Friday, January 08, 2010

Image © Nina Paley

I've had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing many people in contemporary animation whose works clearly have had a significant impact on the artform, but I think in years to come my conversation with Nina Paley will stand out as among the most important.

I do believe that Paley has crafted an economic model that will work for independent filmmakers who do not want to go the standard distribution route and all of its perils.

This is the piece that I wrote for the 'papers this week.

“Sita Sings the Blues” is a highly improbable film. It is an animated adaptation of a revered story from the Hindu tradition told from the perspective of its non-Indian creator. Unlike big studio animated features, the film has four different art styles and much of the action is accompanied by vintage jazz songs performed by the late Annette Hanshaw.

By commercial standards, this low budget animated movie has no business being successful and yet it has garnered enthusiastic reactions from reviewers and audiences alike and its manner of release may revolutionize the independent film industry. Now that it is on pre-recorded DVD anyone interested in independent film or animation should check out this remarkable film.

Cartoonist and animator Nina Paley chose to put a version of the Indian epic “The Ramayana” on film – a story she described as “the greatest break-up story ever told – after her own marital split. “The Ramayana” is about Sita, a goddess separated from her beloved lord and husband Rama. Rama questions Sita’s purity after she is abducted by a rival king and although Sita ultimately proves she has remained true, she is banished to live in the forest.

Paley tells this story on four artistic levels. There is a rough “cartoony” narrative relating her own story, another looking like ancient paintings, one more that uses a more contemporary depiction of Hindu deities and a final one that is used for the musical numbers.

In many ways, the musical numbers resemble the classic Fleischer Brothers Betty Boop cartoons with the construction of Sita with a Boop-like series of circles and the evocative recordings by Hanshaw.

This shifting of styles might be a bit jarring at first for some audiences, but I found it very playful. I love it when animators take chances with their story material and audiences and Paley does that in spades.

The result is a must-see animated film for adults. Paley has tested the boundaries of animated stories farther than any of the commercial studios.

Speaking to me by phone from her home in New York City, Paley said the origin of the film was a series of random events. She was married to a man whose work brought him to India, where she first introduced to “The Ramayana.” During a business trip she made to New York City, her husband broke up with her through e-mail.

Stranded in New York, she recounted she was reading “The Ramayana” – “I was obsessed with the story” – and found comfort in the story at the same time she was “sofa surfing” – staying at the homes of friends while looking for a place to live in New York. One of those friends was a record collector who introduced her to the recordings of Hanshaw.

“All these happened at the same time,” she said.

Paley said that, like Sita, “if there had been a funeral pyre I would have thrown myself on it.”

Her emotions, though, became channeled into the creation of her film.

A veteran cartoonist but a novice animator, she began work on the film and “did three years of work over five years of time.” Animating the film on her home computer she was essentially a one-woman studio. She supported her herself as a freelance artist and her project was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

She also asked for donations from friends and the general public through her Web site. She said that including her living expenses for the time period, “Sita” cost about $270,000. In comparison the Pixar hit “Monsters, Inc.” reportedly cost $115 million.

A considerable amount of the budget went to licensing the music – about $70,000 – and the manufacture of a 35mm print for theatrical showings. The print cost Paley $30,000.

She said the use of different artistic styles was due to several factors, the first being “to keep myself from getting bored.”

“There is a huge breath of ‘The Ramayana’ art in the world and I wanted to give a little taste [of it],” she added.

Although this writer saw a strong influence from the classic Fleischer Brothers Betty Boop cartoons – from its flying monsters to characters gently bouncing to the beat of the music to the anthropomorphized dancing moon – Paley said, “Everything I’ve seen is an influence. I wasn’t thinking of Betty Boop when designing those segments.”

An integral part of the film is commentary on “The Ramayana” from three animated Asian shadow puppets who provide commentary and analysis of the story. Interestingly enough, they sometimes bicker a bit and disagree about the details of the story and its implications.

The dialogue for the three characters is bright and spontaneous and Paley said it was a conversation about “The Ramayana” from three Indians living in the United States recorded for the film. Paley called the non-scripted dialogue “an experiment.”

“Obviously, it was perfect,” she said with a laugh.

She said the three people all grew up with the story and were from different parts of India and had their own views on it.

There has been criticism of the film’s depiction of the story from Hindu fundamentalists and Paley said that many of the negative reviews have come from people who haven’t seen the movie. She doubted the film would ever be released in India because of state censorship issues as well her refusal to sell exclusive rights to a distributor.

The film is being seen in India, however, thanks to the way Paley has released the film, a method that has attracted more mainstream attention than the film itself from such media outlets as Time and The Wall Street Journal.

Typically, a distributor would buy exclusive rights to getting a movie into theaters, while separate deals would be made for DVDs and television screenings. These distribution deals also are usually for one country, so a filmmaker must make multiple efforts to have his or her film seen worldwide.

Paley has said that one distributor of independent films offered $20,000 upfront, hardly enough to cover her costs. She added she has learned that a distributor “can keep a smaller film down.”

With a standard distribution contract, “no one can compete with them [distributors] to make [a film] available.”

“This was highly influential in my decision to free the film,” she added.

So “freeing” the film meant she did not copyright it. She allowed WNET in New York City to stream it on its Web site. She encouraged people to download the film and make copies.

She has made “endorsement deals” with several DVD companies, which have released the film to the home video market. These arrangements are not exclusive and Paley gets a significant percentage of each DVD sale.

She explained she is not signing over her rights to the film but signing over endorsements. The downloading and sharing of the film has resulted in an underground marketing effort. Generally, she said, about half of a movie’s cost goes to marketing. By taking her approach, she said she “is getting tons of free advertising when people see it.”

“If it hadn’t been free, the film would have been at the mercy of a marketing director,” she said.

People who have seen it on-line have sought out ways to buy the film on DVD and other “Sita” merchandise.

By last October she had earned $65,000 through this arrangement.

Reaction from the animation community was at first hostile. She was called a “freak” and a “traitor.”

Her success, though, has changed some minds.

“With success more and more people have been writing ‘She may have something,’” she said.

Paley also went through a copyright dispute over the use of the Hanshaw music and through her struggles with the songs and with her decision to “free” the film, she has become a leader in the “Free Culture” movement. She has joined others in questioning if art and culture should be controlled by monopolies.

“The whole struggle with our broken copyright system turned me into a Free Culture activist. I’m actually going to release all my old ‘Nina’s Adventures’ and ‘Fluff’ comics under a Share Alike (copyleft) license too. I saw what happened to Annette Hanshaw’s beautiful recordings: they got locked up so no one could hear them. I didn’t want that to happen to my film. My first concern is art, and art has no life if people can’t share it,” she said.

For more information on the film and on the Free Culture concept, log onto

© 2010 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

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