Pixar animator Sanjay Patel discusses his new illustrated book devoted to The Ramayana, one of Hindu mythology's most powerful and enduring tales.
Long before James Cameron's blue-skinned Na'vi of Avatar was the blue prince Rama of the legendary Hindu tale, Ramayana, a beloved mythology about powerful deities, love-struck monsters, flying monkey gods, magic weapons, demon armies and divine love. Nina Paley offered a fresh spin in Sita Sings the Blues. Now Pixar animator and storyboard artist Sanjay Patel (Toy Story 3, The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., A Bug's Life) has crafted an illustrated book, Ramayana: Divine Loophole (Chronicle Books), which is of particular interest to the animation community.
Bill Desowitz: What was it like revisiting this ancient epic in a fresh, accessible way?
Sanjay Patel: It's absolutely in my wheel house of training at Pixar and CalArts. What we were taught to practice at CalArts was this notion of appeal, and, ideally, just making something that's arresting. In that way, I [think] the content of the Ramayana is arresting and engaging. And what's compelling about mythology is that it's actually really potent and timeless and filled with archetypes. To be perfectly blunt, I didn't understand much about the Ramayana. I grew up with it but I wasn't exposed truly to the story, let alone the symbols and the archetypes they were presenting. And because I was living outside of my parents' culture, I missed all the conduits for that story. For instance, one of the things that's neat about the Ramayana is that for centuries it was always sung: it was piece of poetry that was recited and performed. And I think that really does the mythology a favor because I think myths have to be reinterpreted and renewed with its context in mind. Otherwise, it does become stodgy and you lose archetypes, actually. So, to this day, the Ramayana is performed during diwali, and it's a big harvest celebration enjoyed by children and parents.
Which is to say, that the illustrated versions that I've seen during my travels abroad, didn't really speak to the broader global audience and people like me who have been brought between two different cultures. So I really wanted to figure out a way to make it compelling to a context and culture of visual icons that I grew up with but in a story that takes place in my parents' world and in the place of India, which is my tradition and roots.
BD: And the challenge?
I think the challenge was learning the mythology and what you can play with and learning what these symbols meant, and immersing myself in this. So, what I find is the quickest way to arrest somebody is an image. Since the Ramayana is one of the longest pieces of poetry put to page, how do you catch somebody in their tracks, given how many things are competing for people's attentions? And one of the things I've developed at Pixar is making appealing and arresting imagery. And so when I started reading the Ramayana, I thought there was true substance. And if you don't want the substance, you could get a plot summary and still be engaged. And so I thought of making this as sharp and graphic and dynamic as possible and looked at many different designers and aesthetics. And even if you were to just look at the image and read the header, hopefully, you would have a little bit more of a clue about the story and move on from there if you were totally arrested.
Ultimately, I did something that Brad Bird recommended: I worked with Brad on The Incredibles and was given a sequence to storyboard -- that moment in the jungle where the family is reunited after being separated; and it's the first time you see the family working together. And Brad had written it very loosely and I came up with all these ideas and Brad looked at them and his reaction was: "These are all great ideas, but if we were to use all of them, you'd load down the audience with a big meal. What we want it to feel like is a small appetizer with all of these small sequences adding up to a full meal." So, I think that each of these pages is a small appetizer because the story is a feast.
BD: So, what was your approach?
At first I spent a year-and-a-half trying to make it cute, with flat horizontal lines, small characters doing cute things with violent things happening around them. Then I tried to make it a little more dramatic, which felt too serious and boring, and then I got really inspired by Genndy Tartakovsky's Samurai Jack. I will say that Genndy and his crew went to CalArts and there's a house style that comes out of CalArts and I was cut from that cloth. So by the third year I found something in between, which developed into a certain proportion, a certain look. And I was also inspired by Charley Harper, who is the mid-century modernist painter. He has a very graphic sensibility and I was very smitten by his work, and so there's a lot of Charley Harper in the work as well.
BD: And you had all of those bold colors to use, especially the blue, yellow, orange and purple.
I was absolutely inspired by the material, which calls for certain characters to be depicted by certain colors. The Rama has to be blue, the clothes have to be burgundy or orange. Ravana has to be depicted with green skin, typically. I took some liberties also with purple being a sign of royalty too. I thought that was a very real color. But the colors are very much inspired by India: it's all in the mythology and in the way it's being depicted now. I also looked at a lot of Thai artwork as well because so much of the Thai culture is based on the Ramayana as well. I recently went to Thailand for the first time and was really struck by it. I also want to strongly mention Nina Paley and her work as well, Sita Sings the Blues. I discovered an adaptation of the Ramayana that she was reading that got me fired up to do this illustrated version. It's so nice to see her work and all the attention that she's brought to that mythology as well.
BD: What's been the reaction to the book at Pixar?
SP: They are totally shocked that I found the time to do it, but they are utterly blown away by the beauty of it. One of the nicest compliments I got was when somebody said that usually when you see an individual's work at a studio, it's not that strong, and yet when that individual works on the team they're work is activated. And they thought the opposite was true of me: that my work is good here at Pixar, but working by myself on these stories has activated me.
BD: What have you been working on recently?
I worked a little bit on Toy Story 3, but mainly I've been supervising animation on Cars Toons, the series of shorts based on the Cars characters. It's been a really nice experience working on something that's quick and short. I feel it almost feels like improvisation and there's no time to second-guess yourself. Consequently, it feels more akin to The Looney Tunes, where they hit brilliance by the sheer volume.
BD: And Toy Story 3?
SP: I think the movie's incredibly emotional and wonderful: I think it's one of our best films, actually.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.