James Ford Murphy, Jour ’86, helped Pixar Animation Studios win several Oscars for Best Animated Feature Film.
Now he’s wrapping up his directorial debut of Pixar’s short film, Lava.
Pixar Animation Studios bears little resemblance to Universal Studios or Disneyland — no Magic Kingdom, no wandering characters in costumes, no roller coasters or spinning teacups. The surprisingly compact 22-acre campus in Emeryville, Calif., is a haven for the artists, writers, dreamers, and nuts-and-bolts staff who’ve made some of the most beloved and successful animated movies — Toy Story, Cars, Finding Nemo and Monsters University, to name just a few.
Murphy joined the Pixar family in 1996 and had a hand in winning many of the studio’s seven Best Animated Feature Oscars. He oversaw animation, art and story before taking his first directing job, Lava, a musical love story featuring Uku, a lonely Hawaiian volcano, and Lele, his volcano love interest.
Marquette Magazine sat down with Murphy at Pixar Studios to talk about Lava, his road to the animation industry, and the ideals and culture that shape his work and Pixar’s mission.
Murphy was a trained journalist whose path to animation flowed from a start with Jockey underwear to animating a character for Little Caesar’s Pizza to an initial pass — yes, pass — on a job with Pixar.
When I graduated from Marquette in 1986 I was at a crossroads. I was fascinated with the arts, thanks to my journalism degree. I did a comic strip for The Marquette Tribune called “Murphy’s Law” that got me interested in drawing, and I was thinking about going to art school. But I ended up meeting and marrying a girl (Katherine Karas Murphy, Arts ’88). I decided to stay in the Midwest and got a job with Jockey underwear for about a year. I wasn’t crazy about it, so I started doing a lot of drawings and cartoons to drum up freelance work.
I was able to freelance for about a year in Chicago and decided that I would really love to learn about animation. I didn’t have any money to go back to school, so I ended up knocking on doors and got a job at Calabash Animation, doing mostly television commercials like the Little Caesar’s “Pizza Pizza” guy.
While I was there I heard about Toy Story, which was still in production. I pulled up my sample reel and got my resume together and sent it off to Pixar. After my interview, I was offered a job on Toy Story. It was only about a six-month job, mostly just to get the movie done. My wife and I just had our first child, and I couldn’t take that risk. A year later Toy Story came out, and seeing that movie was one of the most profound experiences of my life. It just floored me — and it really devastated me. I thought I blew it, that I had this amazing opportunity and let it slip through my fingers.
I spent an entire Thanksgiving weekend putting my reel back together, putting my resume back together. I was probably the first person hired after the success of Toy Story.
Murphy began directing creative artists in a management role before taking a leap to pitch ideas for feature films.
I was an animator for about 12 years and then I became director of creative artists, overseeing animation, art and story. I’m no longer in that role. For the past couple years I’ve been directing our new short feature, Lava. We do short cartoons in front of all of our features and anyone in the studio can pitch ideas for them. The one stipulation is you can’t pitch one idea; you have to pitch three ideas. You have to work on your own time. Our development team will work very closely with you, developing your ideas into pitches. When the time comes, you pitch them to a panel of directors. If you can get through that panel with any or all of your three ideas, then you get to pitch them to Pixar’s director and chief creative officer, John Lasseter. John has the final say.
Having his idea for a volcano that falls in love earn the coveted green light put Murphy in a new position as film director.
It’s terrifying. The review process is very honest, so the feedback is going to be very honest. People like Lasseter, Ed Catmull (president of Pixar Animation Studios), and Steve Jobs (a co-founder of Pixar) created this amazing ecosystem to let creativity flow and grow. In doing so, they created this protective environment that allows you take risks and maybe make a fool of yourself — but it’s OK because it’s all in the service of making the story or idea better. John reacted very enthusiastically to my original pitch. What he loved was the originality of the story, the charm of the song, and the idea I pitched of using traditional Hawaiian singers as the voices and filming these volcano characters like they were being filmed with cameras on tiny little helicopters. But what I remember most was how excited he was about the difficulty of pulling all of this off successfully. After the pitch, he gave me a big hug and said, “Jim, I don’t know how we’re going to do this, and that’s what I love most about it!”
Several experiences influenced Murphy. He started down this road by combining his loves for writing and art and mixing in influence from college roommate Chris Farley. Each dreamed of making his mark.
Probably the most important thing was the comic strip in the school newspaper. It gave me an outlet to combine my love of writing with my love of drawing. The other was my roommate and best friend at Marquette, the late, great Chris Farley, Sp ’86. I learned a lot from Chris in terms of humor and appeal and charm, and we both had this dream of doing something — with cartooning in my case or comedy for Chris. Also the journalism program was a wonderful training ground. Journalists are taught to go out in the world and find stories, dissect them, and then put them back together in an entertaining and informative way. That’s exactly what a filmmaker does. Everything has to be carefully crafted and thought out so that you’re telling the story, you’re carrying an emotion, and your story has a beginning, middle and end.
Marquette roommates and best friends James Murphy and Chris Farley dreamed of launching careers in cartooning and comedy, respectively.
Who hasn’t found their first, and probably most beloved, stories were inhabited by cartoon characters? For Murphy, the golden age of cartoons never ended.
I particularly loved the short films and cartoons from the late ’40s and early ’50s and then Chuck Jones and Looney Tunes stuff. What’s so great about them is they’re all about character. The characters are just so good and so strong. My favorite is Feed the Kitty, with Marc Anthony the bulldog and the little tiny kitten he puts on his back and falls in love with. I loved Disney cartoons, too, like Susie the Little Blue Coupe. That’s one of my all-time favorites because it’s so charming. Another is Willy the Operatic Whale, who dreams of singing at the Metropolitan Opera. And I think what Pixar has been able to do is celebrate cartoons, celebrate what you can do in cartoons. You can have a whale that actually sings on the Metropolitan Opera stage. You can do whatever you want in animation if you can think of it. I just love that.
The story for Lava grew out of Murphy’s lifelong fascination with the Hawaiian Islands.
My biggest goal was to create stories about things that I really love, that I could connect with emotionally. I think if you love the story, you have the best chance of making a film that the audience will love. As I was thinking about ideas, I went to this love affair that I’ve had with the Hawaiian Islands ever since I was a kid. When I got married, we honeymooned on the Big Island and that was the first time I’d ever seen an active volcano. I just couldn’t believe they really existed. Years later I heard Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I thought: “What if I could write a song that makes me feel the way that song does, then feature it in a Pixar short film and celebrate all these things about Hawaii, the volcanoes, the music … man, if I could just combine these ingredients into a nice little seven-minute short, wouldn’t that be amazing?” That’s what I set out to do with Lava. The song would be sung by traditional Hawaiian musicians and the film would have these giant mountain islands involved in this intimate love story. When I finally pitched Lava, I played the ukulele and sang the song I wrote, and the song told the story. Out of my three ideas, that was the one John picked. For a year, all I did was listen to Hawaiian music. I knew every single musician in the Hawaiian music world. We finally found the two musicians we used, Kuana Torres Kahele and Napua Greig, at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards Festival.
Iz was always the inspiration behind Lava. What I love about his music is how raw and emotional it is and how alive he feels in his recordings. You can hear him breathing — they didn’t polish any of that stuff out. I kept that in our recording as well, leaving in the little breaths so the spirit of the music is there and alive and not overly manufactured. And my highest hope is that I just want people to love it.