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Flash Goddess
October 2005


Nina Paley
Nina Paley

Nina Paley: Sita Sings the Blues

“Sita Sings the Blues is a feature film (in progress) combining the ancient Indian epic Ramayana, the 1920's blues vocals of Annette Hanshaw, and classically informed but modern animation. Epic heartbreak is the common theme uniting these seemingly disparate elements. Parallel to Sita's plight in the Ramayana is the dissolution of my own marriage in 2002, the defining crisis of my adult life. With music, humor, and a range of animation techniques, I hope to show how the genius of the Ramayana transcends societies and generations, and is as relevant today as it was 3,000 years ago.”

What led you to using Flash?

A friend "borrowed" a copy from his work so I could play with it. I'm all for easily copied software - it gets more people hooked on it, which ultimately benefits the publisher. Now I buy my software legitimately, but if I hadn't been able to use that "borrowed" copy, I never would have learned Flash.

How would you rate the software as an animation tool? Do you like it? Do you find setbacks/limitations/pit-falls in using it?

I love Flash. It's very clean and simple. It's like that old board game Othello - "A minute to learn, a lifetime to master."

Flash can be a little buggy though. Sometimes I'll be using the paintbrush and a shape will just disappear. If I import very complicated vector art from other programs, Flash can get confused and mush all the shapes into one big red blob. I hope they fix some of these bugs in the upcoming release.

By the way, I detest Flash MX 2004. So much so that I reverted to plain ol' Flash MX (and what's with those stupid names? 'MX'? Come on, Macromedia, just call it Flash and give it an iteration number!). I'm eager to read reviews of the newest version; I hope it's not a mess like the last one.

I suppose some people consider Flash's vector nature a limitation, because it doesn't allow blurs or other raster effects. That's just the nature of vectors. It's like saying a horse is limited because it can't fly. I like vectors. If I need raster effects, I just switch to a raster program.

I use Flash almost entirely for film and broadcast production. Some people are doing amazingly clever things with Flash for the web; I'm not one of them. For me, Flash is sort of a vector substitute for After Effects. I use a lot of bitmap images within Flash too - It's versatile that way. I prefer Flash to After Effects because it has great drawing tools, allowing me to create my art elements right in the program. It also permits timeline scrubbing, so I can see my animation before rendering it. And it lets me scrub sound, which makes lip-synching extremely fast and easy. I like the grammar of symbols. I like the flexible onionskin, which I use to draw straight-ahead full animation. Sometimes I export layers from Flash and process them in raster programs, like Synthetic Studio Artist.

Can you describe your creative process?

Most of my ideas arrive while I'm in the shower. I used to write them down, but now I just remember them. Every time I take a shower it's like watching a little bit of my future finished film. Working is just translating that imagined film into real life. If I forget, then I scribble little storyboards to jog my memory. I also scribble little notes and storyboards when there are gaps in a scene I need to fill in, to get the juices flowing. I rarely storyboard whole scenes, and those storyboards I do scribble out are illegible to anyone but me. Thank god I work alone, I'd drive a staff crazy.

Your style of illustrating Sita Sings the Blues is very different from all your other works. Why did you choose this style? What inspired it?

The finished film will incorporate several styles, but right now I'm making a series of musical numbers in the flat style you're referring to. I started designing those characters while I was still in Trivandrum ( Kerala , India ). I was looking for a simple way to evoke something both "Indian" and cartoony, something that would be easy to work with. Nothing's easier to animate than cut-outs. I try not to make too much work for myself whenever possible.

I get tired of working in just one style. I vary styles from film to film to keep things interesting for me. I like to explore new techniques, which also influence the style. Lately I've been studying another software package called Synthetic Studio Artist. I used this a few years ago to make my short "Lexi," in which I rotoscoped video of my cat. Studio Artist is one complicated program ("a lifetime to learn"), but it allows for very painterly effects. I'm using it for a freelance gig right now, but I intend to incorporate it into "Sita" later. Those scenes are guaranteed to look very different from the musical numbers.

How long does it take you to complete a “chapter/song”?

With so many sets and characters already designed, I can bang out a 3-minute musical number (in the aforementioned flat cut-out style) in 6 weeks. Then I have to take time off to do other things like earn a living.

When working, what aspects do you find yourself focusing on most?

Um... design, color, lip-synch, movement, readability? I'm trying to communicate a story, get some ideas across, and find ways to keep the viewer's attention. Animation can get fatiguing and boring to watch for long periods, I try to keep that in mind so I don't wear out my viewers' eyeballs.

Why the unique combination of 1920's jazz with 500 BC's the Ramayana?

In September of 2002, 3 seemingly disparate elements came crashing into eachother like freight trains...well, train tracks only run 2 ways, so let's say it was like 2 freight trains crashing headlong plus an airplane nosediving into them. Anyway. 1 freight train was the Ramayana, which I'd started studying while I was in Trivandrum. Another freight train was Annette Hanshaw's jazz recordings, which I started hearing just after I left Trivandrum and came to New York. The plane crash was my marriage. You know how music affects you differently when you're heartbroken? Those blues songs were me. And the Ramayana's epic romantic catastrophe suddenly read like the blueprint of my life, when before it just seemed misogynistic and silly. I was in an altered state, and those elements crystallized into a single whole. 3 years later and I'm still trying to work through the pain by making this movie.

This is, culturally, a pretty sensitive subject you're working with… portraying the female as “the hero” in your interpretation of the Ramayana. Why did you decide to approach Sita's story from such an “unusual” point of view?

I'm just telling the story from my point of view, which is the only point of view I have. My art might be controversial, but it is honest.

If you where the ruler of the universe; what would your plans for Sita Sings the Blues be, when finished?

Ruler of the Universe, huh? I can't imagine.

I intend to submit it to festivals. Hopefully it will screen well and get an overseas distributor. I imagine it will do better in Europe, Australia and Canada than in the US, but who knows. Maybe I could get a US art-house distributor too. In an ideal world, it would generate some decent money so I could not have to live hand-to-mouth for a while. I don't expect it to be a huge popular hit, but some critical appreciation would be nice.

Also, I hope that in making this film, I'll be freed from re-living this Sita-esque pattern of relationships in my romantic life. I figure the gods must really, really like the Ramayana, because they keep playing out the "exile" drama over and over using me as an actress. "Sita Sings the Blues" is my offering to the gods - now they can simply hit rewind and replay whenever they want to see the drama, and leave me out of it. Making this film is akin to "practicing austerities," and I hope to be granted a "boon" in return - a peaceful heart. Actually it's already kind of working; I've been celibate since starting the project.

Curator Review:

Some of us might remember Nina Paley from her alternative comic strip "Nina's Adventures", and her mainstream daily newspaper strip "Fluff". In 1998 she started exploring a new medium, short films, creating the clay-animation "Luv Is...", "I (Heart) my Cat", "Cancer", and "Pandorama". One of her more recent works, a Flash animation called "The Stork", was invited to Sundance in 2002, and also won a prize in the EarthVision Environmental Film Festival in Santa Cruz . Her current project is a unique animated feature-in-progress called "Sita Sings the Blues". Nina Paley is giving an ancient epic a very unusual and feminine spin. In this cultural remix of western and eastern tales of love and heartbreak, trendy vector illustrations are flawlessly linked to the scratchy sound of a 1920's jazz record. The handful of previews currently available on her website are definitely worth a visit. It's hard to believe that only one person is behind all this.

Curator: Nathalie Lawhead
Nathalie Lawhead is an artist, poet, writer, and sculptor. She works as a senior designer, and Flash developer for the infamous group of IT goons’ known as AlienMelon. Momentarily her physical location is the medieval town of Kranj, Slovenia but she lives online fused to her computer and the web.