Nina Paley Talks "Sita Sings the Blues"

Nina Paley is a cartoonist and animator who refers to herself on her website as "America's Best-Loved Unknown Cartoonist." She's been working for more than twenty years first as a cartoonist and then as an animator but it's her last project, the animated feature film "Sita Sings the Blues" that has garnered her the most attention of her career. The feat of writing, directing, animating and producing a feature length film is impressive in itself, but it's also one of the best animated films of recent years. Roger Ebert wrote that the film was "astonishingly original."

"Sita Sings the Blues," based on a story from the Hindu epic "The Ramayana," is also notable because Paley released the film under a "copyleft" license from the Creative Commons Foundation. While the film has had many weeks run in theaters in New York City and elsewhere, and has had steady DVD sales, the film is also freely available online and can be found on Youtube and is available for free for the iPhone.

CBR News spoke with Paley about "Sita," her background as a cartoonist, and modern controversies concerning copyright law and rights.

Before you went into animation you worked as a cartoonist for many years. I was wondering if we could just talk about how you first got into cartooning and your art background?

Nina Paley:I am self taught as a cartoonist. In fact I dropped out of the University of Illinois because I liked cartooning so much. It was frowned upon in the art department, so I found myself skipping art classes in order to do art for the Daily Illini newspaper. This was in the 1980s and they didn't teach cartooning in college. That would be like teaching skateboarding in college. It just wasn't done.

Comics are fairly straightforward. You can look at them and all of the techniques are sort of evident in existing comics. I noticed that a lot of artists would put areas of black behind voice balloons to make them pop out, so I did that. I learned how to letter by studying the lettering of existing comics. This was before everybody had their own computer to do lettering with. I just practiced and taught myself. You know, word balloons are about this shape so I'll make mine this shape. Panels are spaced like this so I'll space them like this.

Is there any one strip or artist in particular that really had an impact on you?

I have been influenced by everything I've ever seen, but when I was growing up there was a comic strip in the Daily Illini--I grew up on the University of Illinois--called "Escaped from the Zoo" drawn by Neal Sternecky. It's still one of the best drawn comics I can think of. Sternecky went on to draw the revived "Pogo." I haven't seen them for decades but I remember admiring them as a kid. And underground comics. When I was teenager I got an anthology of underground comics. Boy did I love that stuff.

You went on to create two comic strips, each of which ran for a few years, "Nina's Adventures" and "Fluff." Why did you end up leaving leaving cartooning behind?

"Nina's Adventures" I stopped because I was getting exhausted and I was broke. All cartoonists are supposed to want to be syndicated. I'm sure this has changed but back then, that was the holy grail. Syndicates were finally showing an interest in me, not to do "Nina's Adventures," but to do some kind of mainstream daily strip. I decided, well, I'm twenty five years old, it's time to sell out! (laughs) So I developed this strip "Fluff." I think it was for United Media and they kept telling me to make it more "Middle America." They didn't explain what that meant, they just said, it needs to be more "Middle America." I didn't know how. Seriously. I was really trying to make it as banal as I possibly could. They ended up giving up on me and I ended up taking it to Universal Press Syndicate who picked it up. Strangely enough, Universal Press is located in Middle America, while United Media is on the East Coast.

It turned out to be a lot harder than I expected, in the sense of having to pump consistent product day after day without any experimentation. Having to rein myself in became kind of unbearable after a while. It was kind of soul crushing. I'm willing to do a lot of work, but having to make it the same all the time was just too much. I burned out, basically. Before I quit "Fluff," I was having a crisis. Cartooning used to make me happy and it didn't make me happy anymore. I was trying to remember how I felt when art made me happy and I remembered when I was like thirteen years old and I borrowed a neighbor's super eight camera, the excitement that I felt making little animated films. I wanted that feeling again, so I picked up where I left off. I borrowed a friend's super eight camera and started exactly where I left off, with some clay on the living room table. Again that was all self taught. When I was twelve or thirteen, I went to the library and checked out "The Animation Book" by Kit Laybourne, which is still a great book.

You made a number of short films. What made you embark on a a feature pretty much on your own?

At the time I made "Sita," I had already made ten or twelve short films. Each one is maybe three minutes, so I'd already made more than half an hour of animation. It didn't take that long and I didn't know what I was doing, so how hard could this be? (laughs) It's not like I wanted to make a feature film, it's just that I had this particular story to tell and feature length was the appropriate format for it. I was not looking for a feature length movie to make. It's just that I went through this painful life experience and was obsessed with the Ramayana and obsessed with Annette Hanshaw and these obsessions didn't go away even after I made a short film. I really thought that the short film would cure me. That short film is now a chapter of the feature film. But the obsession remained so I just had to do it and I just thought well I'll just start where I am. "The journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step". I didn't know how the whole thing was going to turn out so I just went, "I'll work on what I do know and hope that more will be revealed as I go along." That's basically how it worked.

What was it about the Ramayana and the story of Sita that hit you and made you need to tell this story?

I liked the ambiguity of the characters, where it seemed at first that they're either really good or really bad, but they actually have contradictions and they behave mysteriously in a way that seemed very very real. It's never explained or spelled out why Rama banishes Sita. It's not spelled out in the story. There are interpretations of the story, but the story itself doesn't explain it. It just says Rama is great, Rama is good, Rama banishes his wife, hurray for Rama. I like that tension. Here's this perfect man who behaves in these ways that are impossible to reconcile with his perfection. It's hard for me to really explain what I loved about it. It felt like it so described the human experience. It so described human suffering and it's so old. Without it I would have thought I was an isolated case or just a modern neurotic or something, but the age of it and the depth of it made me feel connected to all of humanity.

This was a huge undertaking especially on your own. We've all watched the ten minutes of credits for a Pixar movie. Did you know how much work was involved in this when you started?

I actually had a good sense. I estimated it would take three years and in fact it took three years. If anything it took slightly less than three years. It was three years of work spread over five years of time and I took half a year off to do a freelance job. I actually think I had a pretty good sense of my limitations and I worked with those limitations. I didn't come up with a style that I couldn't actually do. My goal was to be as economical as possible. What's the cheapest and most direct and most economical way I can tell this story. My motto was, adequate is good enough. I knew that I could spend ninety percent of my time fiddling with the last ten percent, trying to get the last ten percent perfect, and I didn't want to do that. If it seemed good enough, it went in. If it wasn't working, I just fiddled with it until it was good enough, not until it was perfect. I know brilliant artists who just get so hung up on making it perfect.

One of the major complications but also one of the aspects of the movie that has drawn such notice is the music. Why did you choose these songs and why were they so important to your vision of the film?

They (the Annette Hanshaw tunes) picked me, first of all. I heard them shortly after my breakup and I just thought they were the same as what's in the Ramayana. I'd never heard Annette Hanshaw before. Her voice was just perfect. It was free of malice even she was singing about "my man done me wrong." It's full of love and adoration, which is how I imagined Sita. I didn't pick the songs because of their entertainment value, although they are entertaining. I picked them, or, I stuck with them, because of their historical weight.

The Ramayana is significant because it's this cultural touchstone. It belongs to billions of people and it has historical significance. The Hanshaw songs are from the 1920s, from a different era. The Ramayan and the Hanshaw songs and my own story gave the film three specific points in time that really support the thesis that the story of the Ramayana is universal. It's not specific to ancient India. It's not specific to today. It's not specific to the 1920s. It's a story that keeps telling itself over and over and over through our lives. If I had just commissioned songs that did that, that other historical point would have been lost. I think what's amazing about the Ramayana and amazing about the story is that it keeps expressing itself through human lives and the songs are historical evidence of that.

The major complication in releasing the film, for readers who might not know, was with getting the rights to use the songs in the film. How much did it eventually cost to be allowed to use them?

To fully clear the songs would have cost $220,000 dollars. I couldn't afford that. I couldn't even afford what I ended up paying, but the rights clearance house negotiated a step deal, which means that the songs are not fully cleared, but for every 5,000 units sold I have to make additional payments, and for every million dollars it makes at the box office I have to make additional payments. It's not going to make a million dollars at the box office, so I don't have to worry about that. To decriminalize them, not to clear them, was $50,000 dollars plus about $20,000 in legal transaction costs. $70,000 just to make it legal, and again, I have to keep making more payments for every copy sold, which right there is a great incentive to circulate as many free copies as possible.

That's a good segue into talking about the fact that you've released the film into the world under a Creative Commons license, letting people distribute it for free.

This is what drives me crazy about Creative Commons Licenses. Creative Commons has seven different licenses and they range from very free to very not free. It drives me crazy that they're all referred to as "Creative Commons licenses." And the Creative Commons organization isn't doing much to disabuse that but a Creative Commons license can be anything from incredibly restrictive to totally public domain and you don't even need attribution. I didn't mean to put you on the spot.

It's evident that most people call all of these things Creative Commons licenses, and they aren't aware of the differences of the licenses. The license that I used was the Share Alike License, also known as Copyleft. It means that you can do absolutely everything with the film, you can sell copies, you can make derivative works, anything you want with the film, except copyright it.

What was your thinking behind doing this. You spent three years of your life, $70,000 on the music, why give it away for free?

It was the right thing to do. But since then, what I've learned is, this is the way to get the most in return. This is a way to get more money. (laughs) That's not why I did it. I did it because I was confident that I could get as much money this way as through conventional release, so why not? I wanted as many people as possible to see the movie. Also, I wanted to show that it could be done. I was seriously skeptical of copyright at that point and questioning whether it was necessary and I realized if I release the film this way, I can show that it's not necessary in many cases. I don't think it's necessary in any case, but certainly not necessary in my case. It turned out that it's actually a way to make a lot more money than through copyright.

Copyright works on restricting access to things and the more you restrict people's access to your stuff, the less people can share it. Copyright is a way to ensure the obscurity of a work. By freeing it, I removed the big obstacle to the work's success. It's spreading all by itself. I don't have to spend any money on advertising. I have an advertising budget of zero dollars. The right people are finding it, because anybody can find it. Anybody can see it. It's building a great audience this way that it wouldn't be able to build if it weren't sharable.

If it had a normal release it would have had one weekend, if I were lucky. One weekend and some advertising and then the distributor wouldn't be able to afford the advertising anymore and then it would have been old news. But people keep sharing it. This is the awesome-est independent film scenario I can think of.

I mentioned Pixar earlier, but the sad truth is that for most indie films and most animated films, it's one weekend in theaters followed by a halfhearted DVD release at some unknown time in the future.

If you're lucky, it goes to DVD. Michel Ocelot's film "Azur and Asmar" had a deal with the Weinstein Brothers who bought it and sat on it for two years. It wasn't worth their money to release it on DVD.

I am getting money doing this. It turns out that the more people share the film for free online, the more they buy DVDs, and the more they pay to see it in cinemas. I still have those income streams of DVDs and I get a small portion of theatrical screening. I do have a regular theatrical distributor in the US. And also merch. All those income streams that would come from a normal film still exist, it's just that it's not illegal to copy and share and sell copies if somebody wants to. The danger of somebody selling copies is negligible because there's no incentive to go into business selling copies of a film that anybody can already get either for free or there's already DVDs for sale. Yes, anybody can make copies and sell DVDs, but it's a bad business to get into when there's already so much competition.

It costs money to make DVDs and distribute them. There's just very little incentive for somebody to get into a business like that and invest their money and time selling something that's already available. It's a dumb competitive move. If somebody identifies a market niche that is not being served and then they make and sell copies to serve that market, good for them. That's called market innovation. I want that to happen. If I'm not making it happen, I'm not losing anything if someone else makes it happen.

You're not losing anything, but you are gaining a fan and a potential customer.

I've written about this quite a bit. There was a fan who wanted Sita stickers, so he made some Sita stickers and made a cafepress. You can say that cafepress store competes with my merchandise empire, where I sell Sita merch, but I'm not selling stickers. What are they competing with? If he happens to do well, I'll know that there's demand for Sita stickers, and I'm free to make my own stickers and I'll probably sell far more stickers than he would. I see it as market research. Anybody who sells any sort of Sita merch doesn't have a monopoly on it, so if they're doing really well I can go, oh I'll make that product too and sell it. Nobody can monopolize Sita.

You mentioned theatrical release and the movie was at the IFC Theater in New York City for more than one month and then at Symphony Space. Is it complicated arranging for distribution of a copyleft movie?

It was very hard because I made it very clear that the film was copyleft and nobody has distributed a copyleft film theatrically in the United States, or probably anywhere. Most distributors are used to buying the rights and then having a monopoly on it, so finding distributors that were willing to do this as an experiment was not easy, however I love my distributors and kudos to them for trying this. I'm so grateful that they gave it a shot. They didn't have to pay me anything up front and of course they pay for hardly any advertising because the film advertises itself, so it took some time but thank god they were willing to try it. The distributors in the US are GKIDS East of the Mississippi and Shadow Distribution West of the Mississippi.

I know that the answer is complicated, but why do you feel that copyright serves such a negative purpose?

In today's world, everybody can publish. Copyright has always been for the benefit of publishers and distributors. It's a monopoly and there's a great essay on questioncopyright.org about the history of copyright. It was a government-granted monopoly that started in England. It was given to stationers, now known as publishers. It was given to them as a way to manage censorship, because censorship was an obligation of the crown. With the invention of the printing press, people were producing seditious pamphlets and they had to be controlled. The crown's way of controlling the press was outsourcing censorship to stationers. Every printed work had to be registered and controlled by these publishers, and so these publishers had a monopoly, and once you give an industry a monopoly they don't give it up. In fact, they just keep expanding it and expanding it, and that's what's happened to copyright. People lobbying for copyright extensions are people with the biggest copyright monopolies. They're not for you and me.

Digital technology is a big reason why. Copyrights were never necessary for cultural progress, but they weren't that harmful because there were only a few publishers. Now everybody is a publisher, so now everybody is restricted and copyright laws have become more and more draconian. It's such a big question. It's better to just read the article.

What's your next project? What are you in the midst of now?

I'm working on these short films about free culture and intellectual freedom with questioncopyright.org. I got a grant to do these films that I was planning on doing anyway, but it's nice that I'll be able to live while I work on them.

This push to reform copyright does seem to be gaining ground. Every few years it seems to grow in intensity and new people signing on and releasing works like this.

It's not a magic bullet. It's not like, hey kids, all you have to do is release your stuff for free and you'll be successful. It's not an answer to everyone's business problems. It's just that copyright as it exists now is currently acting as an obstacle to the circulation of works. If you use an open license, you eliminate that obstacle, and your works have the opportunity to go further. It doesn't mean that they will. You need more than an open license to have a successful work. But why insert that obstacle when you don't need to.

It's as hard as ever to create a work of value, but it's become easier to distribute and make available.

Also you don't really know what will be of value. The value comes from the audience. There's all kinds of stuff that, how can i say this, when it's new it could go either way. People could hate it or the worst thing that could happen to a work is just that people would ignore it. You never know what people are going to really like. It might be something that strikes you as crap. This could have happened with "Sita" too.

The internet allows all of the fans of something to gather and connect and spread the word, whether it's two or two thousand or two billion.

Exactly. Some of the challenge is just allowing your work to reach the people that will find it great. They will give it value.

To learn more about Paley check out her website at Blog.NinaPaley.com and to watch her current series of short films and to learn more about copyright, checkout questioncopyright.org.

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