James Ford Murphy joined the Pixar family in 1996 and had a hand in winning many of the studio’s seven Best Animated Feature Oscars. His latest project is the seven-minute feature film Lava, due to be released domestically in July 2015.
Have you ever come back to Marquette to speak to journalism students?
[He thinks about this and seems surprised at his answer.] No, I haven’t.
If you did, what would you say?
Rather than worry about where the field is going, find new ways to apply your skills because there are plenty. The ability to write and communicate ideas, whatever you do, is one of the most important things in any job. Who knew this field of computer animation was going to pop up? I was just at the right place at the right time … but I was looking, you know? I would also tell journalism students that you’re going to have to do a lot of things you don’t like to find the thing you do like. If you continue to at least try them, go down the paths of the things you do like and let them lead to other things, your chances are pretty good that you’re going to be in the right place at the right time an opportunity presents itself.
Pixar films aren’t just for kids. I don’t think I saw a Pixar film until four years ago when my son was born, and since then it’s been a steady diet. He’s seen Cars and Monsters University hundreds of times. Cars transcended any kind of movie I’ve ever seen, with Paul Newman’s voice work and so much more. You worked on Cars, right?
I actually supervised that character in development, when we were trying to develop the Hudson Hornet car into the character Hud. How do you respect the fact that these are automobiles, made of steel and chrome, but with human qualities that you need for acting without breaking the spell or the illusion that they’re cars? That was a challenge throughout the whole movie, particularly with Hud and his mouth because it was chrome. Any time we moved that chrome too much like flesh, it looked like liquid mercury instead of super-hard chrome. It’s the challenge you have when you try to animate anthropomorphic objects, you know? So that was just a question of trying to make something that’s metal look fleshy, but not too fleshy. It was an interesting and fun challenge.
From what I’ve read about John Lasseter, the president of Pixar Animation Studios, he’s not afraid to just scrap something and say, “Start over.” It must not be a popular decision at the time.
John has an uncanny instinct for knowing the audience. John also has a tremendous ability to collaborate with and inspire the people around him, get the most out of people around him. I think John knows that, as a director, he can only take an idea so far. He is looking for what you are going to bring to make his film better. He can get you all fired up to have that little bit of ownership in this bigger film. I think John has a great ability to understand how those individual components are going to make the whole better.
You described the intense process for pitching ideas to Pixar for future projects and the fact that you can’t pitch just one idea, that the requirement is to pitch three ideas at a time. Before you came up with the idea for Lava, how many times had you gone through the process?
This was really the first time for me, but I pitched it so many times. And since Lava is a musical, whenever I pitched it I performed. I sang it on the ukulele. I probably did about 25 drawings, and I did a sculpture of the volcano, of Uku. So whenever I pitched it, I would have my sculpture, I would have the drawings, and I’d have somebody going through the drawings as I went. I’d sing the song and the song would tell the story.
There is an often-quoted statement by one of your founders, Ed Catmull, saying that the job of Pixar is “to go from suck to un-suck.” What does he mean?
Right! It’s funny — it’s true though. It’s the painful part of the process. Sometimes you’re surprised at things that you thought were going to work and don’t, and sometimes you’re surprised by things you didn’t think were going to work. That’s what’s so cool about our process with our story reels, that we can really quickly work with drawings and scratch dialog and scratch music to assemble an impression of the film that you can judge and make notes on, and then use that to propel you forward.
Cartoons and short features are important art forms even if they’re only seven- or eight-minutes long. People shouldn’t dismiss them just for that reason.
I agree. They’re such a part of the history and legacy of Pixar. This studio grew out of the short films of John Lasseter. I love that. It’s such a tradition here. I feel like in some ways, Pixar is like a family business, and the family business started with these little short films and we continue to make the short films that got us to where we are.
Is it safe to say that you’re working at your dream job?
I would say it is. I’ve learned a ton working here, worked with so many amazing artists, technical folks and directors. I’ve gotten to work on some of the most interesting films in the history of animation. I’ve learned so much by seeing John Lasseter in action, and Brad Bird and Pete Docter and all these great directors, and how differently they approach the same job, and how they’re able to really inspire and collaborate with the incredibly talented team we have. I think that’s how I’ve approached my whole career — you just keep putting yourself out there. Sometimes you get knocked down. But you’ve got to try things. You’ve got to put yourself out there and keep learning.