft repeated at Pixar, for good reason. A film can be beautifully animated, but it needs a beautiful story to truly shine. Inside Out, the studio’s fifteenth feature from Pete Docter, has both in abundance. And what a beauty it is. This film follows in the tradition of gorgeously crafted storylines that have come to define Pixar. And it also marks Pixar’s triumphant return to the silver screen after their yearlong absence.

Inside Out takes place inside the mind of 11 year old Riley Andersen (Kaitlyn Dias). While Pixar films have taken us to the outer reaches of space and the depths of the ocean, along with other unique and imagined settings, Inside Out invites us to journey through a place we’ve never seen, but know exists. It’s here in Riley’s mind that a whole world blooms.

Living in this world are her five emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger. They are the real main characters of this story, not merely feelings, but actual personified beings. Joy (Amy Poehler) is the first emotion that newborn baby Riley experiences, causing her to laugh. Her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) are over the moon with love, and Joy is as well. She begins to envision a euphoric life for just her and Riley. This vision is short lived however, when Sadness (Phyllis Smith) arrives on the scene and makes Riley cry for the first time. Joy is understandably less than thrilled, trying to regain control; this theme is echoed throughout the film.

As Joy informs us, Headquarters only becomes more crowded. Fear (Bill Hader) shows up, perpetually frantic and always steering Riley away from anything unsafe. Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is around to make sure Riley avoids everything gross. Anger (Lewis Black) is mainly concerned with Riley getting a fair deal; when she doesn’t, his temper flares and flames erupt from the top of his head. Each of these emotions has their own distinct purpose for guiding Riley through her everyday life, but Sadness doesn’t seem to have one. Joy isn’t all that interested in finding out what that purpose could be but assures us that Sadness is just fine where she is.

The focus shifts once again to Riley, a sweet and boisterous kid who’s had a happy childhood and life thus far. Lining the walls of Headquarters are Riley’s memories, little spheres that glow a certain color corresponding to each of the emotions. Nearly all of them are yellow, for Joy. The core memories depict important moments in Riley’s life which power up each of her personality islands. These islands include family, friendship, honesty, hockey, and goofball.

Chaos soon strikes, disrupting life in Headquarters. Riley and her family are moving – from their beloved Minnesota to San Francisco, where her father is starting a new job. Fear isn’t the only one panicking about this major life event. Joy manages to stay upbeat and positive, constantly looking on the bright side of things while the others complain and fret. They, as well as Riley, don’t have a lot to be happy about. The new house isn’t warm or inviting; her parents are upset and stressed out about various things; and dad has to leave for work before they’ve even settled in. Still, Joy is determined to keep things happy. After some initial disagreement, the others decide it’s for the best as well.

Life outside Headquarters often informs life within, and vice versa. With Riley experiencing a wealth of changes due to the cross country move, Sadness wants to take a more active role in Headquarters. But she’s prevented from doing so by Joy. When the two of them clash during Riley’s first day of school, a disastrous event by all accounts, they’re ejected from Headquarters, leaving Fear, Anger, and Disgust to man the controls. Joy and Sadness, lost within Riley’s mind, need to journey together in order to restore balance to Headquarters.

Balance is key in Inside Out. The film does an excellent job of balancing the two unfolding storylines, shifting from Riley’s mind to the outside world with ease. There’s also a balancing of visuals, from the realistic outside world to the bright, cartoony mind world. The basic animation principles of squash and stretch are used to their greatest advantage here. Mind workers that Joy and Sadness meet are simple in design, but brightly colored and very cartoonish. The mind is so incredibly vibrant and perfectly realized. This is in my opinion, the most imaginative and creative Pixar world yet. Just the sheer size and scope of it are overwhelming, without spoiling any of the fun you have within it. Joy and Sadness travel through a variety of concepts – Abstract Thought and the subconscious for example – which spring up before them and us as actual places. The sequences in both of these locations are particularly inventive and in the case of Abstract Thought, extremely clever and hilarious.

In fact, clever and hilarious can be applied to Inside Out as a whole. The film is able to balance poignancy with levity; each of the laughs it induces are well earned. Trust me when I say this movie is hilarious, one of the most fun times you’ll have at the theater all year. The various ways it answers certain questions about the mind is all done in a silly but brilliant, and of course, clever fashion.

The voice work of the cast cannot be overlooked either. They all turn in great performances, embodying each of the emotions so perfectly. You want the “little voices” in your head to sound just like this. Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith are able to strike a balance between humor and heartache. It’s amazing and a little ironic how much you feel for these emotions. Richard Kind as Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong, who I’ll let you discover and fall in love with on your own, is also stellar, giving one of the most memorable and heartbreaking performances ever heard in an animated film.

The film’s score, composed by that wizard Michael Giacchino, is whimsical and bright. The music is so beautiful to listen to, and matches the gentle moments, along with the more fast paced action ones.

At the core of Inside Out is the relationship between Joy and Sadness. For years Joy has called the shots in joy sadness 1Headquarters, has never understood the purpose of Sadness, and has often tried to keep her from ever driving the console in Riley’s head. When they’re suddenly thrust into the vast reaches of the mind, she starts to learn more about Sadness and just how important she is to Riley, and also to all of us.

What Pete Docter, co-director Ronnie del Carmen, screenwriters Josh Cooley and Meg LaFauve, and the entire story team have been able to achieve is no small feat. It’s a tall concept, but the story is executed quite simply, without abandoning any emotional complexity or depth. It dazzles the eye, mind, and heart. You will have fun watching this film, but you’ll come away with some profound insights as well. And you will cry.

It is the resounding emotional poignancy of this beautiful film, combined with the animation, art, and humor that undeniably makes Inside Out an instant classic.

“Lava”, the musical short film attached to Inside Out is similarly lava1dazzling in the visual department. The story is really quite simple, but a big delight nevertheless. While the short isn’t regarded as favorably as others, I found it charming, heartfelt, and endearingly sincere. You can add volcanoes to the list of anthropomorphic Pixar characters finding love in the most unlikely ways. And once again, the visuals are breathtaking. The love song echoes Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s haunting rendition of “Over the Rainbow” which James Ford Murphy cited as inspiration. It’s also really catchy; you’ll find yourself humming the tune long after the short ends.

“Lava” features the musical talents of Kuana Torres Kahele, Napua Greig, and James Ford Murphy on ukulele!

Inside Out and “Lava” are released nationwide in theaters tomorrow, June 19th. Be sure to share your thoughts with us! And stay for the credits too!

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“Lava” at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Events, Inside Out, James Ford Murphy, Lava

Posted by Simoa • April 23, 2015

Our readers in the Bay Area are in for a special treat. The San Francisco International Film Festival kicks off today, a two week long festival that celebrates the best in film. The latest Pixar short film, “Lava”, which plays with Inside Out this summer, is going to be screened as part of the festival’s Shorts 5 program. Director James Ford Murphy will also be on hand to answer questions following the screening and sign autographs. You can see the full list of short films below, including one by former Pixarian Saschka Unseld, director of  2013’s “The Blue Umbrella”.

Aria for a Cow
A musical plea from the often neglected and underappreciated barnyard inhabitants is brought to life by a never-heard before song by Howard Ashman & Alan Menken. (Dan Lund, USA 2015, 7 min)

Cows (Moosic Video)
Not enough dancing cows you say? Well, we’ve got another bovine musical showstopper guaranteed to udderly satisfy even the most lactose intolerant of audience members. (Sandra Boynton, USA 2014, 3 min)

This lovely tale is a celebration of life through the hand-drawn line. Animated and directed by the creator of Ariel, Pocahantas, Tarzan and Rapunzel. (Glen Keane, USA 2014, 4 min)

It’s hard to leave your childhood home and the memories you’ve created there. Some things we are forced to leave behind and then there is the rest we’ll always keep close to our hearts. (Saschka Unseld, USA 2014, 5 min)

Inspired by the isolated beauty of tropical islands and the explosive allure of ocean volcanoes, this musical love story takes place over millions of years. (James Ford Murphy, USA 2014, 8 min)
This is a Cinema by the Bay film.

Armed with a boundless imagination and talent for drawing, Lila creatively fills in the missing pieces of her life and the world around her. (Carlos Lascano, Argentina/Spain 2014, 9 min)

My Big Brother
Sure, we’ve all fought with our siblings, and sometimes it’s even hard to see eye to eye with them. We’ve got it easy compared to these vertically challenged brothers. (Jason Rayner, USA 2014, 3 min)
This is a Cinema by the Bay film.

One, Two, Tree
This is the story of a tree like any other. One day it jumps into a pair of boots and goes for a walk. (Yulia Aronova, France/Switzerland 2015, 7 min)

A stunningly designed piece that incorporates Persian music, calligraphic art and ornamental designs to tell the traditional Persian story of life that deals with the fragility of self-worth. (Meghdad Asadi Lari, USA 2014, 5 min)

The Story of Percival Pilts
A whimsical story about living an impractical life based on a childhood promise, where the phrase “reaching for the stars” takes on a whole new vertigo-inducing meaning. (Janette Goodey, John Lewis, Australia/New Zealand 2015, 9 min)

Super Sounds
A shy and lonely young boy lets down his guard long enough to welcome in a potential new friendship. (Stephen de Villiers, Australia 2014, 12 min)

Students are also encouraged to enter the Nellie Wong essay contest following the screening. Winners of the contest will be able to attend a screening of Inside Out at Pixar! This is certainly an opportunity not to be missed, and we hope our West Coast readers take full advantage!

Follow the festival along on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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James Ford Murphy talks ‘Lava’ and Pixar

James Ford Murphy, Lava

Posted by Simoa • October 18, 2014

Back in August, a small teaser for Pixar’s upcoming short ‘Lava’ was released, debuting the stunning animation and music. Thanks to Collider, we also have two new high-res stills, as well as an interview with director James Ford Murphy!

The interview, which you can watch here, details Murphy’s path to Pixar and his contributions to such films as A Bug’s Life, Cars, and The Incredibles.

He also speaks in depth about ‘Lava’ and the challenges associated with animating volcanoes. This is a chance to really appreciate the kinds of risks and innovations involved with animation and making something like a volcano a character infused with personality. Not only that, the technical aspect is also something to marvel at.

You can also learn about how ‘Lava’ was chosen to accompany Pixar’s full length feature Inside Out. (A perfect pairing according to Murphy). Both will premiere on June 19th, 2015.

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Watch and listen to “Lava”

James Ford Murphy, Lava, Short Film

Posted by Simoa • August 29, 2014

"Lava", the next Pixar short to play before Inside Out next year has been generating as much excitement as the feature length film
itself. Described as a musical love story taking place over millions of years, it promises to be a unique love story erupting between two
volcanoes. One still and one poster have been released, and now there’s a
clip courtesy of Yahoo Movies.

The short clocks in at seven minutes, but this clip is thirty seconds long. Yet it’s still an impressive preview of what’s to come. Imagine what the finished product will look and sound like! In addition to the stunning animation is the music. Uke, the volcano featured in this clip, voiced by singer Kuana
Torres Kahele, sings about finding another volcano to love (lava). The wordplay on the lyrics is really quite clever and charming. It’s possible that "Lava" will treat audiences
to a duet, something unlike anything Pixar has done before.

Director James Ford Murphy credits his love of Hawaii as the inspiration for the short. He hoped to create something that would capture the beauty and spirit of the islands set to music in an animated world. "I thought if I could marry the rich imagery with the power and emotion of music, then I could really make something cool."

"Lava" will certainly deliver on that front when it is released alongside Inside Out on June 19, 2015. Watch the clip below and tell us what you think!

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Pixar Reveals ‘Lava’, Previews ‘Inside Out’ at Press Event [UPDATE]

Inside Out, James Ford Murphy, Jonas Rivera, Lava, Pete Docter, Short Film

Posted by Brkyo614 • July 12, 2014

With exactly one year to go until the release of Inside Out, Pixar invited members of the press to a special Inside Out preview event at the Director’s Guild of America last night. Unexpectedly, Pixarian James Ford Murphy took the stage to introduce his directorial debut: Lava, the previously-rumored 2015 short that will play before Inside Out. The official synopsis reads:

"Inspired by the isolated beauty of tropical islands and the explosive allure of ocean volcanoes, Lava is a musical love story that takes place over millions of years.

From Pixar Animation Studios, director James Ford Murphy and producer Andrea Warren, Lava opens in theaters on June 19, 2015, in front of Inside Out."

While The Blue Umbrella examined the smaller details of a bustling city, Pixar’s next romantic short seems to be magnitudes bigger in scale. Early reactions are very positive:

"Just saw Pixar’s next short: The sweet, romantic musical LAVA, about two volcanoes in love. Might’ve teared up a little."
"Just saw a roughly 95% finished version of Pixar’s latest short, LAVA, which will play in front of INSIDE OUT. Lovely & musical & beautiful."
Adam B. Vary, Buzzfeed

Interestingly, an Instagram photo from Eric Chu – posted a week before the short’s reveal – shows that artwork from Lava is already on display in Pixar’s atrium. Look closely toward the back in the photo to the right.

Before Murphy unveiled Lava, though, Inside Out director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera showcased the footage that was screened at Annecy earlier this month. Rivera noted that "we’re pouring our lives into this one," and based on these early impressions, it shows:

"Saw some footage from Pixar’s INSIDE OUT tonight. Looks incredible. Heartbreaking, super funny, and – as expected – gorgeous animation."
"Man, INSIDE OUT looks to be as creative, intelligent and as emotionally resonant as anything Pixar has ever done."
"It’s still a year out, but everything about Pixar’s Inside Out looks phenomenal. First 5 minutes dropped my jaw and put tears in my eyes."
If you’re not wary of spoilers, Cinema Blend and have detailed summaries of the Inside Out footage shown. Like Annecy, Docter and Rivera signed prints after the show, this time featuring yet another new piece of concept art. (via Desiree Eaglin)

Lava and Inside Out release on June 19, 2015.

UPDATE: LA Times has more news on Lava, including the first rendered still of the main character, a volcano named Uku (his love interest is Lele). The paper spoke with director James Ford Murphy on what went into the short:

"I thought it would be so cool to fall in love with a place who’s also a character […] I wanted to make Uku appealing and likable but also look like he’s been carved out of lava flows."

As part of his pitch to executives at Pixar, Murphy learned to play ukulele and wrote a love song, "Lava," which appears in the film and is performed by Hawaiian recording artists Kuana Torres Kahele and Napua Greig.

Head over to LA Times for more.

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