I was invited as media to cover this press event. All opinions are my own.
Have you taken your family to see The Good Dinosaur in theaters yet? If so, you have seen the adorable and heartwarming Pixar short called Sanjay’s Super Team that shows before The Good Dinosaur begins. This short is amazing, I loved it. While we were in Los Angeles, we took the time to sit down with Sanjay Patel and Nicole Grindle to chat about this Pixar Short.
In “Sanjay’s Super Team,” the new short film from Pixar Animation Studios, accomplished artist Sanjay Patel uses his own experience to tell the story of a young, first-generation Indian-American boy whose love for western pop culture comes into conflict with his father’s traditions. Sanjay is absorbed in the world of cartoons and comics, while his father tries to draw him into the traditions of his Hindu practice. Tedium and reluctance quickly turn into an awe-inspiring adventure as the boy embarks on a journey he never imagined, returning with a new perspective that they can both embrace.
We interviewed the director, Sanjay Patel and the producer, Nicole Grindle (pictured above) about Sanjay’s Super Team!
Question: Were those actual pictures that you drew as a child?
Sanjay: No, I wish they were. Definitely not. No that was something that Chris and I did, the Production Designer, specifically for the short, but we had some fun. There was a kind of a fun anecdote for the end credits.
Nicole: Yeah we asked our crew members kids to do the drawing and they took it really seriously. I mean you know they have parents who work at Pixar and they were like, “What! I can have my artwork in the film?” They all did their artwork and brought it in and we did our best to get them all in there. So that was fun.
Sanjay: Yeah it’s been great. I’ve been able to get the credit for their art work.
Nicole: He told them to ever give their artwork away for free again.
Question: I’ve heard that there is a heartwarming story behind the short, I’d love to hear it from you.
Nicole: There are to what’s heartwarming. Sanjay has worked at Pixar for almost 20 years and, and worked on a number of films there. You know he started out sort of turning his back on his father’s culture and wanting to fit in as an immigrant and embrace more traditional animation art. After about 10 years at Pixar you know he got the itch to do something else and was introduced to South Asian art. Sanjay fell in love with it and started doing books outside of Pixar and his books were a big hit. These are books like The Little book of Hindu Deities that allowed him to reconnect with the culture and then he did his own version of The Rum Iron. Then Pixar said, “Wow.” They saw his artwork at the Asian Art Museum and it was so successful Pixar said, “Hey come to Pixar. We want to put a show on of your work there.” Then John Lassiter saw it and said, “Hey we want you to do a short firm.” And Sanjay didn’t wanna’ do that. Then h were persuaded to do it and I think the conversation with your father is a great place for you to pick up.
Sanjay: I mean sure. It’s because it’s like kind of a long gestation. I don’t feel like the story just kind of happened overnight. It’s definitely like an evolution of me as an Artist and me as like a dude. Yeah um I was really scared. I mean that was the thing that I really started to peel all of it back it was really scared to like bring my identity, my part of my culture and this thing that was so precious to my parents and my community and to work. I think you know I was like I’ve been at the theater for so long and I was convinced, I was an expert. I was like, “You know trust me. Pixar doesn’t want anything to do with this, believe me.” 3 years later I’m completely shocked that we are able to tell the story and tell it in a way that was so sincere. Even when the President of Pixar asked me to try to do this I was taken aback. I was like, “Dude we don’t do this here man. This is not part of our brand.” You know he politely contradicted. He was like, “You know I felt like you know Pixar was always interested in telling new stories.”Then I finally had a conversation with my father and he pointed out. He was like, “Sanjay you know like this studio had supported you and educated you for like 20 years and, “They’ve had this relationship with you and they’re finally asking you to try this thing and for you not to try would be bad karma.” He said , “That it was my duty to at least try. Win or lose. He’s like that doesn’t matter. That’s not part of the equation Sanjay, but is your duty to at least try.” And I was like, “Dang dad.” So I tried. I mean luckily what was great is I would say like John Lassiter, in particular, he just he really believed in the concept from minute one. He seemed to like draw out the concept before I even knew it. Like the original concept that I pitched to John was about a little boy in India that was kind of ignoring the cultural stories that were carved on the temples all around them. He had his nose kind of buried in a Western style super hero comic and the short is about the boy appreciating his culture and then I told John because then John asked. He’s like, “Well where were you born? Where were you raised?” And I told him, “No I was raised in Whittier or in the San Bernadino. A little bit of both in Southern California.” And then I told him how I spent every morning with my dad and his rituals and my, my rituals and he really connected with both concepts. The first note from John was “Sanjay just tell your story about you and your dad.” “If you just tell that as honestly as possible people will connect to it.” So, I just can’t diminish John’s like support and his like why stewardship. I sell it out or cheese it up, but like he just made it so authentic and so true. He gave me permission to like say things that I wouldn’t say otherwise just because I think growing up in this culture I was always so afraid of exposing my identity, my parents identity, my parents community I think my normal was always to just try to fit in and so it took John Lassiter to say to me like, “No Sanjay your story, your parent’s story has value here. You have permission to tell it.” I’m super grateful.
Question: How do you see it impacting kids from your culture and background to finally see it represented in a major feature film?
Sanjay: Well I’m excited. I grew up here and my friends were like everybody. I had like maybe one brown friend, but it was like Hispanics, black people, white people, like everybody okay and like what was cool was just cool. It wasn’t like, “That’s a really interesting perspective from a Latino identity. It’ was just like, “Oh that’s cool. You know I’m into that or that’s dumb I’m not into that.” Like all our friends we would just be interested in whatever was cool. So I knew when John asked me to do this I knew like Pixar just makes things that are cool. Kids of all sort of cultures and identities will embrace and it just felt really exciting that we could tell this part of the story and have Pixar kind of be the ambassador to it. We’ll make it cool for all kids. And suddenly like I don’t know people from my community will feel less like alone or different and maybe will feel way more included. I think it’s friggin’ awesome man.
Question: In hindsight now what do you hope or think other kids that are children of immigrants take from the story and to embrace now?
Nicole: What I loved about the story was that it bridges cultures and that the inner generational thing is happening everywhere right. The parents want to pass on something from their lives to their children and the children are so interested inwhat’s like the newest flashiest thing and it’s been going on forever. I’m hoping that all kids take away there is something that my parents have, even if I’m not interested in it. Wow! My parents think that’s cool. So I should maybe pay attention a little bit more. That’s been my kind of interest in the film.
Sanjay: If it is cool, it will just connect and I think there’s a subtle thing that happens like when Chris Rock writes a show there’s a subtle difference that will see its way through. When Aziz writes his show there’s like some subtlety that he can capture that people can sniff out and it just shows up. I just think the way we made the short, it has my thumb print on it. It has my dad’s thumb print on it. People can smell something that’s authentic. I can at least.
Question: Has your Dad seen it yet?
Nicole: Yes, he saw it.
Sanjay: So, while we were making the short at Pixar, everyone said“Dude!” We’ve never done anything this personal at the studio in terms of being so specific to a father-son. So people were really curious and it was so hard to explain to people that my dad just doesn’t watch movies. I think the last thing he had seen was when we had left the U.K. 30 years ago. It was something with Julie Andrews he said ‘cause that was The Sound Of Music. He had never seen animation, he’s never seen Pixar in animation, he’s never seen any of the movies I’ve worked on. It was so surreal to fly him up to the studio. It’s like the second time he had been there and to have him come sit down in the theater and watch an animated story about him and me and our history and he was super emotional about it. It’s just so like classic “dude” way of operating for me. We have to do some story and then call him up.
Question: Was there a private moment with you guys or did you have a studio with other people in it with you?
Nicole: No it was just the 3 of us and there was a camera crew taping it. It was pretty intimate. It was sweet ‘cause he was all business at first. He wanted to come and be there for his son, watch the film and, and say, “Yes it’s very good.” Then when we started talking about how he proud he was of Sanjay and that’s when he went over the edge.
Sanjay: He got super emotional.
Nicole: I think he’s a very hard working guy. He works 7 days a week, 24-7, he runs a motel. Here his son was not only was thanking him, but understood who he was and, and what had sustained him. I thought how can that not be emotional right? To have your child say, “No I see what you’ve been doing and I appreciate it.” So it was pretty emotional.
Question: What did Vishnu represent in the culture?
Sanjay: My hope is that we open the door. We have like 6 minutes to introduce these concepts, these cultural sort of figures and without language it’s so hard to really capture the depth and the complexity of these figures. So Vishnu stands for preservation and balance. That’s a very simple 2 second sort of explanation. There is much more that can be said and written about that philosophy and that character. Ultimately, I don’t think it really matters because my job was just to open the door. If you’re interested there’s been 3,000 years of history written about those characters. My job was just to make little Sanjays and other little friends that I grew up with just be interested because if the information’s out there. What’s hard is to just open up the door. It was exciting because in the Hindu philosophy masculine and feminine energy is so important so I always knew I wanted to use Vishnu because he stands for preservation in the trinity so the force of destruction problem is that force of creation, which we didn’t definitely need in this story. We needed the force of preservation because my father was trying to preserve his culture and so we just felt like that would be a good mirror. Once we decided it was gonna be kind of a super hero team again, the masculine-feminine energy’s so important for my parents goddess worship is all the rage. They really don’t care that much about Vishnu. The mother goddesses are much more popular. The mother goddess and the aspect of the warrior goddess Dorga were aspects that seemed appropriate. So we have Vishnu and we have the force of protection and power, Dorga. Then we have the demi god, who is part monkey and part god. He’s the son of the wind god. There’s so much mythology about him. All 3 deities. Mountains and mountains of information out there. The hard part is to get people interested. Other than professors you know.
Question: How did your name end up in the title?
Nicole: No it always had to be Sanjay and he didn’t like that at first, but you know we encouraged that with the character. It was little Sanjay was always the character and then when we were looking for titles for the film we were trying all kinds of stuff. We did try the name Dia to represent the candle ‘cause he wanted it all to be light. We considered calling it enlightenment and her like, “Oh come on. Like you can’t call a Pixar short Enlightenment.” Finally it was John who said, “It has to have your name on it.” He said, “I don’t know Sanjay’s Super Heroes or something.” We had the little action figure saying, “Super team.” We were like, “Yeah Sanjay’s Super Team.” He wanted the super team to also represent him and his father.
Sanjay: First it was super heroes.
Nicole: Yes, not super heroes, it’s our team. It’s about bringing people together, the super team. So that’s how it ended up that way. He was like, “Oh I can’t believe my name’s gonna’ be on it.” Yeah now we have a little stuffy. We have a little Sanjay plush that you can get.
Question: Pixar has never touched upon religion, can you tell us more about that?
Sanjay: It was so cool. Like the original concepts. I had 4 concepts and one of them was like that was the story. It was the story of me and my dad. It was always there and John never questioned it. From minute one he smelled that was the truth of how I grew up with my dad. Not once did he ever push back on it. Later I think there were concerns.
Nicole: I mean I think there were some concerns that people would misunderstand what the film was about and worry that maybe we were promoting one particular religion over another, but as long as we recognized this was a story about the real Sanjay’s experience with his father then how could anyone object you know. That’s why we put the pictures at the end of Sanjay and his dad. Just to emphasize this is one family’s experience and it happens to have ha– you know it involved religion, but that’s not the main story — it’s really about a little boy interpreting his father’s experience with his religion.
Sanjay: I’m super proud to have gotten this opportunity to make it. You I think growing up every day twice a day I got to see what my dad did and you know it was like I hated it ‘cause it was boring. Now in hindsight I could see how it’s a really special thing to invite people into see something that maybe they wouldn’t be exposed to. It really feels like a privilege to show people a part of the community that isn’t stereotypical, but something that’s really honest and true to some people in that community and their experience. I think it’s a really cool thing.
Question: Do you think this will allow you to have a different perspective when it comes to your child liking a particular super hero?
Sanjay: Like, “Come on son. Let’s go to the museum. You don’t wanna’ watch this sports thing.” I’m sure he’s gonna’ be a complete sports nut. I think it’s really changed my relationship to my father. I suddenly was like oh gosh man it was hell trying to raise a little kid — it really is. It’s a huge eye opener to how hard it is for parents. I mean how beautiful it is too. Like I’m breaking a step– what’s the word for it? The paradox. Like run away from you, but I can’t believe how beautiful and amazing you are. It’s really helped me appreciate so much of how hard my parents must have had to work and with way less resources than what Emily and I have. So I’m incredibly grateful.
Question: Is there a reason why you decided to just keep it well just no conversation?
Nicole: That is part of the tradition of the Pixar stories. We try as much as possible not to have a lot of dialogue because it is a tribute to the pure art of animation and visual story telling. So that is part of the tradition. There is some dialogue with the TV and then his father does speak at the very end. I don’t know if everybody knows that he’s actually speaking.
Sanjay: Yeah there’s a small little bit of Hindu that he says. It seems actually truer to my experience. There wasn’t much dialogue growing up at home.
More details about this short are HERE!