Uku, the lead character in Pixar Animation's new short film, is crusty and prone to eruptions, but with a warm core underneath -- the kind of man James Earl Jones might play.
But "Lava," the short by director James Ford Murphy, isn't about a man, it's about a volcano.
The seven-minute musical love story between two mountains -- Uku and Lele -- will premiere at the Hiroshima International Animation Festival in Japan in August.
Drawn to Hawaiian music and island culture as a kid growing up in Detroit watching Elvis movies, Murphy, an animator on Pixar's features since 1998's "A Bug's Life," got the idea for "Lava" more than 20 years ago while honeymooning on Hawaii's Big Island.
"I thought it would be so cool to fall in love with a place who's also a character," Murphy said in an interview. "I wanted to make Uku appealing and likable but also look like he's been carved out of lava flows."
As part of his pitch to executives at Pixar, Murphy learned to play ukulele and wrote a love song, "Lava," which appears in the film and is performed by Hawaiian recording artists Kuana Torres Kahele and Napua Greig.
In keeping with the studio's philosophy that short films should advance the technology used in Pixar's features, Murphy and his producer, Andrea Warren, grappled with achieving the sense of scale live action filmmakers derive from a helicopter shot within the world of 3-D animation, where computers can choke on that much visual information.
"This whole story has been an exercise in contrast," Murphy said. "Volcanoes are so destructive, but they're so creative. They’re so powerful in their eruptions but they’re so peaceful."