When you go see The Good Dinosaur this weekend, you’ll be treated to an extra treat in the form of “Sanjay’s Super Team,” a visually stunning, monumentally moving work by writer-director Sanjay Patel. In an unusually autobiographical move, the film centers around young Sanjay, who is more interested in watching Western superhero cartoons than engaging in the traditions of Hindu practice with his father. Eventually, those two worlds collide in jaw-dropping fashion, and both father and son start to understand each other a little bit more. You’ll be clapping while you wipe away tears. (And if you love the short as much as we do—which you will—we wholeheartedly recommend The Art of Sanjay’s Super Team, from Chronicle Books, written by Patel with a forward from John Lasseter. It’s dazzling.)
We were lucky enough to sit down with Patel and his producer, Nicole Paradis Grindle, to talk about the origins of the film, achieving the movie’s distinctive look, and what inspired them.
Maybe you can start off by just talking about the inspiration for the short?
Sanjay: Oh man … I don’t know how to answer this question.
Nicole: Where do we start? Well Sanjay did not start out to make a short film. He was invited to do it after his artwork was on display at a show at Pixar. He writes books and there was an art show based on his books. Somebody at Pixar said, “Oh we should bring that show to Pixar.” They put the show up and John Lasseter saw it and said, “Sanjay, I want you to make a film!” And Sanjay said, “No.”
Sanjay: I didn’t want to do it.
Nicole: Why did you say no?
Sanjay: I think it’s so weird to talk about now, but I was really scared. I just felt really safe working on stuff that was personal to me and to my community, at home, when there’s nobody looking. The idea of taking that stuff into work felt terrifying to me.
Nicole: What you were doing at work was totally different.
Sanjay: Totally. But there were a couple of things that turned the needle. Number one, I talked to my dad. He said, “You’ve had this relationship with the studio for 20 years. How could you not try to do what they’re asking you to do? That’d create bad karma for you.” He felt it was my duty to at least try. Win or lose, my job was to try. Thinking about it more, I possibly had this opportunity to finally give my nieces and nephews a different version of Pixar that they might not see. That’s why I was excited to do those books. It was something I could give to my family members. It was Pixar-level talent but for my community. So the idea of doing that at Pixar for the rest of the world felt like we might be able to turn the culture needle a flick.
How did you hone-in on this specific story?
Sanjay: John helped me. That was the truth of the matter. The original concept was about a little boy not appreciating his culture. He was in love with Western culture but ignoring his own tradition and stories. I told John about how I grew up. And he loved it. He said, “Just tell that story about you and your dad. Tell that truth.” That was the note that I got that made it the most universal and the most personal—the history about you and your dad is relevant here. When you grow up with that you say, “Nobody’s going to want to hear that story at Pixar.”
Nicole: It took John to say, “That’s the thing that make people feel it.”
Stylistically it’s very different, especially when Sanjay goes into that alternate world. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Nicole: Well, that’s a Saturday morning cartoon. The idea in the battle scene is that this is little Sanjay’s understanding of his dad’s world, interpreted through what he understands is a Saturday morning cartoon. So visually, but also musically, it reprises what you’ve heard in the Saturday morning cartoon. But achieving that look was easier said than done.
Did you go through a million iterations?
Nicole: We did.
Was there ever a time when that section was traditional animation?
Nicole: No. It was never 2D. But getting that kind of toon shading was challenging. Sanjay is very particular about the look he’s trying to achieve and not having outlines. But it turned out brilliantly. But it wasn’t something that came out of the can.
Sanjay: We do observational stuff so well. The computer begs to do that. And the constraints of the story were that we needed to take this boy to a place of enlightenment and the realm of the deities, and we can’t photograph that. There’s no reference for that.
Nicole: Which in some ways is liberating.
Sanjay: But in terms of our army of artists, who know exactly how light falls on a mountain at a certain time of day, well, we just don’t have it. Are there shadows in this world? We didn’t know. There were all of these things that help us figure out our way through lighting that we just didn’t have. Our lighting director of photography was put in this incredibly hard position because we changed all of the rules and the phrase she coined was “illogical lighting.” Pixar has a very logical way of figuring out light. I said, “To heck with that, I just want something that looks amazing on screen for that frame.” I was always going for feeling. I brought up the star child from 2001. There’s a feeling you get when you see that embryo in space. Where’s the lighting coming from? Who knows! But it looks amazing!
Was there any direct inspiration you were looking to for those battle sequences?
Nicole: It was very anime-inspired. And 2001 was a huge inspiration.
Sanjay: The first thing I did, once we got the film into layout, was got the crew together to watch some of my favorite anime things from the ‘90s. There’s this thing called FLCL [pronounced Fooly Cooly] and there was amazing stuff that these guys had done. We were watching it to see how free this could be, and how stylistically abstract they were able to be to create a certain emotion. We didn’t have to go that far but we kept it in mind. I was really inspired with what Disney was doing with Tron Uprising. That’s an amazingly series and stylistically gorgeous and cinematic. We looked at those two, along with Captain EO … lots of stuff.
Were you happy that the short was paired with The Good Dinosaur?
Nicole: It totally worked. It just landed that way. When the shorts are commissioned, it’s completely separate to what’s going on with the features. And you’ll look at the schedule and say, “Oh that’s the feature we’re paired with!” But there’s no other engineering that goes into it, so it just works out. Steve Jobs always said that he liked it when the shorts and features were completely different because it shows how much the studio can do. The weirder the pairing, the better; it shows that we’ve got range.
Sanjay: I’m a huge fan of Peter Sohn. The guy is amazing; a really humbling artist. I feel really grateful to follow in his footsteps.
You can see “Sanjay’s Super Team” with The Good Dinosaur in theaters now, and pick up The Art of Sanjay’s Super Team at your local bookstore (which, again, you really should do).