What No One Tells You About Creative Constraints

Filmmaking Tips from Pixar Animation Studios' First Musical

Is it possible to tell a love story spanning millions of years in just seven minutes?

Apparently so, if writer-director James Ford Murphy’s short film, Lava, is any indication!

Here at Lights Online Film School, we’re big fans of Pixar Animation Studios, and Murphy’s short – which precedes screenings of Inside Out, the all-time biggest box office opening for an original film – continues their trend of heartfelt animated storytelling.

See for yourself in this 40 second preview:

A Unique Pitch

…It’s also Pixar’s first musical. Far from featuring glamorous pop stars, Lava revolves around two lonely volcanoes in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, voiced by traditional Hawaiian singers. “It was a song I’d written,” Murphy explains in an interview with EW while musing on the pitching process, “And every time I pitched it I would sing the entire song on ukulele”:

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.

Murphy worked at Pixar for eighteen years before directing Lava, which was green-lit in part because John Lasseter, the company’s chief creative officer, believed in the idea. “What’s great about Pixar is there is no voice guiding them on what to do next,” Murphy shared. “Pixar is a director-driven studio, and they put their money into individuals with ideas.”

Pixar Animation Studios | "Lava" Poster

Pixar Animation Studios | “Lava” Poster

The Importance of Research & Creative Constraints

Of course, the journey from concept to finished product is often long, winding, and rigorous. The more I learned about Lava, the more my belief in the importance of research was reinforced.

“[O]ne year after we were green-lit all I did was listen to Hawaiian music,” Murphy reflects. He studied the geology of the Hawaiian Islands, which ultimately inspired the film’s love story and informed specifics of the animation, such as how to address questions of scale and camera movement.

Even so, the film was a challenge from the very beginning. “I just love volcanoes, but you’re setting yourself up to make a film about things that can’t move in animation,” he told HitFix:

Like they can’t do anything… I said, “You know what?… Let’s not worry about it. They can get up and walk around if they want. Let’s just think of whatever.” So we came up with these ridiculous ideas, and we ended up pitching three ridiculous possibilities for who [Uku the volcano] could be. None of them was exactly who he was, but in every single one of them, there’s some piece of it that ended up in the final film. It broke us out of that mindset, like, “There are a lot of things we can do. We just have to think outside the box and be clever about it.” That’s what I love about animation. I love having the limitations that force you to try different things. Like “WALL-E” is a perfect example, with the rule of no dialogue. That’s fantastic.

As filmmakers, we tend to resent constraints. If only we could shoot in multiple locations, if only we had a bigger budget, if only the robot could talk… The paradoxical reality is that constraints have a knack for helping, not hindering, creativity. “You accept the limitations of what [the characters] are and work within those and cool things come out of this,” Murphy assures.

Pixar Animation Studios | from "Lava"

Pixar Animation Studios | from “Lava” – How do you animate a volcano?

Directing as Salesmanship

Throughout the process, Murphy’s biggest rule was working with people who wanted to work on the film; who “had a vision for it themselves”. The first half of a director’s job is all sales – “that’s all you’re doing, pitching the idea,” Murphy explains. “You’re pitching potential and you’re pitching inspiration.”

People “lava” good ideas. The next time you need a team for a project, remember your role as salesman! You’ll take one step closer to helping it erupt from script to screen.

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