The history of Hollywood is littered with stories of short leading men and all the tricks the studios had to use in order to make these diminutive actors seem larger-than-life.
But what happens when you have the opposite problem? When your film is built around a performer who's so enormous that it's genuinely hard to fit them in the frame with anyone else?
That's the challenge that James Ford Murphy faced with Lava, the brand-new short he just wrote and directed for Pixar Animation Studios. His leading man is a huge volcano out in the middle of the ocean who's lonely and looking for love. And Murphy had to find a way to make this massive character seem believable and appealing as both a character and a place.
"I mean, look at this guy. Wouldn't you love to go visit him? Sit on his beach and have that volcano looking down at you?" James said during a recent sit-down interview. "Everyone thinks of volcanoes as destructive. But they're creative too. All the earth that we stand on today is because of volcanoes. And they're also hauntingly beautiful."
Well, while the artists at Pixar obviously found a way to make a volcano look personable and appealing, there was still the matter of selling the audience on the size of this character and the overall scale of this short.
"That was the aspect of Lava that John Lasseter really got excited about: The scale of photography. He wanted to know how we were going to shoot this film so that the volcano actually felt giant. That this character didn't then come across as a miniature," Murphy explained. "What we ended up doing was studying helicopter photography and really looking at what is it about helicopter photography that makes it believable. And what we found out was really simple. It was real helicopter physics and speed. As soon as your camera goes any faster than a real helicopter can go, you instantly blow the scale. So we actually built a speedometer for our cameras. And we never went faster than 120 miles per hour. And as a direct result, we actually got the scale on our volcano character that we were trying to achieve."
Mind you, it wasn't just Lava's scale that challenged these filmmakers. Given that this short's story was supposed to take place over millions of years, the artists and animators at Pixar had to come up with a creative way to visually represent that a huge span of time had passed.
"You know, it's something that we always had in this story early on. We start by introducing the male volcano. He's paradise yet he's alone. He's alone in his own paradise. You just love this guy. And then you want millions of years to go by so he's kind of sinking back into the sea just as his dream girl, the female volcano is rising up from the ocean floor. But that's kind of a delicate thing to show, because you don't want to show the male volcano aging and dying," James stated.
So how did Murphy and the folks resolve this story? They actually turned to an old magician's trick.
"What do magicians do when they're looking to shield the audience from a trick? They just throw a cloth over the object that's supposedly transforming," James explained. "So to initially get across the idea that a great deal of time is passing, we first show the sun and moon racing across the sky. Then we bring the clouds in. And as these clouds move quickly across the male volcano and obscure him, we visually inform the audience that this huge span of time has passed."
But what also helps clarify Lava's story points is the song that Murphy wrote to accompany this new Pixar short. But which came first? The song or the story?
"To be honest, they kind of came hand-in-hand. When I was initially trying to come up with an idea for a short to pitch at Pixar, I sat down at my kitchen table with this ukulele and I just started playing. Then I grabbed a napkin and I drew this two-headed volcano. I always had her taller than him. And then I wrote 'I lava you' on the bottom. And I just thought that that's a song in there with a chorus of 'I lava you.' And I kind of came up with that song as I developed the story for this short," James recalled.
Which isn't to say that Lava is a solo project. Murphy is quick to credit his collaborators on this new Pixar short (which, while it's doing the festival circuit right now, won't be seen by most moviegoers 'til next June. Which is when Lava will bow in front of Pixar's next feature length release, Inside Out). Especially Ren Klyce, who usually works as David Fincher's sound designer.
"Ren's just amazing. And we brought him on really early. And Ren was actually doing the sound design for Lava while he was doing Gone Girl. And he told me that it was so nice to have both. He was like 'Oh my God, I've got this tough, intense drama to work on. And then to be able to shift over to this sweet little short was just ... Ahhh,' " James chuckled.
"He was a champ. I didn't want the sound in this short to step on the song. I wanted Lava's sound to be like this natural musical instrument, that there'd be these touches of sound that came between the gaps in the chorus. That the song and this short's sound would never compete with each another, muddy one another. And Ren just did a terrific job with balancing that out. Especially during those moments in the film when these volcanoes explode," Murphy stated. "I mean, I didn't want the sound to get in the way of the audience falling in love with these characters. But at the same time, I wanted to remind them that these are giant volcanoes. Huge forces of nature."
And in the end, James, Ren and his team at Pixar did achieve exactly what they were trying to do with Lava. Which was place these huge characters in a massive setting and then use them to tell an intimate little love story.
So be sure and catch Lava when it flows into theaters next summer. Because I'm sure once all you animation fans out there get to see this James Ford Murphy film, it'll be lava at first sight.