Pixar’s geological love story Lava isn’t just meant to evoke the tropical islands of Hawaii; it’s actually inspired by a real underwater volcano off the coast of the Big Island. We spoke to the short film’s director and learned about the real geology simmering beneath Lava.

Spoilers for Lava ahead.

“I took my family on vacation to the Big Island,” Lava director James Ford Murphy told us in an interview. “We took a helicopter tour and I saw Kīlauea and that was huge. Then, on the last day, we were all kind of sad and leaving and we were walking through this shopping mall that had this diorama of the Big Island. And it’s five volcanos that form the Big Island that have all merged together over time. But then there’s this little sign on the bottom that said ‘Lōʻihi.’ And I was like, ‘What is Lōʻihi?’

“So when I got home, I started doing my research and I found out that it is an underwater volcano that is slowly going to connect [to the Big Island]. And that just blew my mind, because I just thought, ‘Does Lōʻihi know that the Big Island is up here? And does the Big Island know that Lōʻihi [is down there]? And what if they didn’t know?’”

From that moment of anthropomorphism came the seeds of Lava. And just as a real volcano inspired the film, Murphy and his team used real places to construct their volcanic characters. Up top, you can see an image from a presentation that Murphy delivered at Pixar outlining where many of the male volcano Uku’s physical features came from. (Click the magnifying glass in the top left corner to see a bigger version of the image.) You can see elements of Kauaʻi’s Nā Pali Coast in Uku’s arms, for example, and the strata in his face were modeled after Waimea Canyon, also in Kauaʻi. “It’s so appealing,” said Murphy. “The sun has baked it.”

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The female volcano Lele, particularly at her base, was also inspired by the Nā Pali Coast. Her hair comes from the lava fields of Kīlauea, where you can see the black waves of hardened lava. “We were very specific,” Murphy said. “It’s not like you’re actually going for it to look exactly like that, but you want to be very specific.”

The waterfall that forms at the end of the short, when Uku joins with Lele to form the musical island of Ukulele, was inspired by Papalaua Falls on the northern cliffs of Molokai. Like the very notion of the Lōʻihi Seamount, the look of that waterfall appealed to Murphy’s tendency to anthropomorphize. “There’s this great video I saw on it and I could just imagine two faces sharing this waterfall.” So that became the central image of the happy ending to Murphy’s love story.

Top image courtesy of Pixar.

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