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Oscar nominee and Indo-

Canadian 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 ex-
pected future.

Animation as a career is now being accept-

ed 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
Pictures: Courtesy Ishu Patel and NFBC

Drawing from founts deep within

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 ca-
reer 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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animation reporter

One didn’t need to be a cog in the wheel of of Canada – an extraordinary privilege. In feel very lucky to have been at the right place at
a huge studio, like Disney or Hanna Barbera. 1970 I had received a Rockefeller Foundation the right time and to have had the stamina and
Animation could be an artists’ medium. Since scholarship to study animation in America. passion to make the best of that opportunity.
I was very good in my ability to illustrate and With it I managed to secure entry into the
since I loved photography and design and I NFBC for a year, where I was allowed to make While you were studying animation which
was very technically astute, and since I dis- my first “student” level film. The NFBC is not style of animation did you specialize in?
covered that all of these abilities were utilized a school, but a production studio. There I met As I said, I did not study animation. Formal
in conceiving and making an animated film, many other filmmakers, including Norman animation schools and courses did not exist
it became my passion. All my energy was McLaren who had inspired me so much in in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s – and not
devoted to animation filmmaking, and learn- my student years in India, and who now was only in India, but in the West as well. Early
ing. There was no formal training available. encouraging me one-on-one. It really was an animators were generally artists and illustra-
But by experimenting, shooting many tests, amazing time and place. It was a life chang- tors who ended up in an animation studio,
watching animated films, I taught myself ing experience. learning and developing as they went, and
and began to understand the medium, us- becoming great, either as cartoonists or as
ing whatever equipment and materials were In 1972 I resigned from NID and returned to independent animation filmmakers. Formal
available at NID. Canada to join the NFBC and have made my animation schools, programs and courses
home and career in Canada. The twenty-five are a relatively recent phenomenon, as ani-
How would you describe the journey so years at the NFBC was a time of directing my mation has grown into a global industry.
far? own films, producing other people’s films,
Well, my journey took me to Canada and mentoring young filmmakers, and conducting I created my own styles and developed or
twenty-five years at the National Film Board animation workshops throughout the world. I invented my own mechanical techniques ac-

animation reporter u April 2009 u


cording to the theme or concept I was devel- the camera. After circu- exposure of the
oping at the time. Each concept needed an itous thinking processes film. Rather than
appropriate technique to express it fully. I managed to merge my drawing thousands
worries about man’s of “in-betweens”
Your film The Bead Game won you an aggression with the fact on sheets of pa-
Oscar nomination. It involved animating that beads in a Line can per, I could simply
thousands of beads and is considered to be moved as a Line, the move and shape
be a ground breaking film. Please take us Line can be broken, re-attached, scattered – the lines physically under the camera be-
through the process of how you arrived at and suddenly I had a film underway! Techni- tween each exposure. The lines could be bro-
the idea of making a film like this? cally, as usual, I had to work out each and ken, re-attached, scattered, they could grow
I had been living for a winter up in the High every problem and shoot many tests, and find and shrink, and I could use different colored
Arctic at Cape Dorset operating an animation the music and adapt my visuals to the timing. beads to enhance the look of the “creatures”.
workshop for Inuit artists there. I was teach- And it all worked out. I researched visual references of animals and
ing them about moving objects under the made hundreds of preliminary “line draw-
camera to create the illusion of movement. Please describe the animation process for ings” of creatures both fantastic and real,
When I returned to Montreal again, India and the film, The Bead Game? all of which could eventually be rendered in
Pakistan were at war and the thermo-nuclear As I said, I found that by lining up these tiny that “linear style” by the lines of tiny beads.
threat of the Cold War was always pervasive. seed beads under the camera I could create These were pre-computer days. I worked on a
I had these haunting ideas about aggression, a moving line. The beads are about as wide 35mm. Oxberry animation camera stand.
especially after the peaceful escape in the as a 6B lead in a drawing pencil, so they are
stillness of the High Arctic winter. The women pretty small. By pushing each bead within the The “stand” consists of a tall column which
artists there had been using seed beads to line – using an extremely fine Sable brush and carries the animation camera up and down
decorate some articles of their sealskin cloth- a steady hand – the “bead creatures” could be for zooming in and zooming out. Below that
ing, and I had experimented with them under slightly moved and reshaped between each is the “animation table” with movable east/

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animation reporter

west north/south peg What were the chal- an ever increasing field size, accompanied by
bars for filming pans. lenges you faced an unbroken rising music track. I decided on
Because I would not during the making drums because they have been the instrument
be making any pans of this film and how of war since the dawn of humankind, and be-
I was able to dispense did you overcome cause they can beat out a rising crescendo.
with the “animation them?
table” from under the There were a few ma- Choosing to create the animation in a con-
animation camera, and to replace it with a jor challenges that I had to resolve and test tinuous, unbroken “zoom out”, from small
solid, smooth surfaced worktable, painted well, before shooting the first frame. The big to large, meant that it would be a film that
“camera black” so there would be no reflec- questions were how best to “technically” re- wouldn’t allow me to alter from my path once
tion, and no greys. inforce this difficult “theme”. The theme had I had begun the filming process. I had to
become “the long evolution of aggression solve everything up front. Filming would be
As usual I shot lots of preliminary tests and leading, unchecked, to its natural and fatal continuous, day after day, with only a very
in this way learned how best to animate the conclusion for humankind”. To reinforce the few cuts and no editing. So everything had
beads, what field sizes and exposures to use, sense of evolution from small single-celled to work.
and what my big challenges would be. life forms escalating to larger and more
complex organisms, with ever more power I had made many line drawings of animals
I tested music with the technique as well, and and destructive consequences, implied a and fantastic creatures until I had a general
when I was convinced that I could solve my “crescendo” – visually, musically, and “plot- idea of which images I wanted to use in order
technical problems, and create a good film wise”. Everything would go from small and from small to large. I chose to begin the film
technically, visually and in terms of the sub- inconsequential to large, powerful and fatal. using a small Field 7 and a single bead, and
ject, and then I committed to doing it and had How could I most dramatically imply that to end the film at a large Field 24. Between
to turn my attention to actually planning the crescendo of power and fatality? I decided those two field sizes I planned to evolve and
film precisely. on a continuous, unbroken zoom outward to “grow” my images in size and complexity.

animation reporter u April 2009 u


film. The “bead transitions” were tightly ani-

mated 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 ac-
tually 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
That is how I would this music track. seeming “inevitability”, I wanted it to be in-
get to my statement on I worked up the ex- tense and powerful, maybe frightening. To be
Man, his massive vio- posure sheets based those things it had to be packed tight, escalat-
lence and his ultimate on the tabla music ing, and ending powerfully. I think it worked
military destructive of Ghosh. I used the because there is no slack; the visuals follow
power. exposure sheets only the music in a rapid-fire kind of crescendo.
to time the movement The few necessary cuts are invisible so there
To accomplish that with the music. That is no distraction from that drum beat march
the challenge was to was very important. I to the future, and the terrible message it con-
raise the camera (by needed to accomplish a veys, and its sudden end.
hand) upward on the zoom column, exactly move within the beats allowed by the music.
one increment after each frame was exposed, That is all I used for a storyboard – I made Tell us more about the different animation
over the period of one year, creating a kind of a rough plan. I simply visualized where I had styles in your films Afterlife, Top Priority
invisible zoom enlarging the Field from 7 to to be to keep in line with the music and the and Paradise.
24 (to make room for the armies and cities). evolving from creature to creature, from action Afterlife began because of a book I read by
During that process, I wanted to make as few to action. Without a storyboard I was free to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She had been study-
cuts as humanly possible and wherever cuts manage my images, their evolution from one ing the memories of many victims of “near
were necessary, I had to somehow keep them to another, and their timing so that they would death experiences” when “dead” people were
imperceptible. I figured out a way to do both all have arrived at the right place by the end revived from drowning or from death on the
those things without messing up. of the film. Sometimes I might have planned operating tables in hospitals, etc. She found
to move to a specific “next creature”, but by that similar memories were common to all the
The next most important technical challenge following a new line, some other image would subjects she studied. The shared memories of
was finding that perfect uncut sequence of suggest itself to me. I was working mostly eye dying were of images of passing into tunnels
music I needed to reinforce that sense of un- to hand, instinctively, but within the framework of light, etc. I thought this would have inter-
broken escalation. I needed to find drum mu- of the music. esting visual possibilities and an interesting
sic rising in an unbroken crescendo, and then mood, and Death was certainly a universal
to work up an exposure sheet permitting me The beads were the elements that formed the theme. I read The Egyptian Book of the Dead,
to animate to the various escalating beats. line drawings, and their incremental move- Tibetan Book of the Dead, etc. and decided
Obviously an Indian tabla sequence from a ment created the impression of metamorpho- to pursue it. I needed a technique that would
raga would be the answer, and I was lucky to ses – or evolution - from one to another. I evoke a spiritual, unearthly quality.
find exactly what I needed on a Jnan Prakash found that a controlled “scattering” of the
Ghosh [renowned tabla exponent and teach- beads, frame by frame, gave the impression I accidentally discovered the luminescent
er] of the album. We acquired the rights to of destruction and I used this throughout the quality of Plasticine when the setting sun

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animation reporter

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 qual-
ity needed in this kind of mystical film.

Top Priority, was based on an African short

story published by CIDA, the Canadian In-
ternational Development Agency. I used the
same plasticene technique from Afterlife, ex-
cept that I applied plasticene to a translucent
white, rather than transparent, Plexiglas sur-
face on a light box. The white Plexiglas was
left exposed where appropriate to give the im-
pression of the bright white heat of drought.
As with Afterlife, the camera was above the and then if it all looks your influences?
art work and I carved each image into the promising and excit- Lots of people – many
plasticene with a variety of tools to vary the ing, I decide to go of my peers have in-
movement of fabric, textures and edges, in ahead and I begin to fluenced me, includ-
order to move subjects around. invent a technical way ing my fellow anima-
of making the film tors around the world.
Paradise was based on a cautionary tale which will uniquely Specifically Norman
that my father told me as a boy. The film was facilitate the mood of Mclaren inspired me
ambitious in that I had a crew of ten people the subject - the par- at the NFBC, but also
working with me on it. I used multiple-pass ticular feelings I wish to invoke. Frederic Bach, Yuri Norstein, Gulio Gianini,
opticals, travelling mattes, pin holes, under and many Russian and Yugoslavian anima-
lighting, and staggered mixes to achieve Is there an influencing factor for selection tors.
many of the effects. There was a tremendous of your themes?
amount of work involved to create the thou- My childhood memories from village-life in Of the films you have made, which is your
sands of pieces of graphic artwork, and to an agricultural environment in India during favourite and why?
figure out the technical in-camera processes the 1950s offers thousands of ideas and vi- I don’t have a favourite. I like each of them
used to create the dances of illusion and sual images: no electricity, scary pitch black differently, for different reasons. Each one is
transformation within the Palace, etc. It was nights in the village with only tiny fires burning, loaded with fantastic memories – both pleas-
a big project. fantastic stories, superstitions, deaths, births, ant and hard memories, including memories
marriages, birds and animals, foliage and of the people who worked with me on each
You are known to choose philosophical and flowers, farming methods, folklore, travelling film.
abstract themes for your films. What crite- puppet theatres, music, colour, life, etc.
ria do you use when choosing the themes Your films have music ranging from Clas-
for your films? What is animation to you? sical Hindustani to Western Jazz. How do
I always have my antennae up to catch an For me it is a medium that requires all my you select the music for your films?
interesting thought or idea or story or subject. abilities – a multi-disciplinary art form, in- I prefer the music of a single instrument. I
I dwell on it to be sure that it speaks to me, cluding sound, music, colour composition, choose the instrument to enhance the visual
that it is universal, that it has the potential movement, rhythm, story-telling, technical subject (Japanese koto in Perspectrum; pan
for deeper development, and that it can be challenges, photography, lighting, etc. I love pipes for Paradise; tablas for Bead Game, flute
interpreted in some interesting way visually the challenge, the creative and the technical for Afterlife).
and musically. If it meets all those criteria I processes of pulling it all together in one har-
research, looking for lots of visual references monious entity. Once I make my pre-production sketches and
in books, magazines, etc.; I make lots of drawings, I look for an appropriate instrument
sketches, shoot camera tests, listen to music, As an artist and an animator, who have been combined with music of a certain tempo and

animation reporter u April 2009 u


who are determined to go forward on their

own, I would give the following suggestions
when making a personal, experimental, inde-
pendent film:
1. If you plan to create your personal film us-
ing 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
mood to support the film. Sometimes, as in erary fiction) help an animator develop as a artwork to capture the images. Appropriate
Bead Game, I’ll select the music first and then story teller, then absolutely yes! software then makes it possible to pull it alto-
create the visuals and movement. No matter gether as a film. The results are stunning.
which way, I must start the film with a strong Do you watch animation films being made 2. Put your maximum effort into pre-produc-
music track. As far as I’m concerned 50% of now-a-days? Which one of them is your fa- tion concepts, visuals, story boards, and
the value of the film is about the music track. vourite and why? make many animation tests before commit-
I don’t have a favourite animated feature film, ting yourself. Don’t fall in love with your first
Does the music influence the story or is it or short. I like a variety of animated films. Be- efforts, re work it all, and often.
the other way around? ing an animation filmmaker myself, I know 3. Don’t be satisfied with making a “thin”
It goes either way. They are inseparable. Bead how much hard work people put into a good film, strive for richness, for levels. Push the
Game is perhaps the clearest example of this. film, therefore for me to reject outright any film boundaries of your music and sound ideas,
The acceleration of human evolution - and it’s is very hard. I appreciate all the effort people your visual ideas, and even the concept itself.
“survival of the fittest” violence - rides on the put into their films. Completing a film is such a massively long
acceleration of the tabla’s rhythms, velocity and painstaking project, that you want it to
and volume, culminating abruptly. Please give five tips for animators. be brilliant when it is finished.
Personally, I still love the mental, aesthetic 4. Don’t be influenced by recent trends, soft-
Who is your favorite music artist? and hands-on process of putting together an ware capabilities, TV shows, cartoon charac-
I have no favorite musician. I select music ac- animated film. The pleasure of working with ters, etc. Go to the Primary Source – your own
cording to my themes and visuals. At the end 35mm. film is now a thing of the past for con- experience, thoughts and instincts.
of the film I do work with a music composer temporary animation filmmakers, as the world 5. When you are in production, turn off your
who helps me edit and mix additional bridge is digitized. I continue to work under my eight- cell phone, put up a firewall against intrusion
music and sound FX as required completing foot high Oxberry camera on 35mm.film, but of any kind and finish a full day’s work at
a rich sound track. I have the rushes digitized, edit them digitally, one time, rather than interrupting your day
and finish the project at a digital post house. to run errands. Be your own watch dog, be-
What according to you is the most impor- That way I maintain my organic control of the cause no one else will be. No multi tasking.
tant thing for an animator to do? movement and images, and still end up with As I mentioned above, your mantra, written
I continue to teach at University level, and I a digital “product” in the end. above your work table, can be, “Work hard.
advise my students with the utmost respect to Talk less.”
simply: “Work hard. Talk less.” I continue to do a lot of teaching in universi-
ties and the reality is that animation students Tell us about your upcoming projects.
Do you think reading literature on anima- study and train in order to earn their living I have a few “irons in the fire” and I generally
tion helps improve the art? in the industry, in studios or large production don’t talk about them until I am in production
If you mean reading “books about anima- and special effects houses – and not to make or finished.
tion”, then possibly yes. It’s good to know personal films.
other people’s processes; it inspires and in- What would Ishu Patel be if not an anima-
forms the whole animation community. Finding the spare time and resources to make tor?
their own personal independent films is most I would be a very happy farmer. Even today
If you mean does reading literature (i.e. lit- often extremely difficult. However, for those gardening and landscaping is my passion.

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animation reporter

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