SDCC: 'Sanjay's Super Team' Director on Combining Hinduism and Superheroes For New Pixar Short

Joining a proud tradition that includes "Partly Cloudy," "Day & Night" and "For the Birds," "Sanjay's Super Team" will be the next animated short paired with a Pixar feature. You'll have the chance to see it this fall with "The Good Dinosaur," but SPINOFF watched the short at Comic-Con International before speaking with writer/director Sanjay Patel and producer Nicole Grindle.

In the opening title cards, the short teases that it's a mostly based on a true story, meaning Patel's. Born in the United Kingdom but raised in the United States by his Indian immigrant parents, little Sanjay experiences the culture clash of American cartoons and the religious traditions of Hinduism. In "Sanjay's Super Team," that plays out into a colorful and heartwarming adventure in which the deities of his father's faith are reimagined as the kind of superheroes Sanjay enjoys in Saturday morning cartoons.

In real life, Patel came to appreciate and rediscover the treasures in his heritage through its co-opting the GOA trance rave scene. From there, he began creating children's books inspired by the graphic aesthetic of Hello Kitty that would translate the stories and iconography of Hinduism in a way he hoped would make them accessible and cool to a new generation. "I was very aware that if I was going to take on my parents' culture -- especially religious culture -- I wanted to be careful," Patel said in our exclusive interview. "So I was like, 'Nobody could really get mad at Hello Kitty. She's just too cute. So, let's do something that's cute and marry it to something with real substance.' So if you read the book, there's some real substance there."

It was a similar thought process that inspired "Sanjay's Super Team." Having proved himself as a storyboard artist and animator, Patel was offered the chance to pitch a short film idea to Pixar creative chief John Lasseter. From this, a child's love of superheroes blending with his father's devotion to Hindu gods created a groundbreaking new short.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

SPINOFF: You spoke in the panel about the importance of representation. Can you talk about why it was important to you to represent your Indian heritage with this short?

Sanjay Patel: It was really important, but I never felt it was important in the way that Pixar should be doing it. It was important for me to be doing it. Like, in my spare time, that's why I was doing those books, because I wanted my nieces and nephews to have awesome Pixar movies and awesome other choices that weren't lame, but cool. I knew I could make something cool, so I'm like, "I got to do it!" I had to go back to read the stories, learn the mythologies, and then take the time to illustrate it in a smart way that'd incorporate everything I'd learned from Pixar. So when the opportunity came to actually bring my voice to the studio. It felt like, gosh, I really want to do that if only for the reason that my nieces and nephews could see that and hear from a different point of view that their point of view matters.

Even now, though, it's a hot topic in comic books and their movies how we keep talking about diversity, but it's not being reflected onscreen. What're your feelings on that?

Patel: The big thing I want to say about that is that I was attracted to my parents' culture because I found the art. Once I found the art, I found the stories. The stories spoke to me. Then I read about the mythology and the philosophy. And the sky's the limit. It's amazing. I think people have been responding to the work that I've been doing because there's a great wealth of stories and mythologies and philosophy there. Pixar did the same. ... For me to wake up to Asian art and Asian philosophy was a huge revelation. It was a huge shot of inspiration as an artist. And then as a human being, or as a brown person to sort of finally inhabit my own skin, was a huge cathartic growth as an artist. So it's all very personal for me. I can't speak about it for other people. But it's important for me. And necessary. [Chuckles.]

Is that something you're at all concerned about as the premiere for "Sanjay's Super Team" draws nearer? It could become a hot topic, what with superheroes and such.

Patel: I think for me what's nice is that I've been putting out these books with this specific point of view for 10 years. It's not something like it's suddenly en vogue and I want to get in on it. It's more like I'm committed to it. Just like I'm committed to the work we're doing at Pixar. The nice thing is there's room for both. And people want both. That's what's exciting.

There's three different kinds of animation presented in "Sanjay's Super Team" between the superhero cartoon he's watching, the scene between he and his father, and the deity section. How did these come about?

Nicole Grindle: Well, that was a big deal. We wanted to clearly distinguish between the three worlds. As [Sanjay has] described it, the "beige on beige" apartment where he is with his dad --

Patel: That's a key phrase, "beige on beige."

You're saying "beige on beige," which sounds boring, but it's beautiful in the short.

Grindle: The apartment?

Patel: Well, we lit it very nicely.

When Sanjay is with his father, it does feel traditionally Pixar, warm and with this familiar Pixar style. And then it breaks into this new realm and it almost feels like you guys are starting a new chapter.

Patel: What I really wanted to create was we're walking people through the door with the look and feel of what we've always experienced with a traditional Pixar film. Gradiation, soft shadows, lots of light, full 3d rendering. We quickly then see that this boy's in love with this 2D cartoon. We wanted to then echo that with the fight with the deities, but not just make it 2D. We also wanted to give it more dimension, so it isn't completely 2D. It isn't completely 3D. It's this co-mingling of the two that feels hopefully interesting.

It feels like that last section is just made of light. Like, there's no hard lines. Watching it even the second time, the pearls on Vishnu's neck are just they're shockingly gorgeous

Patel: Light was a huge thing for the short, a major, major thing. The temple really reveals itself in a way that's cosmic and infinite. We really just wanted to celebrate light and energy.

Grindle: Visualize enlightenment is what we talked about.

Can you talk about the decision to make the film nearly dialogue-free?

Grindle: Generally our short films do not have dialogue. They're really supposed to be a celebration of pure animation. But we needed sound on the 2D cartoon just to sell that this is something very American he's watching. We always had the [superhero] doll saying "Super Team" even before we'd had a name for the film. It inspired the title of the film.

Patel: At CalArts, the school I went to, the first two films [I made] were pantomime films, so coming back to that was the best. As an animator, I love to work in that tradition. I'm super-excited about that. But there's a little bit of Hindi that the dad says at the end. It's a fun thing to know if you know Hindi.

Are you not going to tell me? I don't have time to learn Hindi during Comic-Con. Help a girl out!

Patel: It's been fun to ask people, "What do you think he said?" If you watch it again, you'll get it. I think if you hear the way he says it, you'll get it. And that's great as an animator because you're don't necessarily need to know the words. What you need to express as a good animator is the intention of how it's being said. Everything is communicated in that.

You spoke in the panel about concerns of losing the audience with potentially unfamiliar cultural elements. How did you walk that line?

Grindle: Or too lost by the visuals, like on both levels we were trying to stay focus on what was the narrative thread. Let's make sure that's always clear.

Patel: It felt like perfect union to do this at Pixar. Like if I was left to my own devices, I know so much about (Hinduism and its stories) that I'd go into esoteric land. And so I always knew that I take my concentrated Sanjay juice and cut it with some Pixar magic, It's going to create this cocktail that can appeal to all these people. And that's exactly what happened.

Are you thinking ahead to what your feature might be?

Patel: No, I've been so focused on my career and my art that it would be nice to [take some time off]. My cup is full. It's been great.

Grindle: The right thing will come at the right time.

Were you at all nervous about by the high bar and strong reactions people tend to have to Pixar shorts?

Grindle: Of course. I mean I think we all are, every single movie we make, all the time. It's terrifying, you don't want to be the one that ended the streak. The longer is goes, the more you feel it.

Well, when "Lava" hit, playing before "Inside Out," it got a very vocal negative reaction online, which was surprising, frankly.

Grindle: We've also seen a lot of positive reactions to that. So it's been mixed.

I think for me it was surprising because I've never heard anything but praise for Pixar shorts.

Grindle: So you definitely don't want to be that film. But you can't think about that too much when you make a film. It definitely crosses your mind. But you just have to get to work, focus on the story you want to tell. And we have such amazing artists that everybody's focused on the thing that they're so brilliant at doing. You don't look up. You just focus on doing it until it's done. And then when you're doing press, you're suddenly aware of the rest of the world. And then we go back to having our nose on the grindstone.

Are there any cartoon shows out now that inspire you?

Patel: Oh, yeah, lots of stuff. I like "Adventure Time." I like "Gravity Falls." There are so many great cartoons out there. I like "Shaun the Sheep." I've actually been digging into some older stuff too. My son has been educating me. He's two and he's really adamant that we watch Mickey Mouse over and over again. And I am loving it.

Which era of Mickey?

Patel: We have the Disney's Treasures DVD, and he's very clear. Today he wants to watch "Pointer." "Mick Mow Pointer." So we're watching a short from 1946 and it's virtually pantomime, and he gets every bit of it. And I watch him and I watch the short. It's like an education. So honestly I'm relearning the canon through his eyes now.

I think kids respond even better to visual language that we do. Was that also a part of the emphasis on pantomime because Sanjay in the short is a kid?

Patel: Well John [Lasseter] in his wisdom knew right away. There's no rule about [avoiding dialogue]. There's been a kind of unspoken feeling like, 'Hey, if you could make it pantomime, please work in that medium.' Why take up the language space when the feature is going to do that?

Grindle: This is an opportunity to really exercise our animation muscle.

Patel: And visual storytelling.

How is it decided which feature you'll be paired with?

Grindle: I guess it becomes clear when you're fully in production. When you finish, you know it'll be available for the next one. So we will imagine as we cue up the short films how they match up (to features), but it's not guaranteed until the film is complete.

Is theme at all important when they are being paired, or is it just timing?

Grindle: It's just timing.

Is there anything else you want to say about your film?

Patel: I'm really proud of the studio for taking a chance on something very personal. I'm really proud of the studio for taking a chance on something that is really different, and yet something that is in a weird way familiar part of America. I'm really proud of the short.

"Sanjay's Super Team" will hit theaters Nov 25 with "The Good Dinosaur."

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