Outtakes: ‘Lava’ makes Hawaii debut

Nov. 4, 2014 | 0 Comments

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BY MIKE GORDON / mgordon@staradvertiser.com

As he pitched his film to Pixar executives, animator James Ford Murphy sought to woo them with a love story that was millions of years old. He strummed a Kamaka ukulele and told them about a volcano named Uku that longed for a companion.

COURTESY PIXARHawaii residents will get a special advance preview of "Lava" before it shows up in theaters next year.

COURTESY PIXAR

Hawaii residents will get a special advance preview of “Lava” before it shows up in theaters next year.

Murphy sang from the heart, and his whimsical creation was rooted in Hawaii — in islands isolated in the sea, jungles lush with beauty and the volcanoes that gave birth to all of it.

His pitch was perfect.

The result is Pixar’s “Lava,” an animated musical short that is so deeply personal to Murphy that his motivation defies simple explanation. When Hawaii filmgoers see the 7-minute film this week during the Hawaii International Film Festival, Murphy will be there to share the experience, ukulele in hand.

“I’m a very emotional guy,” Murphy said in a recent phone call from his Pixar office in Emeryville, Calif. “So when I set out to do this, my goal was to really connect myself emotionally with this strong desire and passion that I have for this place.”

Hawaiian influences are all over the look and sound of “Lava.”

The shape of the volcano melds Molokai’s towering cliffs into Uku’s shoulders. His face is part Waimea Canyon, part Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and — this isn’t Hawaiian, but it’s there if you look — part Jackie Gleason.

“We just really wanted you to believe that the characters were a mountain and the features were formed by years and years of lava flows and erosion,” Murphy said. “Not a cartoon character. Not a funny face stuck on a mountain.”

Murphy spent a year listening to Hawaiian music in order to find the voice of Uku. After attending the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, Murphy chose Hilo musician Kuana Torres Kahele to be the singing voice of Uku and Maui’s Napua Greig as the voice of the other volcano, Lele. (Uku and Lele, like ukulele, get it?)

Finding the voice of Uku was as important as any part of “Lava.” Even after selecting Kahele, Murphy worried about his decision. But when the two men sat together in Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Sound Recording Studio, everything fell into place.

“The first lines that came out of his mouth — it was like all the pressure in the world was relieved,” Murphy said. “And Ithought, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be stunning. This is going to be amazing.'”

The 43-year-old Murphy, who is making his directing debut with “Lava,” said his connection to the film started 25 years ago when he and his wife, Kathy, honeymooned on the Big Island.

“It was the first time I had seen Hawaii in person,” he said. “Ever since then it has been an obsession of mine.”

Murphy has worked on a variety of animated hits, including the Oscar-winning “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille.”

But in January 2011 when he started thinking about directing a short, Murphy decided it had to somehow connect with Hawaii. He was at his kitchen table drawing a volcano with a face on a napkin. And he was making an odd connection — music will do that to memories, he said.

Murphy drew his way back to the feeling he had when he first heard Kamakawiwo’ole sing “Over the Rainbow,” the Hawaiian singer cooing and oohing and strumming an ukulele.

“The only problem was I play guitar, not ukulele, so I needed to buy and learn to play the ukulele,” Murphy said.

So that spring, Murphy returned to the Big Island, wife and three children in tow.

“I wanted to go back where my love affair with Hawaii all began with my family, see the volcano Kilauea again and buy a Kamaka ukulele so I could compose this idea I had for this song on a real ukulele handcrafted in the islands,” he said. “I know it sounds ridiculous and extreme, but that’s what I did.”

The story came together on the last day of his trip.

While walking through a mall in Kona, he saw a diorama of the volcanoes that created the Big Island. Off the coast, still deep underwater, was Loihi, a small volcano that won’t surface for thousands of years.

In that moment he saw his little film, complete and whole.

“That was an epiphany,” he said.

When Murphy arrived at the recording session for Kahele in February 2013, the director wasn’t the only anxious person in the studio. Kahele wasn’t sure that he was worthy.

“Ijust thought, ‘I am going to do what I do best when I sing Hawaiian music and just sing my heart out,'” Kahele said by phone from Hilo. “I still felt the pressure. It was unbelievable.”

After he sang, Murphy pulled Kahele to the side. The singer figured he was going to get a measure of the director’s disappointment.

Murphy’s praise was a surprise.

“He said I was perfect,” said the Kahele, 36, who has performed since childhood.

Even with all that emotion, Kahele didn’t realize the true measure of what he was doing until much later.

“It wasn’t until maybe several months down the road when it started to sink in,” he said. “Then I started to realize, Whoa, this is a big deal. It is definitely the highlight of my career.”

The free Hawaii screening of “Lava” is a special event because it won’t be in theaters until next summer when it serves as the opening short for Pixar’s “Inside Out.”

Murphy can hardly wait to share the film. The way he sees it, “Lava” is more than a catchy tune strummed on a simple instrument.

“I think it’s about the power and the patience of love,” Murphy said. “Science says it’s a hot spot that creates these volcanoes. What if it’s not a hot spot? What if it’s love?”

“Lava” screens at 4:15 p.m. Sunday at Regal Dole Cannery and 7 p.m. Sunday at Hawaii Theatre, followed by a Nov. 13 screening at Hilo’s Palace Theater. The free screening will take place at 6 p.m. Friday in the courtyard of the IBM Building, 1240 Ala Moana Blvd., and will include live performances by Kuana Torres Kahele and Napua Greig, plus a discussion with Murphy and producer Andrea Warren following the screening.
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Mike Gordon covers film and television in Hawaii for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Email him at mgordon@staradvertiser.com and follow him on Twitter. Read his weekly “Outtakes” column Sundays in the Star-Advertiser.

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