Pixar's Sanjay Patel on his debut short: 'It was so lovely to have John Lasseter champion it'
The director of Sanjay's Super Team talks about paying tribute to his father's religion through animation
To hear Pixar's Sanjay Patel tell the story, he never wanted to make a short animated feature about his relationship with his father. But after seeing the art for Patel's children's books, like Ganesha's Sweet Tooth and The Little Book Of Hindu Deities, Disney/Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter pushed him into it. Patel has been a Pixar animator for close to two decades, working behind the scenes on features from A Bug's Life to The Incredibles to Monsters University, but the new short film "Sanjay's Super Team," playing in theaters now before Pixar's The Good Dinosaur, is his directorial debut. The story follows a young boy who finally bonds with his father's Hindu gods by imagining them as an analog to the superheroes in his favorite cartoons.
Response to The Good Dinosaur has been positive but measured, but response to the short has been near-universal euphoria — both at Pixar putting its first Indian family onscreen, and at the technical and visual daring of the short. I recently geeked out with Sanjay Patel over the careful, thorough planning that went into the short's religious symbolism, visual look, and "illogical lighting."
Tasha Robinson: Why did you initially resist the idea of making this short?
Sanjay Patel: There was a lot going on for me. The short answer is, I was very scared. If I unpack that, it's being a self-conscious, shy, introverted artist who for the most part just felt comfortable doing my work by myself, alone. Seeing what the directors have to do here, for the better part of 20 years, it was pretty intimidating to put myself out there in that way. And then to put material that was so sensitive, delicate, into this machine of entertainment felt really scary to me. It was just so lovely to have John Lasseter really champion and protect it, and constantly push me toward making it as authentic as possible.
Once you decided to do the film, did it become important to you as an opportunity for teaching American kids about other cultures?
Yeah, that was a big deciding factor. I had a conversation with my dad about what the studio was presenting. He gave me the insight that it was part of my duty, that it would possibly create this bad karma to ignore what the studio was asking. So that was a big factor. And for me, the major deciding factor was being able better reflect a family that was closer to my own, and speak to that audience of immigrant kids.
"It was important to me to have America see this, and have Pixar say it's normal."
Did the short feel like it was serving a similar purpose to your children's books about Hindu myth?
Yeah, totally! The books were absolutely meant for my nieces and nephews. They started out as a way for me to educate myself. I jokingly called them "my book reports." I was never educated in any of these things. And then my friends saw my art here at the studio, and got really excited about it. It seemed neat to want to share it with them. But the idea that I could collaborate with Pixar and Disney meant it could go way beyond this community, to somehow make it normal, so my nieces or nephews didn't have to feel different. It would just be out there in the culture. It felt really important to me to have America see this, and have Pixar and Disney say it's normal.
How old is Sanjay in the film?
Oh, I have no idea! I have a two-and-a-half-year-old right now, so I'm learning first-hand what all the ages are about, and how different ages can show up on kids. So honestly I have no idea.
I'm just curious what your understanding of your father's religion was when you were that age. He seems maybe 5 to 10 years old, which covers a lot of range.
Yeah, he feels like in that range. Growing up, there was just no dialogue between me and my father. I had this fear of approaching him with questions about why we were doing what we were doing. And to be honest, I had no interest. I just wanted [the daily worship ceremony] to be over as quickly as possible. He didn't talk about it, and I didn't ask about it. It was just something we both seemed to endure.
So it was just ritual without meaning for you?
Totally! We wash the dishes, I take a shower, we vacuum, then we ring the bell and pick flowers and anoint the deities. If you grow up like that, you can't describe how mundane it feels. That's what was so unusual when John reflected back to me, "Hey, this is really neat. Why don't we center this story around this ritual between you and your father?" The original concept took root in that.
What kind of decision-making led to the way you wound up portraying the deities onscreen?
A lot of thinking was done there. Initially, there was just going to be one deity, and a quick encounter. I wanted it to center around Vishnu. His mythology centers around preservation and balance. Preservation was such a big theme in the short, in terms of my father trying to preserve his spiritual practice and pass it on to me. So I always knew I wanted this mirror of my father being Vishnu. I felt it would be cleaner: one father, one deity, versus three. But as we started to work more on the cartoon the boy is so in love with, the development team became excited about seeing lots of deities. That opened us up to show off more of the complexity of Hindu philosophy. In Vedic philosophy, there's always a masculine energy and a feminine energy. So it was great to depict the masculine energy in Vishnu and then incarnate the goddess energy in the aspect of Durga, the goddess of many forms. And then there's such an affinity with the demigods, the part-human, part-animal deities. And Hanuman is such a popular demigod in Southeast Asia, I thought, "Gosh, if we're going to put together a superhero team, I would really want to see him in it." So it was a no-brainer in terms of who we centered on.
Given how many aspects and presentations Hindu deities have, how did you decide how you wanted them to look and interact?
I kept pushing the idea of androgyny and grace. The boy's cartoon has these superheroes, and I really wanted to be steeped in good guys and bad guys fighting. But I knew that even though we were going to have a showdown between the forces of chaos and balance, I wanted it to be graceful. I didn't want deities throwing punches. I didn't want kung fu. I wanted it to be based in the dance traditions. These deities have been brought to life for thousands of years in India through theater and dance, so we brought in a woman who trained in India for the better part of 20 years, Katherine Kunhiraman. She helped choreograph all the movements for Hanaman, Durga, and Vishnu, and she mapped them onto Bharatanatyam, Odissi, and Kathakali, three ancient traditions of dance. It suddenly gave our deities a unique way of moving, and an Eastern way of reining in this chaotic force that's been unleashed.
When the demon-figure is destroying the effigies and absorbing their aspects, is that part of any specific myth? What inspired that idea?
Lots of inspirations coalesced in terms of the bad guy, the rakshas, which is the Sanskrit word for "demon." But the big thing we were going for were the notions of disrespect and greed. Growing up, I wanted nothing to do with my father's traditions. I wanted them to go away. So I really wanted to incarnate this figure that would tear it all down, even Frankenstein it into something destructive. So those are the boy's feelings in that moment, in terms of having no regard for his father's culture.
And the greed manifests with him stealing the gods' aspects and incorporating them into this shapeless thing?
That's right. And we incarnate these multiple heads and arms and weapons. The boy is hyper. He's really active. So the rakshas representing him had more and more heads and limbs. And his father is all about stilling him. All my father was trying to do when I was growing up was get me to center myself and be still. It was a beautiful thing, he just never articulated it, never explained why it was important. So we wanted to ratchet up what chaos looks like, how big and messy it can get, and how destructive it can get. And we stilled the deities to show how much power that could have.
In Buddhist tradition, at least, demons aren't malicious, they're tools to bring people to enlightenment through adversity. Is that what we're seeing here?
Absolutely! There you go! So if you notice, the demon isn't vanquished, he isn't destroyed. It was a very conscious choice. Once the boy destroys his idol, it makes the monster more human. Once the chaos is controlled, that force can go away. That was definitely something we were all excited about, that this force was helping the boy come to his realization.
The battle is so melodic and musical. What was the thinking behind that?
Justin Pearson, this amazing sound designer here, came in with that. The one rule I gave Justin was, "Please don't fill this with sitars and tablas and stereotypical sounds and instruments." I gave him this really tight parameter: "Stick with two instruments, the bell and chanting. My father had those two instruments only, so let's play with that." So Justin explored pure tones as instruments, and as the deities are repelling these attacks, it really felt like the quieter, the more musical we could be, the more graceful and powerful these deities can be. That was all his concept, and I think it's really beautiful.
Your lighting team created what you called "illogical lighting" for the shadows. Can you explain what that means?
Typically, the way we work in CG is that so much of the systems are based on math and science. The technology, the lighting system, are very much based on recreating realistic lighting environments, the way photons hit an object. But when we're in the realm of the deities, in this realm of enlightenment, to me, we don't have a ground plane. The rules of light are completely different. I wanted the feeling of light and color and shadows and highlights, but I didn't want to be a slave to physics. I felt like we were free to be illogical once we were in a non-physical plane.
How difficult was it to do what you wanted with Pixar's existing animation tools?
It was really hard. There was a lot of blood spilled. We were going for such a drastically different look than what we can normally do out of the computer. Since it's a visual medium, it was impossible for me to articulate what I wanted. The best way for us to communicate was when [production designer] Chris Sasaki would take printed frames and quickly paint over them exactly what we wanted to see. And once we figured out that language, that's when all the lighting teams completely understood what we were going for, in terms of embracing this overblown lighting, cheating shadows, faking focus, the whole nine yards. Achieving in one frame this warped sense of reality.
What's next for you? Pixar directors tend to start with shorts, then may go on to features or may not. Given the huge positive response to this short, and to the idea of Pixar slowly embracing more diverse characters, is there a chance we'll see something larger from you down the line?
I don't know! I wasn't necessarily interested in having so much self-examination going on, but I was really interested in doing my homework, educating myself. That was a really juicy place for me. I still feel that way. I'm a parent, so I haven't had much time to keep my books going, but it feels really nice to be able to have that place, publishing, and to go into a spot where I can work by myself again. It's really rewarding for me.
You said at the beginning of the interview that you were shy about putting yourself out there in the public. Has it been any easier or harder than what you expected?
Yeah, you know, that part's cool. And I think it's because I had the luxury of about 10 years to have this space where I could just explore all of this by myself, in a small way, in books. And that felt safe. But it's still complicated for me. I still like being by myself and drawing.