The director and producer of Pixar’s new animated short, which will front ‘The Good Dinosaur’ when it opens in theatres next month, discuss their poignant and uniquely different film.
Sanjay Patel would probably blush while staring down at his shoes if he heard me refer to him as a reluctant hero. But in many ways, he is just that. Despite considerable initial hesitation, after some gentle urging and support from Pixar, he, along with producer Nicole Grindle, has crafted an extraordinary short film that lays bare the heart and soul of some deep-seated emotions he has grappled with since early childhood. Struggles so many of us know far too well – painful realities where the constant fear or hurtful sting of feeling different, of being considered an outcast or the odd one out, are daily reminders of the indignities we often face as we try to “fit” in and find our place in the world. Patel has certainly succeeded in producing the “brown” film he set out to make.
Patel’s new film, Sanjay’s Super Team, in a few short, often gentle minutes, humanizes in intimate and vibrant fashion some very heavy themes centered around generational, cultural and religious divides. He tackles head on the idea that maybe, just maybe, kids will watch his film and realize that their modern values don’t always have to clash with the seemingly out of touch components of ingrained familial traditions, that the ancient cultural and religious beliefs they often reject because of the painful social stigma of being considered “different” may in fact contain themes, characters and stories that are much cooler and contemporary than they’d ever imagined.
It’s a brave film, one you might not expect a major studio to produce. Why risk the backlash? But after convincing the shy 20 year studio veteran they stood behind him and his story, that’s exactly what Pixar did.
I recently had a chance to speak to the filmmakers, who discussed their initial hesitation and ultimate embrace of the film’s production and how they came to trust and appreciate Pixar’s support for telling a very different type of story.
Dan Sarto: Unlike many Pixar shorts based on an idea pitched by a studio artist as part of a general submission call, you were approached directly to make a short. Yet, you turned down the opportunity more than once. Why? What made you hesitate to accept and what eventually changed your mind?
Sanjay Patel: There was a lot going on with me during that period. You know, people are going to be so surprised watching this short because I was stunned being able to make it. I was certain there was no way in heck we were going to make something like this. I've been at the studio for almost twenty years and when they first approached me about this I figured, “They're not going to want to do it." I was certain we would never be able to do something this foreign.
Beyond that, I had no ambition to be a director. It's just so grueling. It's like you get demolished...
Nicole Grindle: …You have to stand in front of a bunch of people. Something that Sanjay doesn't enjoy….
SP: I should own that I'm also an introvert. I like making art by myself. That's why I went to art school. I think directing is...you have to be kind of a different creature and I'm not very good at that.
The combination of being scared, being out of my comfort zone and then being certain that we would never produce anything this foreign just spelled out okay, I'm not interested. I think it was just easier for me to ignore it. They approached me and I kind of went, “Ha ha ha that's funny. I'm not interested.” Then the next time [they asked], I didn't respond. I just ignored it. The third time, I was forced to engage [laughs].
DS: Third time’s the charm.
SP: When the president of Pixar, Jim Morris, asked me, he said, “What's going on? Why aren’t you taking this opportunity?” He was very encouraging of me telling a different kind of story. Straight away I said, “You know, Mr. Morris, I want to tell something “brown.” I'm committed...I'm really inspired by my culture and I really am committed to it. This is the art I feel is missing from this culture and me in particular. I'm hungry for this. This is what I want." He said, “I don't see a problem here. I think the studio wants to tell a different story. It's as simple as that. We're always looking for fresh stories.”
Even then, I was still thinking, “I don't know.” The idea of directing anything at Pixar was just terrifying to me. My art was and is very personal. I’d come home from a day of work at Pixar and just do art that I was passionate about doing, in the privacy of my own home. It was my own. It felt safe.
Then I talked to my dad and he really knocked some sense into me. He saw this as a really great relationship that I've had with the studio and how immature I was being by walking out on that relationship and not doing my part. He saw it as a spiritual calling. He said, “Son, your duty, your sacred duty, is to try your best. That's your job when you're an employee working for this relationship. As long as you did your best then your karma will be clear. If you're not doing your best, then your karma will be affected.”
DS: So you’ve made the film and will soon share your very personal vision with the whole world. What are you taking away from this directing experience?
SP: A lot of gratitude. And appreciation. Appreciation of my father. Gratitude that we had this opportunity to celebrate him, to show a photo of him to so many other people that might not have known him otherwise. A lot of gratitude towards Pixar, especially John Lasseter, and being able to thank him personally for giving me this opportunity and then giving the world this opportunity to get a peek inside a culture that people might not ever see otherwise. Man, I’m just really thankful.
NG: Also, a lot of people from all kinds of different cultures have already come up to you and said, “Thank you for reflecting my experience as the child of immigrants.” That's been really rewarding. I don't know if you expected it that directly. To get notes from people, or have people come up to you at tables who are emotional about it.
DS: Certainly the story resonates far beyond the boundaries of your own personal religious and cultural experiences.
SP: I had gotten a fair amount of fan mail with the books [Sanjay has self-published two comic books about Hindu deities that inspired elements of the short] but the books were mostly reaching a certain demographic, a certain type of family. But when people go see The Good Dinosaur and first they watch this short film they didn't buy a ticket for but get exposed to, that's really exciting.
I'm really excited that people around the world will sort of be forced to witness a different culture, how awesome it can be and how cool it is - the richness of it.
DS: This film humanizes some heavy topics. You made the film with a visual and narrative vocabulary we can all appreciate. Part of what you explored and expressed within this film makes it approachable for everyone else, which really exemplifies the film’s power.
SP: Well, at Pixar, everybody really helped in that effort. Especially John [Lasseter]. That's the best, right? That's when movies are working the best. Humanizing a thing that politics can't solve or that people can't solve in society, but we can solve in myths. The modern mythmaking machine.
DS: Within Hindu culture and your family’s religious values, how delicate was it for you to create new, highly stylized visual interpretations of deity figures? Did that gave you pause? Was that something you worried about or wondered how you could handle in a way that was sensitive yet gave you the avenue needed to express yourself? We’ve seen all too recently how certain graphic depictions of religious iconography can have serious repercussions.
NG: First of all, Sanjay has such reverence for Indian culture and history that we felt safe working with him in that regard. But we also brought in some consultants just to make sure there wasn't anything we were missing - they were very helpful. They wanted to make sure we didn't appear to be trivializing those deities. It's important to note that in the artwork at the end of the film, when you see Sanjay's Super Team, the deities are above his superhero doodles. That was a very conscious choice because they're not just superheroes. Maybe they have inspired superhero stories, but they're deities that we recognize are revered within the religion. We wanted to show that kind of reverence without making a film about religion. The film is about Sanjay's experience, but we recognized that we were talking about religious figures.
SP: Many people don't see or understand the roots of those traditions. What was nice was that when we hitched our wagon to all the classical dance and theater traditions in India, it showed our audience that the animation was rooted in respect for how people revere these deities, and how they have watched their deities reenacted in temples and in plays in India for thousands of years. We hope that to them, this film feels like we're carrying on in that tradition.
NG: It's also important to understand that this film represents what a child imagines their parent's deities look like. That's the story we're telling. We're not saying that deities are superheroes. We're saying this is a little boy whose context is superheroes and Saturday morning cartoons. Once he understands what his father is doing, he interprets it in terms of what he understands.
SP: Hence the cartoon shading.
DS: What about this film do you hope resonates most with audiences?
SP: Well, I have this kind of ax to bear...
NG: Cross. Axe to grind [laughs]…what a great mashup.
SP: Okay, cross to bear. Here's what I wish. When I was growing up, there just weren’t any depictions of families like my own in a way that wasn't just a butt of a joke. I'm hoping...I'm really certain that having Pixar's name behind such a vivid looking short might make kids like me suddenly feel like they're part of America. Or whatever country. Even if they're not Indian. They could be an immigrant kid that maybe is not part of the norm, but maybe could see themselves in the story, see for themselves that actually, this is cool! This is cool enough for a Pixar short! Suddenly, they might feel less different, less isolated.
NG: I agree with that. For me, I also want children who are rooted in mainstream culture to become interested in things that are on the periphery, things that are old and represent amazing wisdom. Universal wisdom. Everything in mainstream culture is so yesterday, brand-new, shiny and shallow. This represents some depth that I hope other kids look at and want to learn more about.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
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