Acclaimed author and Pixar animator Sanjay Patel took his career to new levels when he teamed up with Pixar producer Nicole Grindle to produce the short animated film, Sanjay’s Super Team, which screened in theaters befoe The Good Dinosaur. The short, which premiered at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in June, is an autobiographical piece for Patel, telling the story of a young Indian boy who experiences tension between his own love for cartoons and the simple pleasures of modern life, and the religious tradition of his immigrant father. Says Patel, “That’s absolutely how I grew up,and every bit of that is 100% accurate. I just was glued to that TV, and my Dad was glued to his gods.” Having said this, though, it was never really Patel’s intent to tell a tale of Eastern-Western cultural tensions in this format. “It’s so funny,” says Patel, “that was the backdrop of how I grew up, and in many ways I really ran away from every bit of that because I was very embarrassed of it, ashamed of it, and it would be the last thing I’d want to bring to work at Pixar.”
In spite of this, through fortuitous circumstance, Pixar’s chief creative officer John Lasseter eventually would become Sanjay’s biggest champion and guide in bringing this story to life. Patel’s personal work had been put on display and celebrated at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and, subsequently, Patel was asked to put on a show at Pixar comprising the same work. “While the show was here John Lasseter came upon it and said, ‘We have got to have this guy do a film,’” says Grindle. Typically, Pixar employees are invited to pitch short film ideas to a committee, vying for very limited slots in a truly competitive process, “but Sanjay was lucky enough to leap over that process and get a personal invitation,” Grindle laughs. Patel mentioned the idea that would become Sanjay’s Super Team in the context of a different pitch, Lasseter latched onto it, and the rest is history.
As a first time director—a “neophyte,” as he puts it—there was a steep learning curve for Patel and a certain level of anxiety, which Grindle says is just part of the process. “It’s pretty common for new directors to be anxious because they feel that they have to do it all, and I think to be an effective director, you actually have to be really good at working with a team and drawing the best out of your team,” she says. All told, the seven-minute short took three years to complete and encompassed the work of over 100 artists.
Sanjay’s Super Team was inspired by various superhero-driven cartoons and a lot of anime. The aesthetic goal was to make the scenes between the father and son, which bookended the film, as mundane and colorless as possible—“the catch phrase for us was ‘beige on beige,’” says Patel. It’s in the minutes in-between, in which the boy has a fantastical daydream, that the film bursts into life and color. For Patel, one of the highlights of the process was working with Oscar-winning composer Mychael Danna—“Talk about somebody who’s fully down to earth”—who also composed for The Good Dinosaur. Patel and Danna bonded quickly when Patel learned that Danna has a Bengali wife, and that they both have young sons named Arjun. In addition to his other great contributions, Danna had the idea of incorporating the bansuri flute, which comes at a defining moment in the film. It’s just a lovely sort of choice that really harkens back to the spiritual culture of India,” says Patel. “I thought it was such a pro move to make that touch.”
To see an exclusive behind-the-scenes featurette about Sanjay’s Super Team click play below: