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Immersed in Movies: Why ‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ is Pixar’s Most Personal Short

Immersed in Movies: Why 'Sanjay's Super Team' is Pixar's Most Personal Short

Pixar’s definitely on a roll this year, and Sanjay’s Super Team (playing in front of The Good Dinosaur on Nov. 25) ) is very special and particularly Oscar worthy. It’s Pixar’s first semi-autobiographical short in which board artist Sanjay Patel (Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles) comes to terms with his Hindu heritage, which he was ashamed of as a child growing up in San Bernadino. The little boy tries to watch his favorite superhero cartoon but his father insists that he mediate with him. Bored, he imagines summoning three Hindu deities to fight a three-headed demon in a thematic and stylistic assimilation of West and East (assisted by a lovely score by Mychael Danna, Oscar winner for Life of Pi).

Bill Desowitz: The project really took off when John Lasseter suggested making it a more personal story about your struggle with Hinduism and the tension with your father. What was your reaction to opening yourself up so vulnerably?
Sanjay Patel: I’m shy and I was very scared — I had to come clean with it. I was scared on so many levels: scared to expose myself to my peers, scared to sell out my parents’ culture or my parents. The fact was, straight away, John Lasseter came to me with so much support. Tell your story, tell your truth, have confidence and people will get it.
BD: It really elevates the story.
SP: I didn’t see it that way straight away. John reflected that fact and helped me to have the confidence.
Nicole Paradis Grindle: It’s hard to see those things yourself. You need someone else to give you the courage.
SP: Not just someone else — the boss.
NPG: To say this is interesting.
BD: But then the hard part was integrating it naturally.
SP: That’s where Pixar stepped in — all of us. And in every aspect of the production people helped. 
BD: You mentioned character designer Chris Sasaki from Inside Out, Andrew Jimenez doing VFX, and Royce Wesley, the supervising animator. Pixar has become so culturally diverse and it must’ve really resonated with them.
NPG: It really did. People working on the film really related to it in their own personal experience at the studio and that’s what enriched it and helped digest the story in all its vast detail. It wasn’t generic but it was simplified.
BD: Tell us about the deities that form your super team.
SP: We feature three deities: Vishnu, Durga and Hanuman. Initially, the story was conceived around Vishnu, given that he symbolizes preservation, I thought he’d be a real powerful mirror to the father, given that the dad wants to pass on his culture. But people at the studio wanted to see more — it’s so much fun. And I didn’t see that even though the first book I did had lots of deities. So I thought maybe there could be room for me and straight away my head went to Durga because my dad very much had the religious practice based on goddess. And anyone who knows anything about the Hindu myths knows about Hanuman [the monkey god] and how funny he is. So if I was opening the door to introduce the pantheon of deities for a little kid, these would be pretty solid ambassadors.
BD: You also have a 2D superhero cartoon that reminded me of Brad Bird with The Incredibles and Iron Giant.
SP: Well, initially, I was trying to pay homage to Super Friends from my childhood, something with blond, blue-eyed superheroes. But then John reminded us that it didn’t have to be as cheesy and could be something that kids are watching today. And so that’s maybe where you’re seeing some of the connections to Brad’s work. So we took a different route with the 2D.

BD: Tell us about the battle in the temple, which changes colors and is graphically very cosmic, even evoking The Star Child from 2001.
SP: The one thing we knew was that we introduce this boy and show this cartoon. We just felt we want to echo that with the battle happening with the deities but take it two steps further. And so what we get is something that’s a mingling of 2D and 3D because, again, we wanted to keep the connection of how this boy is seeing this world.
BD: How did you achieve that technically?
NPG: I know we were working on coming up with shaders that were really flat on each of the characters. It didn’t originally and it took a while to do some exploring with our lighting team. And Sanjay and our production designer Chris Sasaki had to keep providing them with these paintings and telling them we want it flatter, flatter, flatter. We need to come up with a way to shade them to look 2D from an illustration point of view as well as a texturing point of view. You needed to have those clear bands of color that were really flat.
BD: And lots of particle work as well.
NPG: Definitely. And we played a lot with the scale of the temple, which goes from being a little square and elongates. So we had to play a lot of games with making the background go away when it looks like the characters were traversing a really long distance when actually they weren’t. But you couldn’t see that because the background fell away and we had those anime lines. It was really fun because it’s something we’ve never done at Pixar.
BD: Right, plus there’s the snap posing and ghost trails from Hanuman and different camera angles. It’s very anime-inspired.
NPG: And we did some things with compositing that we normally don’t do at Pixar. 
SP: We broke our typical workflow where we light stuff and only get a few frames back because the traditional lighting set ups that we have are in camera, and we started working in a compositing way, which provided us every frame back very quickly. And so Chris and I would be looking at renders every day. And once we saw things that were mistakes, we would sometimes ask for more of that mistake because they’re actually pretty cool: Light that was burning through, a particle that was floating in a way that was blurring the camera. Blowing things out became a stylistic choice.

BD: You showed the video where you showed it to your father, who had never seen any of your work before, and he really liked it. It was very cathartic for both of you.
SP: For sure. I’m still processing this.
NPG: We knew he was going to like the film even though I stupidly asked if he liked the film as a conversation starter. But I think it was hard to know how quickly he was going to access his emotions about it…but as we talked more about the experience of bringing up his kids as an immigrant working so hard, and then jumping forward to this amazing success, that’s when he got really emotional. And that resonated for me as a parent: that feeling that you work so hard to facilitate your children’s success and happiness. And to suddenly see it there on the screen, I think that’s what was so overwhelming to him.
SP: He can really see how I’ve connected with [the culture]. I think, as Nicole said, it felt like a homecoming for him. My son has arrived in a way that takes him back home. It just feels good to say those things that I wasn’t able to say as a little kid or even as an adult, to be able to craft this love letter to my dad. It’s cool.

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