Working within the framework of family movies with budgets that run into the hundreds of millions, Pixar’s animators manage to find room for the personal and the intimate. Indeed, mining the past for affecting, human experiences is at the heart of the studio’s writing process, as The Good Dinosaur‘s story supervisor Kelsey Mann explained to us in September.
“[The story room] is the safest, sacred place where we talk about the movie and our feelings – the way we experience life,” Mann said. “We want to capture something real we can put on the screen. Even though our characters are toys or cars or dinosaurs. I can’t stand it when you go to movies and you go, ‘they don’t mean that’. It’s fake, it’s surface level. It’s refreshing when you see a movie and go, ‘They are being true to what the human experience is like.’ And that’s what we try to do as artists and as writers. That’s our job – to make you guys feel something.”
The short film Sanjay’s Super Team, which screens in front of Pixar’s latest feature The Good Dinosaur, is personal even by the studio’s standards. About a young boy torn between his love of comics and animated TV shows and his father’s devotion to Hindu tradition, it’s directly inspired by animator Sanjay Patel’s childhood experiences.
Patel joined Pixar nearly 20 years ago following a spell as an animator on The Simpsons TV series. Having worked as a character designer, story artist and animator on a string of Pixar movies from the 90s to the present, including A Bug’s Life, The Incredibles, and Monsters University, Patel eventually – after turning down separate three offers – accepted John Lasseter’s challenge to direct his own animated short. A lengthy story writing (and storyboarding) process began, where Lasseter repeatedly pushed Sanjay to deliver a more personal story – one that is both particular to him yet also universal: a son rediscovering a connection with his father.
The result is a fusion of cultures and styles: we watch as the wide-eyed, animated version of Sanjay is sucked into an imaginary temple, where ancient deities fight in a distinctly anime style. It’s colourful, exotic and quite unlike anything Pixar has produced before; but then, this is the beauty of a short film – it gives animators a chance to let their ideas and art styles take centre stage.
We met Sanjay Patel and producer Nicole Paradis Grindle back in September, and found them sitting in a Pixar office festooned with artwork from Sanjay’s Super Team. Here’s what they had to say about the making of the short and Pixar’s particular approach to developing stories.
[Pointing to the artwork on the wall] It’s a beautiful film.
Nicole Paradis Grindle: We were just admiring these as though we’d never seen them before. [Laughs]
It’s so good that you’ve told such a personal story.
Sanjay Patel: When does that happen? [Laughs] Yeah, I’m beyond grateful. I’m very lucky.
Though it’s a Pixar tradition in a sense, I guess, because Inside Out was based on a lot of Pete Docter’s personal experience.
NPG: I feel that all Pixar films are drawn from some core personal experience. But never before have we been quite so explicit as this one.
SP: Yeah, exactly.
I was interested in the changes in texture. When you first go into the temple, there’s the extraordinary realism of the rock and the stone, and then you have an almost cel-shaded technique. What was the process of working through those?
SP: We wanted to echo what was going on in the cartoon the boy was watching, so if that’s what he worships, then we wanted to manifest that and mingle it with the deities. This is his imagination – it’s kind of a stew.
NPG: Right. If what his father’s doing suddenly looks like the boy’s TV show, then okay, he’s into that. “I’ll accept that. I’ll embrace that if I can interpret it in a way that’s entertaining or exciting for me.”
SP: That’s exactly what I was doing in my books. I had to redraw it in my own selfish, egotistical way!
NPG: But I think you’re presenting it in a way that modern, western audiences can appreciate – it’s short, concise and colourful.
I think it says something interesting about the way we do assimilate art and stories from other cultures. When I think about anime – when I was a kid, anime seemed so exotic. It was hard to find but I naturally gravitated towards it.
SP: Me too!
And now you’re seeing all kinds of feature film directors influenced by anime.
NPG: Oh yeah.
SP: And why wouldn’t you? They’re the best at it, and they make tonnes of it! And it’s great!
You were saying last night that you didn’t warm to the idea of directing this straight away.
NPG: He was reluctant to say the least!
Right! But once you decided to do it, did you find yourself enjoying it?
SP: So because I’d been in production for, like, 20 years, I knew what it means to get an order from a director. And to have absolute clarity there, I just felt like, if I’m going to be in that job, I’m really going to have to get my stuff together. And I really need to be as clear and precise as possible. I don’t know, I felt this pressure to do a good job if I was the person in charge, because I knew how painful it is when you get fuzzy direction – how much time you can waste. How much energy and enthusiasm you can waste if you send them in the wrong direction.
NPG: I’d never thought of it that way, that you’re keenly aware of that when you’ve been working under other directors for a long time. You want to do it the right way. And you were fantastic. Sanjay really rose to the occasion. At first he was super nervous because he had to have every single answer himself, and the truth is, we have such talented people, and I think you learned to lean on them a little bit. You still had the final say, and I know that was an enormous pressure. But they were such partners for him, really. The production designer and the layout DP and the lighting DP – there were times along the pipeline where these people were his best friends. He was calling them in the middle of the night because he was trying to work out these problems.
SP: And they loved it, too, because on a short film, you can have that level of connection with the director. In some of the feature films, it’s hard to have that direct line, because there are so many things you’re occupied with. On a short, there are seven of us, we gotta do it! It’s all on us! It’s a high, it really is, for everyone. I shouldn’t speak for them, but…
NPG: It was, it was. Because they don’t usually have that access. They felt like they were really shaping the film in a meaningful way.
Your presentation last night was a really interesting insight into the Pixar way of developing stories. You showed your earlier idea, and then John Lasseter says, “No, no, you need to tell a personal story.”
NPG: A lot gets thrown out along the way. It’s hard.
SP: But those two concepts did synthesise together. We gleaned the best parts of one and the best parts of the other.
NPG: You have to have courage to do that, and the time.
This is what I was thinking, that it must take a certain amount of bravery and lack of ego, I suppose, to say, “You’re right, we’ll go in this direction.”
SP: It was. I was trying to talk about the concept of a kid ignoring his culture, and for him growing to appreciate his culture – but what is that? A boy learning to appreciate a wall, at bottom? Versus a boy learning to appreciate his culture so that he can appreciate his father… Golly! One has this level of emotion, the other one is all the way up here. It’s something everyone can relate to. John’s advice was dead on – you just have to have half a brain cell to go, “You’re right!”
NPG: That’s when you feel the emotion, when the boy and the father finally connect at the end.
So what was it like when you first started at Pixar? What are your memories of those first few years?
SB: Well, it was great. You have to know, it was just the best thing ever.
NPG: It wasn’t like it is right now. We were a smaller company back then.
SB: You saw everyone get boyfriends and girlfriends. You saw everybody’s wedding. I mean, you literally knew everybody. You’re in a very small space. I don’t know how to describe it.
NPG: It was more informal, and we worked ridiculous hours, we really did. We lived together, almost, in a big group house – we were making a film together.
SB: The only thing I can compare it to is, when I first started, I’d missed Toy Story, but nobody had seen any of this before, what we were doing. It was incredible. I kind of felt a little bit of that charge when John said, “You can make this,” because we’ve never done anything like this. When I looked around at other animation, I couldn’t even find other examples to emulate. It really did feel like we were breaking new ground.
That’s what people forget about with Toy Story, is that you were in the dark, creating something new.
NPG: Oh, God. Constantly trying to invent things. Every single step of the way. “We need to do this.” “Well, how are we going to do it?” I worked on A Bug’s Life, and I remember inventing the raindrops. That was a huge technical issue.
SB: But it looked amazing!
NPG: At the end. [Laughs] But it was so engaging and inspiring to be on the cutting edge. And you know that you’re part of that. It’s pretty exhilarating.
That’s what keeps Pixar interesting, is that each film is different. I remember how big a deal the fur was on Monsters Inc.
NPG: Absolutely. And the landscapes on The Good Dinosaur. We never make it easier on ourselves. We all grumble about that. Everyone thinks it’s like a factory around here, and they’ve no idea. It’s R&D constantly. But it’s also what’s great about it.
The reason I ask about starting at Pixar is, that it strikes me that to be an artist you need to have sensitivity and be observant, but you have to be confident and resilient as well. Because you do a lot of public speaking at Pixar. What’s it like to adapt to that?
SP: So the one secret I have is, when my parents emigrated to the United States, they bought a motel. Route 66. They still live in and operate a motel on Route 66. We didn’t have employees – I was one of the employees. And so as a little boy, right until I left high school, my job every day was to sell rooms and engage with people. And yes, although I’m an introvert through and through, and want nothing more than to hide under this table [laughs] I can also be an effective salesman, because I grew up with that. I can do that, luckily. Or at least I think I can.
No, you can. I hate speaking in public!
SB: Me too! But I can rent you a room! [Laughs]
Sold! So what was the trickiest part of this to get right, from a visual standpoint?
NPG: Gosh. Well, it was tricky all along. I think it’s the thing about inventing something new. The sequence with the deities was really difficult. What we got initially was pretty, but we were still trying to get to this place where it felt like you were experiencing this cosmic event, and you were genuinely in another dimension. How do you convey that in computer graphics?
SB: Which tends to lend towards photo-realism. This is something that I was asking people to go to: something they can’t take a picture of. Now that’s challenging.
NPG: Yeah. The lighting and the way the environment melts away. It becomes very abstract. They had to do paintings for the lighters and say, “This is the target.” And then the lighters had to find ways to create that, to match those paintings…
SB: …with photo-realistic lights. Even with the anime lines, you had to build those. An artist can draw those quickly, but we got something more cool. We took a star field, and went, “What would it be like if we went, ‘Tzzzzt’ and stretched it out?” Suddenly we had dimensional anime speed lines, which I’d never seen before. Those are ingredients that I liked, but put together in a way that was coherent and made sense. There was a lot of blood spilled to get that look.
Pixar shorts are often a great proving ground for new directors. And also the shorts themselves can provide the basis for features. So could anything from this be the basis for a Pixar feature? The fighting deities, maybe?
NPG: Maybe. Multiple arms….
SB: There’s tonnes of stories. That’s the beauty of these myths. There are so many great stories out there. They’re just waiting for somebody to re-contextualise them, and figure out a way that’s going to make them exciting for a modern audience. I certainly felt excited reading them.
Sanjay Patel and Nicole Paradis Grindle, thank you very much.
Sanjay’s Super Team fronts The Good Dinosaur, opening this weekend.