By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Jun 28, 2015 at 11:56 AM

If you’ve seen Disney/Pixar’s latest animated hit and one-man Kleenex stock boon "Inside Out" (and if you haven’t, do it now) there’s a good chance a certain song has been humming and rattling around in your own mind ever since. No, not that TripleDent gum jingle, but the chorus to "Lava," the brief and beautifully rendered pre-movie short about a happy Hawaiian volcanic island looking for love.

The short film comes from the mind of current Pixar head of animation James Ford Murphy, making his first leap to the director’s chair after serving as an animator for several years and several now beloved modern kids movie classics. And while the short takes plenty of inspiration from Hawaii, as it turns out, Murphy’s journey to get there made a major stop right here in Milwaukee – most notably at Marquette University, where he graduated from in 1986 with a degree in journalism.

"I think it was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in my life," Murphy said. "It was a real growing up period for me. I met some life-long friends, some life-changing friends and some life companions at Marquette."

One of those life-changing dear friends just happened to be iconic "SNL" cast member and big screen star Chris Farley, who was the same year as Murphy and the same college – albeit studying communications and theater rather than journalism. The two met playing rugby together and living together in the dorms, eventually housing up together again – along with 12 other guys – their junior year in a big red building at 19th and Kilbourne. Murphy confirmed that, indeed, fun times were had back in their college days, but there were also some deeply profound ones that still stick with the animator to this day.

"I learned a lot from Chris – not only about humor, but about appeal and about finding yourself," Murphy said. "It’s just amazing what he was able to do in such a short amount of time."

He also has Chris – along with his fellow actor, comedian and MU grad brother Kevin Farley – to thank for helping him meet his wife Kathy, who was in the class two years behind Murphy. And no, MU alums, it wasn’t at the traditional new student square dance. Kevin, who was also two years behind Chris and James at Marquette, brought her to one of their rugby games. The two met and eventually fell in love, capped off with a marriage proposal featuring a uniquely Milwaukee backdrop.

"I proposed to my wife at Summerfest," Murphy said, who understandably forgets who it was they were even seeing that day. "It was on one of the gondolas, kind of overlooking the city. I pulled out the ring and popped the question."

Murphy’s Summerfest-set wedding proposal may certainly be one of his sweetest Milwaukee memories, but it’s far from his only one. After graduating from Marquette in 1986, he stayed in Milwaukee for about one more year, living on Brady Street, hitting up movie screenings at the Oriental Theatre, grabbing haircuts at Oriental Barbers and working his first job at Jockey Underwear down in Kenosha. He also drew up a couple of covers for the Shepherd Express, "one with the Violent Femmes one it and another one, I think, with Marilyn Monroe for Summerfest."

His interest in drawing and design eventually landed him a job at the Chicago-based animation studio Calabash Animation, mostly working on hand-drawn cartoons for cereal commercials and other products (Murphy’s main project was the little toga-clad, "Pizza pizza!" chanting mascot for Little Caesar’s). News eventually reached Murphy, however, about a new company opening that was going to attempt to make the first all-computer animated feature film. The company, of course, ended up being Pixar.  

"I knew Pixar from the short film ‘Luxo Jr.,’ so the more I learned about it, I decided to send out my reel and my resume, and I eventually ended up getting a job offer to work on ‘Toy Story,’" Murphy said.

Given the chance to work on a groundbreaking new animated movie, Murphy of course did the logical thing … and turned it down.

"The only problem was the offer was a run-of-show, so it was only a six-month deal just to get the film done," he explained. "I said no, because I just couldn’t take the chance of moving all the way out to the West Coast with a kid and a wife and then be looking for work again. I really wanted to say yes, because I just loved everything they showed me. They showed me the Army man sequence, and I was just blown away."

Instead, Murphy took what seemed like a more promising long-term job up in Seattle at the computer game company Sierra Entertainment. After a year of working at Sierra, Pixar’s revolutionary "Toy Story" finally opened on Thanksgiving in 1995. And when Murphy got a chance to see the movie, it "devastated" him – and not in the typical way Pixar movies emotionally devastate their audiences.

"I was heartbroken that I had this opportunity, and I let it slip through my fingers," Murphy said. "So I spent the entire Thanksgiving weekend putting my reel and my resume back together and sending it to Pixar."

Murphy wouldn’t end up having to rue his decision for too long. Thankfully, four months after resubmitting his reel and resume, the then fledgling animation studio hired Murphy on.

"It was at a time when computer animation was so new, and Pixar was just looking for animators," Murphy explained. "There really weren’t people trained, or there weren’t many people trained, so they were just looking for people who knew how to animate. I learned the computer here.

"It takes a while because I had been so used to doing it one way with drawing, and now you were working with trying to get a computer to behave like a drawing," he continued. "It took a while, and it still takes a while. That’s one of the big challenges in computer animation: It does a lot of things for you, and as an animator, you need to tell it what to do, not let it do what it does."

It’s safe to say he’s figured it out, however. Since coming on board with Pixar in 1996, Murphy’s earned animator credits for beloved award-winning kids films like "Finding Nemo," "Toy Story 2," "Monsters Inc.," "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille." According to Murphy, it’s a uniquely culture at the studio, creating stories driven by directors, formed through supportive peer review throughout the development process and hitting strong universal emotions many films – whether for adults or children – don’t bother.

"I think that’s what I love most about the Pixar films: Each film does deal with a human emotion, but our medium allows us to tell stories that deal with these emotions in worlds that no other medium can go," Murphy said. "I think that just comes from culturally the type of filmmakers here. Those are the types of films that we love and that we want to make. I think in most cases, we’re less trying to hit on every level as much as we’re trying to make movies for ourselves that we love, that think are funny or that we would generally be entertained and moved by."

After years of helping bring those stories to life from the animator’s desk, Murphy finally made the leap to the director’s chair for "Lava," what he named "his most challenging" project in a job filled with new creative and technical challenges. It’s also a project that’s clearly been Murphy’s baby, one dreamt up and envisioned from his own life, experiences and interests.

"The idea really comes from my love and fascination with Hawaii," he explained. "When I was a kid, I was first introduced to Hawaii through Elvis Presley – I was a big Elvis fan as a kid – and then when I got married, my wife and I honeymooned on the big island. That was 25 years ago, and ever since then, I’ve just been captivated by Hawaii.

"Then I heard, several years ago, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of ‘Over The Rainbow,’ and I was just so blown away by the power and beauty of that song that I thought, ‘What if I could write a song that makes me feel the way that song does, but feature it in a short that’s inspired by my love of Hawaii and volcanoes and all these ingredients."

With all of those ingredients, Murphy reined and finessed them down to one major key idea: a story told through a song. And that’s exactly how "Lava" turned out: a Hawaiian themed love story narrated by a song.

While the short runs maybe 10 minutes, it took much longer to get it to the screen. Murphy said the time between coming up with the initial idea and getting his pitch – where he would perform the entire song he wrote for the film on the ukulele – greenlit was probably about eight months. That was then followed by about another year and a half of production, attempting to craft a short film with hopefully all of the big, earned emotions of a feature film 10 times its length.

"That’s one of the biggest challenges with a short film: It’s short," Murphy said. "You only have so much time to introduce your characters, introduce the situation and create a sense of mood, atmosphere and scale even in the case of "Lava" to draw the audience in."

As for drawing audiences in, "Lava" and "Inside Out" have already done so in spades. A week ago, "Inside Out" scored the highest grossing opening weekend for an original, non-franchise film in history, and after just its second weekend, the movie is already close to clearing $200 million."

That’s a lot of kids and adults alike walking out probably with tears in their eyes and Murphy’s Hawaiian hymn to love stuck in their heads, spicing up the usual rotation of "Everything Is Awesome" and "Let It Go."

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.