Last week I interviewed Nina Paley about the Agni Pariksha episode of her feature-length animated film, Sita Sings the Blues. I’m in the process of transcribing the whole interview, which I will make available in PDF format. I thought I would post this segment, however, as an independent piece, for it has some interesting observations on directing.
Paley behind the camera.
As you may know, Paley did all the animation herself (except for some contributions by an intern, Jake Friedman). She didn’t have anyone directing her, nor did she have to direct anyone else.
The Agni Pariksha segment was a bit different. It involved a live dancer, Reena Shah, who also voiced Sita and sang the vocal for the Agni Pariksha. Paley had to direct Shah’s dancing, and that occasioned some interesting comments about directing, both about giving direction and accepting it.
I conducted the intereview in Paley’s apartment. She was sitting in front of her computer. During the interview we were looking at screen shots from the movie and at still photos of the studio session where Shah’s dancing was video-taped.
Tradition and Improv
BB: Did you have any instructions for Reena, or was it just ‘do your thing’?
NP: It was do your thing, though I wanted, and I didn’t know exactly how I was going to use it, but I did want her to be in traditional dress for some of it, and then naked for some of it. Though she wasn’t actually naked, she was wearing a leotard. I don’t know if I knew how I was going to use both of them, but I wanted the option. So we have the stuff with her in costume and her hair is up . . . and then you have her naked, hair’s flying everywhere. She came up with all the moves.
What’s with this? [looking a photos of the dance session] So she’s a very thoroughly trained Bharatanatyam dancer, but that’s not what she was doing. She incorporated that into . . . She improvises. That informs her . . .
Invocation to the dance
What is traditional is the thing she does in the beginning which I didn’t even realize, before she was even dancing, she did that thing [pointing to a photo?] and her eyes with this [Reena covers eyes with finger tips], which I just love. I love that she would do that before she danced. That’s just what you do before you dance.
BB: Right. That’s getting into the proper frame of being.
NP: And so I loved that I could do that at the beginning of the dance. And of course because I’m animating I can manipulate the time easily. I can have her be still down there and . . . .
How to Light a Match
BB: So that’s just the match.
NP: That I directed her to do. There was a great deal of direction there. I have pictures, I have stills . . .
BB: You knew you wanted the match thing, and . . .
NP: Well, you know I had various ideas, and they didn’t all make it into the final thing. [Starts looking through photos on computer.]
BB: If I were in my interpretive mode, there’s obvious things to say about Sita lighting her own pyre -
BB: - and putting the match out at the very end.
NP: Yes, absolutely. That was very conscious on my part. And in fact Sita does say ‘build me a funeral pyre.’ She’s very invested in . . . [leafing through photos on computer]
BB: In her own purification.
[Paley continues to look for certain photos.]
NP: Me directing Reena. And by the way I didn’t actually use a blue screen or the green screen. It ended up that I did that in case I wanted to try some techniques –
BB: So you just used the outline, you didn’t –
NP: I just traced her by hand, I didn’t use any automated process.
[Some chat about Reena stepping on a bit of glass and continuing on.]
‘light it like this’
NP: There I am [points to photo] telling her how to drop the match. So this went over and over – ‘light it like this’ [makes hand gesture]. – Oh, the director. [more photos] ‘You have to show me the hand movement.’ [makes gesture] You know the silhouette is very important. Ah, and there she is not quite naked [another photo].
[More photos, miscellaneous remarks.]
Awesome vs. Theatre or Something
NP: I hated doing it. I really hate being a film-maker.
BB: What do you hate about it?
NP: I just – It’s like ‘do this.’ You know, you get this little hierarchy thing going. I’m not comfortable with in any position. Just the pressure you have to rent the camera, it costs all this money, they were heavy – was in this situation where it was costing a lot of money. I didn’t know what I was doing.
BB: Now, when you rotoscope something like that [looking at blurry still photo of Reena dancing], do you – well, the camera wouldn’t have had the blur.
NP: Correct. And the reason I had to rent a camera was I needed it to be 24 frames a second and there just weren’t consumer grade 24-frame-a-second cameras then. There were, like, a week later. Like for eight-hundred dollars I could have just bought one. Instead I had to rent the HD camera. Unfortunately, because they’re a big pain to use.
BB: So you’d go nuts in a regular animation studio.
BB: I mean, you wouldn’t want someone telling you what to do, you wouldn’t want to be telling 35 other people what do do.
NP: I would want someone telling me what to do if they were amazing. I have had the experience of being directed by someone amazing. Not in animation, but in improvisation. [inaudible] One of my favorite books is Impro by Keith Johnstone.
BB: This is improv theatre.
NP: Yes. And, he was directing a workshop, and he told me to do something, and I of course changed it. And he said ‘Say this and do this’ and I of course put some ‘ums’ in there or changed slight movements (?). ‘Say EXACATLY this and do EXACTLY this.’ And he was right. And when I did exactly what he said it was really different, and it was brilliant, and – Give me more of that. Like, I would love to have someone tell me what to do. If they were like that. [BB & NP laugh] If they were telling me to do something awesome.
And of course I don’t know until I actually do it, but I’ve had so much experience having people telling me what to do, and going it. Like I know it’s going to be shit. I do it anyway. It’s shit, feels bad, nothing beautiful comes of it. It just gets worse and worse. They tell me to do something else stupid, and that’s been my experience in my very limited time in animation studios. And it’s almost always my experience with commercial illustration. And that’s why I make them pay me a lot.
Like, I don’t get paid to make it good. ‘You’re not paying me to make it good. You’re paying me to make it shitty.’
BB: Well, they’re paying you to make what they want –
NP: They don’t even want it, actually. They’re not even paying me to make what they want. I don’t know what kind of weird games – it’s like entertaining for them. It’s like some sort of court situation where they just enjoy having that kind of control. But the end result, no, it’s usually not good. And they know it’s not good. And frequently they throw the whole thing out. I’ve had that happen. I’ve had something really good, and – make it worse, make it worse, make it worse, make it worse. And they throw the whole thing out. And then they do it again.
Whatever. I guess it’s theater or something.