For over 15 years, movie-goers have headed to the theater knowing that they were going to receive an extra treat if they planned to see a Pixar movie; a short that debuts before the start of the feature film. In October when I received an invitation to attend the Red Carpet Premiere of Disney•Pixar’s latest collaboration THE GOOD DINOSAUR, I knew that I was in for a treat but I had no idea just how great “Sanjay’s Super Team” would be.
In “Sanjay’s Super Team,” the new short film from Pixar Animation Studios, accomplished artist Sanjay Patel uses his own experience to tell the story of a young, first-generation Indian-American boy whose love for western pop culture comes into conflict with his father’s traditions. Sanjay is absorbed in the world of cartoons and comics, while his father tries to draw him into the traditions of his Hindu practice. Tedium and reluctance quickly turn into an awe-inspiring adventure as the boy embarks on a journey he never imagined, returning with a new perspective that they can both embrace.
While in Los Angeles last month, we had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Director Sanjay Patel and Producer Nicole Grindle to learn more about the project and this mostly true story. Here are a few of the tidbits we picked up from our roundtable talks.
Photo Credit: Louise Bishop/MomStart.com
Question: The pictures in the short, were they actual pictures that you drew as a child?
Sanjay Patel: No, I wish they were. [LAUGHS] Definitely not. That was something that Chris and I did, the Production Designer, specifically for the short, but we had some fun. They were kind of a fun anecdote for the end credits.
Nicole Grindle: We asked our crew members kids to do the drawings. [AUDIENCE – OHHHHH that was awesome]. They took it really seriously.
They have parents who work at Pixar and they were like, “What! I can see my artwork in the film?” They all did their artwork and brought it in and we did our best to get them all in there. So that was fun.
Sanjay Patel: It’s been great. I’ve been able to get the credit for their art work. [LAUGHS]
Nicole Grindle: He told them to ever give their artwork away for free again.
Question: People say that there is a heartwarming story behind the short; I would love to hear it from your words, from your perspective.
First, I should note that this next “segment” is long but so extremely important. It in and of itself tells a story about the progression of the project. It also gives us a great deal of insight into John Lassiter and Pixar. Check it out!
Nicole Grindle: There are dimensions to what’s heartwarming. Sanjay has worked at Pixar for almost 20 years and worked on a number of films there. He started out sort of turning his back on his father’s culture and wanting to fit in as an immigrant and embrace more traditional animation art. After about 10 years at Pixar, he got the itch to do something else and was introduced to South Asian art. He fell in love with it and started doing books outside of Pixar and his books were a big hit and these are books like The Little Book of Hindu Deities that allowed him to reconnect with the culture and then he did his own version of The Rum Iron. Then, Pixar said, “Wow.” They saw his artwork was at the Asian Art Museum and it was so successful that Pixar said, “Hey, come to Pixar. We want to put a show on of your work there.”
Then, John Lassiter saw it and said, “Hey, we want you to do a short firm.” And Sanjay didn’t wanna’ do that. [LAUGHS] You were persuaded to do it and I think the conversation with your father is a great place for you to pick up.
Sanjay Patel: [LAUGHS] It is kind of a long gestation. I don’t feel like the story just kind of happened overnight. It’s definitely like an evolution of me as an Artist and me as like a dude. [LAUGHS] I was really scared. That was the thing that when I really started to peel all of it back, I was really scared to bring this — my identity, my part of my culture and this thing that was so precious to my parents and my community, to work.
I have gone to the theater for so long and I was convinced, I was an expert. I was like, “Trust me. Pixar doesn’t want anything to do with this. Believe you me.” Three years later, I’m completely shocked that we are able to tell the story and tell it in a way that was so sincere.
Even when the President of Pixar asked me to try to do this, I was like, “Dude, we don’t do this here man. This is not part of our brand.” He politely contradicted me and was like, “You know Pixar is always interested in telling new stories.”
Then, I finally had a conversation with my father and he was like, “Sanjay, you know this studio has supported you and educated you for 20 years. They’ve had this relationship with you and they’re finally asking you to try this and for you not to try would be bad karma.” He said it was my duty to at least try. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. He noted that was not part of the equation, but that it was my duty to at least try. And I was like, “Dang dad.” [LAUGHS] So I tried. [LAUGHS]
Luckily, what was great, is John Lassiter, in particular, he really believe in the concept from day –- from minute one. He seemed to draw out the concept before I even knew it. The original concept that I pitched to John was about a little boy in India that was kind of ignoring the cultural stories that were carved on the temples all around them. He had his nose kind of buried in a Western style super hero comic and the short is about the boy appreciating his culture.
Then John asked, “Well, where were you born? Where were you raised?” I told him I was raised in Whittier or in the San Bernardino. A little bit of both in Southern California. Then, I told him how I spent every morning with my dad and his rituals and my rituals and he really connected with both concepts.
The first note from John was, “You know Sanjay, just tell your story about you and your dad. If you just tell that as honestly as possible people will connect to it.” I just can’t diminish John’s support and his stewardship to not sell it out to cheese it up, but just to make it so authentic and so true. He gave me permission to say things that I wouldn’t say otherwise just because I think growing up in this culture I was always so afraid of exposing my identity, my parents identity, my parents community. My normal was always to just try to fit in, it took John Lassiter to say to me, “No Sanjay your story, your parent’s story has value here. You have permission to tell it.” I’m super grateful.
Question: How do you see the short impacting kids from your culture and background, to finally see it represented in a major feature film?
Sanjay Patel: I’m excited. I grew up here and my friends, I had maybe one brown friend, it was like Hispanics, black people, white people, and what was cool was just cool.
It’s wasn’t like, “Oh that’s a really interesting perspective from a Latino identity. It’ was just like, “Oh that’s cool. I’m into that or that’s dumb I’m not into that.” All our friends were just interested in whatever was cool. I knew when John asked me to do this I knew Pixar just makes things that are cool. People — kids of all sorts of cultures and identities will embrace it and it just felt really exciting that we could tell this part of the story and have Pixar kind of be the ambassador to it. We’ll make it cool for all kids. And suddenly people from my community will feel less, I don’t know, alone or different and maybe will feel way more included. I think its friggin’ awesome man. [LAUGHS]
Photo Credit: Louise Bishop/MomStart.com
Question: In hindsight, what do you hope or think other kids that are children of immigrants will take from the story and embrace?
Nicole Grindle: What I loved about the story was that it bridges cultures and that the inner generational thing is happening everywhere right. The parents want to pass on something from their lives to their children and the children are so interested in the newest flashiest thing and it’s been going on forever. I’m hoping that all kids take away there is something that my parents have even if I’m not interested in it. Wow! My parents think that’s cool. So I should maybe pay attention a little bit more. That’s been my kind of interest in the film.
Sanjay Patel: If it’s cool it will just connect and I think there’s a subtle thing that happens when somebody, like when Chris Rock writes a show, there’s a subtle difference that will see its way through. When Aziz writes his show there’s some subtlety that he can capture that people can sniff out.
It just shows up. I don’t know. I just think the way we made the short it has my thumb print on it. It has my dad’s thumb print on it. That matters. People can smell something that’s authentic.
Question: Can you explain the look for the short?
Nicole Grindle: We were going for something that was epic and was supposed to represent enlightenment and what’s hard is most of the films that Pixar makes are in somehow part of the real world. We do mounds and mounds of the research about the environment that we’re in, but how do you represent enlightenment?
In a way we were cut loose to do something that was really different and we had our crew just push the limits of the tools that we already have. The camera work allowed us to try these really epic angles and these super wide lenses. And then with lighting we could blow things out.
We did this crazy stuff with our set where, at the moment, you know you’ll remember. Like, when he lights the candle and he’s blown back. Our set just stretched out. We never do that. It was super fun to do that and then have the walls kind of dissolve.
Sanjay Patel: You guys unplugged a really important moment right there because this is the time where we go from an immigrant box. In an immigrant box you leave all the riches of your culture, be it of Africa, Korea, all behind in the old country and you come as an immigrant into a rented apartment or whatever place you land. There’s no detail. It’s kind of like this room. It’s just a soulless kind of box.
Nicole Grindle: Beige on beige is the aesthetic we were talking about.
Sanjay Patel: When the boy finally lights that lamp of knowledge enlightenment, the thing I kept talking about was I wanted what was finite to become infinite. I wanted what was material to become immaterial, you want to sort of take the boy into this inner world and it’s so hard to find reference photos for that. The temple carvings, all these spiritual art and artisans have worked to the edge of their technology to create experience. We had our whole new sort of tool kit at Pixar to explore that.
These are the sort of adjectives that I would drop at people and then as Artists we all just try to tackle it from our different sort of discipline. We also threw in some 2001, we threw in some Captain EO; we threw in lots and lots of different influences.
Question: Is there a reason why you decided not to add dialogue to the short?
Nicole Grindle: That is part of the tradition of the Pixar stories. We try as much as possible not to have a lot of dialogue because it is a tribute to the pure art of animation and visual story telling. That is part of the tradition. There is some dialogue with the TV and then his father does speak at the very end. I don’t know if everybody knows that he’s actually speaking.
Sanjay Patel: There’s a small little bit of Hindu that he says. It seems actually truer to my experience. There wasn’t much dialogue growing up at home. As a kid you would just look at your parent’s eyes and know exactly what they were saying.
Now, I have to be honest, I didn’t catch the speech at the end. Then again, I don’t speak Hindu so I would have NO idea what he was saying either way!
There was so much that I took away from this sit down with Sanjay and Nicole. If I had to describe the experience in one word, it would be emotion. This was an emotional project and if you have seen “Sanjay’s Super Team” then you know, without a doubt, that this is true.
As Sanjay and Nicole spoke you could hear the emotion in their voice and see it on their face. It was particularly poignant when they were asked if Sanjay’s father had seen the film. He has and he became very emotional during the experience. Nicole pointed out that Sanjay’s father worked 7 days a week, more like 24/7, running a motel. He doesn’t travel, he doesn’t watch television, and he had only been to Sanjay’s place of work once before this visit. Suddenly he was seeing his son’s work and their story on the big screen and in a story that offers thanks and understanding. How could this not be emotional?
I was also touched by how humble the team is. When asked about the deities that appear in the movie, Sanjay did not go into great detail, he just explained that they are hoping to open the door. They want to introduce people to a new culture and new experiences and they are able to do so in just 6 minutes; a feat that some films are incapable of in 2 hours. The power behind this short is beyond words, the message is clear without a word being uttered, and that says a great deal. Yet, sitting there with Sanjay and Nicole was like hanging out with an old friend, enjoying a cup of coffee, and catching up on old times. I’m not certain they understand the gravity of this project and if they do … wow, such class.
I can’t even begin to touch upon the knowledge that was garnered in such a short period of time. At the end of the discussion the room was pure electric with excitement and hope that you could feel it. This was an amazing collaboration and I feel it is more than fair to say that Sanjay has a very bright future ahead. Did I mention that he has already worked on A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monster’s Inc., The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Cars, Toy Story 3, and Monsters University? Either way, I can’t wait to see how Sanjay and Pixar collaborate next!
Have you taken your family to see THE GOOD DINOSAUR? That is the only way for you to experience “Sanjay’s Super Team” and it’s an experience you don’t want to miss. Both are now playing in theaters everywhere!
THE GOOD DINOSAUR IS OPEN IN THEATERS EVERYWHERE!!
“The Good Dinosaur” asks the question: What if the asteroid that forever changed life on Earth missed the planet completely and giant dinosaurs never became extinct? Pixar Animation Studios takes you on an epic journey into the world of dinosaurs where an Apatosaurus named Arlo (voice of Raymond Ochoa) makes an unlikely human friend. While traveling through a harsh and mysterious landscape, Arlo learns the power of confronting his fears and discovers what he is truly capable of.
Directed by Peter Sohn and produced by Denise Ream (“Cars 2”), Disney•Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” opens in theaters on Nov. 25, 2015.
An Apatosaurus named Arlo and his unlikely human friend travel through a harsh and mysterious landscape, where Arlo learns to confront his fears, discovering what he is truly capable of.
CONNECT WITH THE GOOD DINOSAUR
I was sent on an all-expense paid trip to Los Angeles, California courtesy of Disney to experience The Good Dinosaur and a series of other adventures surrounding the movie. Regardless, all opinions expressed are still 100% my own. Please note that some images are courtesy of Getty Images.