Saturday, May 9, 2009


Although there are quite a few Nina-Paley-interviews online by now, Kristin Thompson posted a transcript of a Q&A from this year's Ebertfest. As always, she (together with film professor Richard Leskovsky) asks all the right questions. You can find it here.

There are still a few questions concerning her storytelling approach I'd like to hear more about and wish somebody asked her in a future interview.

I have also tried to locate some of Paley's short films. Some of the online versions are in fairly poor quality, but hopefully this will change, once Nina Paley has had time to upload all of them to her own website. So maybe it's a good idea to wait (Fetch will be included on the Sita-DVD), but nevertheless, if you're curious, here they are:

Trial by Fire (2004): the short film that formed the basis of Sita.
The Stork (2002)
The Wit and Wisdom of Cancer (2002)
Lexi (2001)
Fetch! (2001)
Pandorama (2000)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sita sings the blues 1: single color backgrounds

Thanks to Nina Paley’s belief in free cultural content, promotional copies of her beloved feature can be downloaded legally. But with all the world writing about “copyright jail”, I feel that the subject of distribution gets more attention than the film itself. As a film scholar I cannot resist the opportunity to analyze the film in detail, though.

While it’s certainly preferable to see Sita sings the Blues in a theater for the first time, those digital versions on the net are great to dig deeper into it. So if you haven’t seen it already, try to make it to a screening, or organize one, even if it’s at home with friends, and come back here later, because there will be SPOILERS galore. In short: be warned!

What never ceases to amaze me is how effectively Nina Paley uses her limited ressources. Familiar animated loops pop up in different parts of the story, sometimes with very little variation, but always perfectly fitting in. Shapes, characters, even textures are re-used so undisguisedly that one can only admire the audaciousness. Needless to say that it never feels like cheating.

A lot of reviewers have praised it for its beautiful use of color. In fact, Paley’s color sense seems to be unbeatable. Sita is an ideal example to see what a powerful but relatively inexpensive production value color really is.

At the airport
1) About 14 minutes into the film, Nina and Dave say goodbye in San Francisco for the first time. The people around them are all in shades of gray, with light gray outlines whereas Nina and Dave are in muted colors with brown outlines. They seem only to see each other. Nina keeps standing inert among moving gray figures. Note how the closer characters are not only darker (aerial perspective) but also less lit so they don’t draw our attention away from the couple.

”I’ll miss you” – “It’s only a six month contract”

2) At about 36 minutes, Nina arrives in Trivandrum. The Indian people are more colorful but still subdued: less contrast, darker than Nina. She’s in an unknown place, it’s all dark around her. Then she sees Dave, shining like a star.

As she is running towards him the darkness gets more and more salmon colored. It gets warmer and more saturated.

The moment Nina kisses Dave we have the strongest saturation. This lasts until Nina registers Dave’s reaction and Dave says “we’re in India”.

With the words “no kissing in public”, the already muted beige gets darker and darker until Nina’s again staring into the same darkness. The colors clearly express her point of view throughout these changes.

3) Later, when Nina leaves for New York, the scene stays black throughout, no passion there anymore.
Note how the outlines of the passers-by are still in the same gray that makes them look soft.

The dying father

There are plenty of other occasions that benefit from changing single color backgrounds. Look at the following for example:

Kaikeyi asks the king to send Rama away for 14 years. While the shadow puppets discuss, if and how the king died of heartbreak, the cold blue background associated with the wife’s coldheartedness changes on cutting to a close-up of the king (at the words: “very dramatic”)
“he’s having a heart attack when his son is going away”

During the words “told to go away”, a whipping sound changes the background color, one of those instants where sound is so important.

“…and he went, and Sita said, if you go…”

It looks as if the background colors here reflect the characters relationship temperature, so to speak. Maybe I am already overanalyzing this (hopefully Nina Paley doesn’t mind me doing so), but to me studying this film is very rewarding because it teaches me how much one can achieve on a shoestring budget. After all, animation takes imagination.

Inbetween VI

Fiddling around with live-action reference: sketches and rough animation drawings based on a few seconds of a Jack Lemmon scene from Billy Wilder's Avanti!

A commissioned illustration for a painter's leaflet.

Coming soon: some posts about Sita sings the blues and Fleischer's Superman cartoons.