Emotionally finding the right balance between embracing modern pop culture and honoring your family’s traditions can be an equally challenging and rewarding experience. While children and teens are more often drawn to keeping up with the latest trends in their society, their parents often anticipate the day they’ll also cherish their long-honored customs. That important transition of children finally accepting their family’s beliefs is intriguingly showcased in Disney and Pixar’s upcoming animated short, ‘Sanjay’s Super Team.’

The new film from Pixar Animation Studios marks the directorial debut of animator Sanjay Patel. ‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ is the latest short from the production company that reflects the eclectic culture of the animators behind it. The first-time helmer used his own experience of trying to relate to his father’s Hindu traditions, while also embracing Western culture, to craft the short, which was produced by Nicole Grindle.

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures will release ‘Sanjay’s Super Team,’ which marks the first true collaboration between Patel and Grindle at Pixar, theatrically on November 25. It will play before Disney-Pixar’s latest animated feature, ‘The Good Dinosaur.’

‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ follows the young title character, a first-generation Indian-American boy, whose love for western pop culture comes into conflict with his father’s traditions. Sanjay is absorbed in the world of cartoons and comics, while his father tries to draw him into the traditions of his Hindu practice. Tedium and reluctance quickly turn into an awe-inspiring adventure as Sanjay embarks on a journey he never imagined, returning with a new perspective that they can both embrace.

Patel and Grindle generously took the time recently to talk about directing and producing ‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ during an exclusive interview at Disney’s New York offices. Among other things, the helmer and producer discussed how Patel began directing the short after deciding it was important to tell a story that kids from all backgrounds could relate to, and his colleagues at Pixar embraced its emphasis on accepting all cultures and traditions; how Grindle used the experience she has garnered while working as a producer at Pixar for over 20 years to help guide Patel’s directorial duties, as he only previously had knowledge of animating films; and how the short highlights the importance of children learning to accept their family’s traditions, even as society is constantly changing around them.

ShockYa (SY): Your new short film from Pixar Animation Studios, ‘Sanjay’s Super Team,’ showcases your own experiences, Sanjay, to tell the story of a young, first-generation Indian-American boy whose love for western pop culture comes into conflict with his father’s Hindu traditions. Why were you interested in helming a short that re-envisioned Hindu mythology in a modern, pop-culture way?

Sanjay Patel (SP): I actually didn’t initially want to direct anything, but I did want to tell a story. I wanted to tell a story that kids from all backgrounds could relate to, and reflected a little bit more of their experiences. I was sad because I never got that as a kid, and I always looked for it. I wanted to see some of that diversity reflected in cartoons for my nieces and nephews.

Once I discovered the philosophies, stories and art from my parents’ culture, I was so inspired by it. Of course, I straight away shared my idea for the short with my friends and colleagues at Pixar, and they were moved by it. I thought the culture would be that much richer by having a broader perspective in films. Having that perspective really enriched me immensely.

SY: Nicole, you joined Pixar Animation Studios in 1995, and have served as an associate producer for several of the production company’s films, including ‘Toy Story 3’ and ‘Monsters University.’ Why were you interested in producing ‘Sanjay’s Super Team?’

Nicole Grindle (NG): Well, Sanjay and I have never worked closely together at Pixar before. Honestly, it was all about timing-I became available around the same time that Sanjay was free. So they put us together, and the collaboration really worked out well.

I feel so lucky to have become attached to this film, because I loved it right from the very beginning. I love the subject matter-I think that it’s a really different and emotionally compelling story. So I guess it was just fate that we ended up working together. (laughs)

SY: Sanjay, you have animated and storyboarded many of Pixar’s feature films, including ‘Toy Story 2,’ ‘Monster’s Inc.,’ ‘The Incredibles,’ ‘Ratatouille,’ ‘Cars,’ ‘Toy Story 3’ and ‘Monsters University.’ How did your knowledge of animation on Pixar’s features help prepare you to make your directorial debut on ‘Sanjay’s Super Team,’ and the way you worked with Nicole?

NG: Well, I have had broader experience with managing the whole film, and working within the institution to make things happen. I think Sanjay has been more of a pure artist, up until now. As an animator, he didn’t have a window to see how the whole films are made. So it was wonderful to be able to use my experience navigating the institution to get what we needed, and bring that to him. That way, he could just focus on the story that he wanted to tell.

SP: I think sitting on the production side of things, and working on storyboards, helped me understand what we could do with the technology, and what type of stories would be appropriate for the studio. But I couldn’t believe that we were able to make this story at this studio; it just seemed so surprising. (laughs)

When Pixar’s at its best, I think we manage to surprise people. I think we have a surprise with this short. I’ve been at Pixar for 20 years, and I’m still surprised that we’ve made this short!

It was fun to then use the technology to blow people’s minds with a philosophy and culture that’s so deep and rich. We used all different kinds of colors and sounds so that this little boy can finally see eye-to-eye with his father. Being able to use all of Pixar’s resources, so that this little boy and his audience can step into the shoes of my dad as he was sitting at his shrine, was really cool.

NG: I would also say that all great art benefits from limitations. We did have limitations on the short. It seems like we had the entire Pixar studio at our disposal, but nothing could be further from the truth.

We were able to work with these enormously talented people, but we only had this tiny window that we could fit in. The people we worked with are so talented that they could quickly find ways to solve our problems. But we didn’t have unlimited time.

SP: Nicole’s right; we didn’t have unlimited time. But we also lucked out that everyone thought the story’s so special and unique that they wanted to go the extra mile.

NG: They would take his phone calls at midnight. (laughs)

SY: One of the interesting aspects of ‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ is that its meaningful message is presented mainly without the aid of dialogue. Why did you both feel it was important to forgo the dialogue between the title character and his father, and instead mainly focus on the short’s animation?

NG: He’s a visual storyteller! (laughs)

SP: Yes, I felt as though I couldn’t even put two sentences in. It’s hard for me to communicate through words; I’m drawn to non-verbal communication, and that’s why I love animation so much. It seems so lovely to be able to tell this story without words. I think the message that we’re telling is better told visually, anyway. I think our job is to open people’s eyes. My eyes were open when I saw the pictures we used.

I also thought, wow, we’re going to be able to use our technology to open this boy’s eyes to what was siting on the other side of the room. He was finally able to see (what his father valued) in a whole new way. So it seemed as though we didn’t need words to communicate that; we could use pure cinematic storytelling. The music also did so much more of the heavy lifting than the dialogue.

NG: That’s universal storytelling; you don’t need dialogue. Any child around the world can understand this story visually.

SY: With so many contemporary films, television shows and comic books celebrating superheroes, do you both feel that the character of Sanjay in the short can also act as a real-life hero for audiences, especially for children who are looking for someone to relate to in the media? What do you hope viewers can take away from the short?

NG: Well, I have older children, but Sanjay has a toddler. But I feel like all parents have something they want to impart to their children. They have some sophisticated information about culture, religion and family history.

But kids don’t want any part of that when they’re little. They want to explore the world with their peers. They’re interested in the newest shiny thing that’s in front of them.

But as you get older, I think you come to appreciate what your parents are trying to pass onto you. You become desperate for it, and begin collecting the family photos, and understanding all of those family rituals that you didn’t as a child. That, to me, is universal.

SY: ‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ is attached to play in theaters before Pixar’s 3D computer-animated comedy adventure film, ‘The Good Dinosaur,’ which will open on November 25. How did the short become attached to ‘The Good Dinosaur,’ and why do you think the short and the feature are paired well together?

NG: Very interestingly, we’re not very conscious of what feature we’ll be attached to when we produce our shorts. Anything can happen between the completion of the short and its release. So we do our own thing while making the shorts, and then it becomes clear what feature the shorts are going to become attached to for the release. There isn’t any real design in the pairing of the shorts and the features.

SY: The short premiered at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France on June 15, and also played at San Diego Comic-Con in July. What was the experience of bringing ‘Sanjay’s Super Team’ to the festivals? How have audiences who have seen it responded to it?

SP: I think we’re so lucky; people love Pixar’s work so much. Then we had this surprise that the subject matter and ideas that we’re exploring in this story seem so relevant that people are also embracing it. People would come up to us and remark about wonderful it is, and how personally and emotionally connected they felt to the story.

I spend most of my time at the studio at my desk, and don’t really get to see how these projects affect people. So it’s wonderful to finally be able to meet the audiences who are so touched by the story.

SY: Sanjay, you also create art, graphic novels and picture books that re-envision Hindu mythology in a modern way. How did crafting the books help prepare you to switch to directing the short?

SP: I think that process was so helpful, as I was really able to grow my skills and confidence. So when I was then able to take my work to Pixar, I really knew how to hit the ground running. People are going to help you along the way, but you’re going to have to make a lot of decisions about your work that will keep pointing you in the right direction. All that homework I did before I was put in the ring really helped. Then when it’s your time to direct, you’re just improvising the whole time. But all your training really helps you make your decisions.

Interview: Sanjay Patel and Nicole Grindle Talk Sanjay’s Super Team (Exclusive)
Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios

Written by: Karen Benardello

By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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