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Animator’s dedication is key to ‘Sita’

Nina Paley wrote, directed, drew and bought the music rights for her feature, based on an ancient Hindu epic.

April 24, 2010|By Charles Solomon, Special to the Los Angeles Times

As anyone who's sat through the seemingly endless credit crawls can attest, studio animated features require enormous crews; "Sita Sings the Blues," which opens Friday, April 23, at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills, is almost entirely the work of a single artist. Nina Paley wrote, directed, animated, designed, produced and edited the 82-minute film that mixes the ancient Hindu epic "Ramayana" with autobiographical elements, jazz tunes from the 1920s and echoes of the old cartoons of the Fleischer Studios.

Paley became fascinated with the epic in 2002, when she moved to Trivandrum in southern India, where her husband was working. "That was where I read the 'Ramayana' for the first time — in comic book form. I became obsessed with Sita's story, and read as many prose versions as I could," she said in a telephone interview from New York City.

The 24,000 verses of the "Ramayana" tell the story of Rama, a prince who's an incarnation of the god Vishnu. When Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka, abducts Rama's beautiful wife, Sita, Rama rescues her with the aid of the monkey-god Hanuman, but he doubts she's preserved her virtue. Even after Sita passes a trial by fire, Rama mistrusts her.

Sita's travails took on a new meaning for Paley when she left India on a business trip to New York City and received an e-mail from her husband telling her not to bother coming back. A friend in New York introduced her to the recordings of '20s singer Annette Hanshaw, whose bluesy vocals struck a familiar note. "When I heard her songs, I thought, ‘If Sita had a voice, this would be it,' " Paley recalls. "For me, the story in her songs was the same as the 'Ramayana.' "

In the film, a version of Sita who resembles Betty Boop laments Rama's mistreatment in songs that include "What Wouldn't I Do for That Man," "Am I Blue" and "Mean to Me." Paley used the animation program Flash to give Sita, Rama and Hanuman the look of jointed paper puppets. Their antics are juxtaposed with collages of figures from Indian art, a modern dance traced from live-action and a commentary on the complexities of the tale provided by three sardonic shadow puppets.

Although Paley had been making personal short animated films since 1998, she was best known as the creator of the comic strips "Nina's Adventures," "The Hots" and "Fluff." She decided to retell Sita's story in a film rather than a graphic novel because, "I was burning out on comics; the joy had dropped out of it and it was just a job. I was doing animation for myself, so I committed to doing a feature film in 2005."

Paley completed "Sita Sings the Blues" in three years on a budget of about $200,000: $80,000 in production costs and $120,000 "for food and rent and things like that." The film garnered rave reviews from critics who saw it on the festival circuit and was widely discussed on the Web. Then problems arose: Although Hanshaw's recording were in the public domain, the songs by Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Yip Harburg, et al., were not.

"It cost me $70,000 in license fees and legal costs to decriminalize the film and use these songs from the 1920s," Paley says. "It's legal now, but I have what's called a step deal: for every 5,000 discs sold, I have to make additional payments."

There's a long tradition of American independent animators making short films, including Oscar-winners John and Faith Hubley and Frank Mouris. But commentators believe that "Sita" represents a new paradigm: Computer technology has become so powerful and affordable that an individual with sufficient talent can make a full-length film.

"I don't think it's the way of future, but it's an option," Paley says. "It's like a novel, a literary form that somebody can do by themselves. More people are making movies the way they make novels, because the technology is available and it's getting less expensive, but not everyone is suited to this level of effort and discipline."

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