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interview Oscar nominee and IndoCanadian animator Ishu Patel tells Nikita Banerjee about how his growth

as an artist, his craft, and his love for doing animation frame by frame beneath his eight feet camera
Tell us about your background I grew up in an agricultural village and my parents were simple farmers. There was no electricity, no radio. So going to the National Film Board of Canada was not a childhood aim as I would have had no way to know that such a place existed! In my childhood no one ever imagined leaving the village, much less leaving India and traveling out into a wider world. So no, there was no question of wanting to be an animator. First I would not have known what an animator was, and secondly, farming would have been my expected future. Animation as a career is now being accepted in India. When you decided to become an animator? How did your family react? Deciding on animation did not come till late in life. I was an independent adult by then, so

Drawing from founts deep within

Pictures: Courtesy Ishu Patel and NFBC

my parents really had no say in the matter. I had left the village after graduating from High School to study at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda for four years. After that I began a career at the newly opened National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, first as an apprentice in Graphic Design, and eventually as Head of the Visual Communication Department. It was only at NID that I was exposed to international film animation. Many of the shorts we screened were from the National Film Board of Canada. They inspired me because I could see that an experimental animated film was something that could be executed basically by one person, by oneself.

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One didn’t need to be a cog in the wheel of a huge studio, like Disney or Hanna Barbera. Animation could be an artists’ medium. Since I was very good in my ability to illustrate and since I loved photography and design and I was very technically astute, and since I discovered that all of these abilities were utilized in conceiving and making an animated film, it became my passion. All my energy was devoted to animation filmmaking, and learning. There was no formal training available. But by experimenting, shooting many tests, watching animated films, I taught myself and began to understand the medium, using whatever equipment and materials were available at NID. How would you describe the journey so far? Well, my journey took me to Canada and twenty-five years at the National Film Board

of Canada – an extraordinary privilege. In 1970 I had received a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to study animation in America. With it I managed to secure entry into the NFBC for a year, where I was allowed to make my first “student” level film. The NFBC is not a school, but a production studio. There I met many other filmmakers, including Norman McLaren who had inspired me so much in my student years in India, and who now was encouraging me one-on-one. It really was an amazing time and place. It was a life changing experience. In 1972 I resigned from NID and returned to Canada to join the NFBC and have made my home and career in Canada. The twenty-five years at the NFBC was a time of directing my own films, producing other people’s films, mentoring young filmmakers, and conducting animation workshops throughout the world. I

feel very lucky to have been at the right place at the right time and to have had the stamina and passion to make the best of that opportunity. While you were studying animation which style of animation did you specialize in? As I said, I did not study animation. Formal animation schools and courses did not exist in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s – and not only in India, but in the West as well. Early animators were generally artists and illustrators who ended up in an animation studio, learning and developing as they went, and becoming great, either as cartoonists or as independent animation filmmakers. Formal animation schools, programs and courses are a relatively recent phenomenon, as animation has grown into a global industry. I created my own styles and developed or invented my own mechanical techniques ac-

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cording to the theme or concept I was developing at the time. Each concept needed an appropriate technique to express it fully. Your film The Bead Game won you an Oscar nomination. It involved animating thousands of beads and is considered to be a ground breaking film. Please take us through the process of how you arrived at the idea of making a film like this? I had been living for a winter up in the High Arctic at Cape Dorset operating an animation workshop for Inuit artists there. I was teaching them about moving objects under the camera to create the illusion of movement. When I returned to Montreal again, India and Pakistan were at war and the thermo-nuclear threat of the Cold War was always pervasive. I had these haunting ideas about aggression, especially after the peaceful escape in the stillness of the High Arctic winter. The women artists there had been using seed beads to decorate some articles of their sealskin clothing, and I had experimented with them under

the camera. After circuitous thinking processes I managed to merge my worries about man’s aggression with the fact that beads in a Line can be moved as a Line, the Line can be broken, re-attached, scattered – and suddenly I had a film underway! Technically, as usual, I had to work out each and every problem and shoot many tests, and find the music and adapt my visuals to the timing. And it all worked out. Please describe the animation process for the film, The Bead Game? As I said, I found that by lining up these tiny seed beads under the camera I could create a moving line. The beads are about as wide as a 6B lead in a drawing pencil, so they are pretty small. By pushing each bead within the line – using an extremely fine Sable brush and a steady hand – the “bead creatures” could be slightly moved and reshaped between each

exposure of the film. Rather than drawing thousands of “in-betweens” on sheets of paper, I could simply move and shape the lines physically under the camera between each exposure. The lines could be broken, re-attached, scattered, they could grow and shrink, and I could use different colored beads to enhance the look of the “creatures”. I researched visual references of animals and made hundreds of preliminary “line drawings” of creatures both fantastic and real, all of which could eventually be rendered in that “linear style” by the lines of tiny beads. These were pre-computer days. I worked on a 35mm. Oxberry animation camera stand. The “stand” consists of a tall column which carries the animation camera up and down for zooming in and zooming out. Below that is the “animation table” with movable east/

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west north/south peg bars for filming pans. Because I would not be making any pans I was able to dispense with the “animation table” from under the animation camera, and to replace it with a solid, smooth surfaced worktable, painted “camera black” so there would be no reflection, and no greys. As usual I shot lots of preliminary tests and in this way learned how best to animate the beads, what field sizes and exposures to use, and what my big challenges would be. I tested music with the technique as well, and when I was convinced that I could solve my technical problems, and create a good film technically, visually and in terms of the subject, and then I committed to doing it and had to turn my attention to actually planning the film precisely.

What were the challenges you faced during the making of this film and how did you overcome them? There were a few major challenges that I had to resolve and test well, before shooting the first frame. The big questions were how best to “technically” reinforce this difficult “theme”. The theme had become “the long evolution of aggression leading, unchecked, to its natural and fatal conclusion for humankind”. To reinforce the sense of evolution from small single-celled life forms escalating to larger and more complex organisms, with ever more power and destructive consequences, implied a “crescendo” – visually, musically, and “plotwise”. Everything would go from small and inconsequential to large, powerful and fatal. How could I most dramatically imply that crescendo of power and fatality? I decided on a continuous, unbroken zoom outward to

an ever increasing field size, accompanied by an unbroken rising music track. I decided on drums because they have been the instrument of war since the dawn of humankind, and because they can beat out a rising crescendo. Choosing to create the animation in a continuous, unbroken “zoom out”, from small to large, meant that it would be a film that wouldn’t allow me to alter from my path once I had begun the filming process. I had to solve everything up front. Filming would be continuous, day after day, with only a very few cuts and no editing. So everything had to work. I had made many line drawings of animals and fantastic creatures until I had a general idea of which images I wanted to use in order from small to large. I chose to begin the film using a small Field 7 and a single bead, and to end the film at a large Field 24. Between those two field sizes I planned to evolve and “grow” my images in size and complexity.

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film. The “bead transitions” were tightly animated and synchronized to the drumbeats, racing toward a powerful resolution. What was the duration of making the film? I spent about three months on pre-production and a year actually animating. I worked the same hours daily, at least seven days a week. Because I did all my thinking ahead of time, solving the technical problems and testing them and re testing them before I actually started the film I really didn’t run into any problems, and when I saw the rushes, they were always good. I was a young man, very energetic with good stamina, so I could pull it off. What was the kind of impact you wanted to deliver through the film? Because the film is about violence and its seeming “inevitability”, I wanted it to be intense and powerful, maybe frightening. To be those things it had to be packed tight, escalating, and ending powerfully. I think it worked because there is no slack; the visuals follow the music in a rapid-fire kind of crescendo. The few necessary cuts are invisible so there is no distraction from that drum beat march to the future, and the terrible message it conveys, and its sudden end. Tell us more about the different animation styles in your films Afterlife, Top Priority and Paradise. Afterlife began because of a book I read by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She had been studying the memories of many victims of “near death experiences” when “dead” people were revived from drowning or from death on the operating tables in hospitals, etc. She found that similar memories were common to all the subjects she studied. The shared memories of dying were of images of passing into tunnels of light, etc. I thought this would have interesting visual possibilities and an interesting mood, and Death was certainly a universal theme. I read The Egyptian Book of the Dead, Tibetan Book of the Dead, etc. and decided to pursue it. I needed a technique that would evoke a spiritual, unearthly quality. I accidentally discovered the luminescent quality of Plasticine when the setting sun

That is how I would get to my statement on Man, his massive violence and his ultimate military destructive power. To accomplish that the challenge was to raise the camera (by hand) upward on the zoom column, exactly one increment after each frame was exposed, over the period of one year, creating a kind of invisible zoom enlarging the Field from 7 to 24 (to make room for the armies and cities). During that process, I wanted to make as few cuts as humanly possible and wherever cuts were necessary, I had to somehow keep them imperceptible. I figured out a way to do both those things without messing up. The next most important technical challenge was finding that perfect uncut sequence of music I needed to reinforce that sense of unbroken escalation. I needed to find drum music rising in an unbroken crescendo, and then to work up an exposure sheet permitting me to animate to the various escalating beats. Obviously an Indian tabla sequence from a raga would be the answer, and I was lucky to find exactly what I needed on a Jnan Prakash Ghosh [renowned tabla exponent and teacher] of the album. We acquired the rights to

this music track. I worked up the exposure sheets based on the tabla music of Ghosh. I used the exposure sheets only to time the movement with the music. That was very important. I needed to accomplish a move within the beats allowed by the music. That is all I used for a storyboard – I made a rough plan. I simply visualized where I had to be to keep in line with the music and the evolving from creature to creature, from action to action. Without a storyboard I was free to manage my images, their evolution from one to another, and their timing so that they would all have arrived at the right place by the end of the film. Sometimes I might have planned to move to a specific “next creature”, but by following a new line, some other image would suggest itself to me. I was working mostly eye to hand, instinctively, but within the framework of the music. The beads were the elements that formed the line drawings, and their incremental movement created the impression of metamorphoses – or evolution - from one to another. I found that a controlled “scattering” of the beads, frame by frame, gave the impression of destruction and I used this throughout the

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shone through a smear of it, which I had stuck on the window pane of my studio for safekeeping. I marked it with my pencil and found that the thinness or thickness could control the light or darkness needed to make images. I experimented on a sheet of under-lit glass and finally achieved the technique that would allow the mysterious and shifting quality needed in this kind of mystical film.

Top Priority, was based on an African short story published by CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency. I used the same plasticene technique from Afterlife, except that I applied plasticene to a translucent white, rather than transparent, Plexiglas surface on a light box. The white Plexiglas was left exposed where appropriate to give the impression of the bright white heat of drought. As with Afterlife, the camera was above the art work and I carved each image into the plasticene with a variety of tools to vary the movement of fabric, textures and edges, in order to move subjects around. Paradise was based on a cautionary tale that my father told me as a boy. The film was ambitious in that I had a crew of ten people working with me on it. I used multiple-pass opticals, travelling mattes, pin holes, under lighting, and staggered mixes to achieve many of the effects. There was a tremendous amount of work involved to create the thousands of pieces of graphic artwork, and to figure out the technical in-camera processes used to create the dances of illusion and transformation within the Palace, etc. It was a big project.
You are known to choose philosophical and abstract themes for your films. What criteria do you use when choosing the themes for your films? I always have my antennae up to catch an interesting thought or idea or story or subject. I dwell on it to be sure that it speaks to me, that it is universal, that it has the potential for deeper development, and that it can be interpreted in some interesting way visually and musically. If it meets all those criteria I research, looking for lots of visual references in books, magazines, etc.; I make lots of sketches, shoot camera tests, listen to music,

and then if it all looks promising and exciting, I decide to go ahead and I begin to invent a technical way of making the film which will uniquely facilitate the mood of the subject - the particular feelings I wish to invoke. Is there an influencing factor for selection of your themes? My childhood memories from village-life in an agricultural environment in India during the 1950s offers thousands of ideas and visual images: no electricity, scary pitch black nights in the village with only tiny fires burning, fantastic stories, superstitions, deaths, births, marriages, birds and animals, foliage and flowers, farming methods, folklore, travelling puppet theatres, music, colour, life, etc. What is animation to you? For me it is a medium that requires all my abilities – a multi-disciplinary art form, including sound, music, colour composition, movement, rhythm, story-telling, technical challenges, photography, lighting, etc. I love the challenge, the creative and the technical processes of pulling it all together in one harmonious entity. As an artist and an animator, who have been

your influences? Lots of people – many of my peers have influenced me, including my fellow animators around the world. Specifically Norman Mclaren inspired me at the NFBC, but also Frederic Bach, Yuri Norstein, Gulio Gianini, and many Russian and Yugoslavian animators. Of the films you have made, which is your favourite and why? I don’t have a favourite. I like each of them differently, for different reasons. Each one is loaded with fantastic memories – both pleasant and hard memories, including memories of the people who worked with me on each film. Your films have music ranging from Classical Hindustani to Western Jazz. How do you select the music for your films? I prefer the music of a single instrument. I choose the instrument to enhance the visual subject (Japanese koto in Perspectrum; pan pipes for Paradise; tablas for Bead Game, flute for Afterlife). Once I make my pre-production sketches and drawings, I look for an appropriate instrument combined with music of a certain tempo and

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who are determined to go forward on their own, I would give the following suggestions when making a personal, experimental, independent film: 1. If you plan to create your personal film using only software, avoid being “used” by the limits and look of the software, and instead put together original organic images using the software solely as the digital vehicle, much as celluloid film was used as the “vehicle”. In other words, protect your creative process from the pre-determined results of a powerful piece of software. Lots of animators are now creating “under-the-camera” animation using SLR still digital cameras mounted above the artwork to capture the images. Appropriate software then makes it possible to pull it altogether as a film. The results are stunning. 2. Put your maximum effort into pre-production concepts, visuals, story boards, and make many animation tests before committing yourself. Don’t fall in love with your first efforts, re work it all, and often. 3. Don’t be satisfied with making a “thin” film, strive for richness, for levels. Push the boundaries of your music and sound ideas, your visual ideas, and even the concept itself. Completing a film is such a massively long and painstaking project, that you want it to be brilliant when it is finished. 4. Don’t be influenced by recent trends, software capabilities, TV shows, cartoon characters, etc. Go to the Primary Source – your own experience, thoughts and instincts. 5. When you are in production, turn off your cell phone, put up a firewall against intrusion of any kind and finish a full day’s work at one time, rather than interrupting your day to run errands. Be your own watch dog, because no one else will be. No multi tasking. As I mentioned above, your mantra, written above your work table, can be, “Work hard. Talk less.” Tell us about your upcoming projects. I have a few “irons in the fire” and I generally don’t talk about them until I am in production or finished. What would Ishu Patel be if not an animator? I would be a very happy farmer. Even today gardening and landscaping is my passion.

mood to support the film. Sometimes, as in Bead Game, I’ll select the music first and then create the visuals and movement. No matter which way, I must start the film with a strong music track. As far as I’m concerned 50% of the value of the film is about the music track. Does the music influence the story or is it the other way around? It goes either way. They are inseparable. Bead Game is perhaps the clearest example of this. The acceleration of human evolution - and it’s “survival of the fittest” violence - rides on the acceleration of the tabla’s rhythms, velocity and volume, culminating abruptly. Who is your favorite music artist? I have no favorite musician. I select music according to my themes and visuals. At the end of the film I do work with a music composer who helps me edit and mix additional bridge music and sound FX as required completing a rich sound track. What according to you is the most important thing for an animator to do? I continue to teach at University level, and I advise my students with the utmost respect to simply: “Work hard. Talk less.” Do you think reading literature on animation helps improve the art? If you mean reading “books about animation”, then possibly yes. It’s good to know other people’s processes; it inspires and informs the whole animation community. If you mean does reading literature (i.e. lit-

erary fiction) help an animator develop as a story teller, then absolutely yes! Do you watch animation films being made now-a-days? Which one of them is your favourite and why? I don’t have a favourite animated feature film, or short. I like a variety of animated films. Being an animation filmmaker myself, I know how much hard work people put into a good film, therefore for me to reject outright any film is very hard. I appreciate all the effort people put into their films. Please give five tips for animators. Personally, I still love the mental, aesthetic and hands-on process of putting together an animated film. The pleasure of working with 35mm. film is now a thing of the past for contemporary animation filmmakers, as the world is digitized. I continue to work under my eightfoot high Oxberry camera on 35mm.film, but I have the rushes digitized, edit them digitally, and finish the project at a digital post house. That way I maintain my organic control of the movement and images, and still end up with a digital “product” in the end. I continue to do a lot of teaching in universities and the reality is that animation students study and train in order to earn their living in the industry, in studios or large production and special effects houses – and not to make personal films. Finding the spare time and resources to make their own personal independent films is most often extremely difficult. However, for those

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