Nina Paley Talks Animation, The Prophet and Animasyros fest


Nina Paley is one of the rare voices in US animation art, outside of the industry establishment, who has been characterized as a 'one-woman show', especially with her single-handed achievement of Sita Sings the Blues, the 2D feminist take on the Ramayana story.

 Her recent participation in the Salma Hayek animated project The Prophet (based on Kahlil Ghibran's eponymous work) has generated both excitement and anticipation. More about The Prophet here).

Nina now prepares her own second feature-length project, Seder Masochism.

Her recent trip to Greece to participate in the 7.0 Animasyros fest brings a chance to have a short talk with Nina Paley . Here's the interview:

ZF: In Europe you are primarily known as animator, but you started out as a cartoonist and animator at the same time. Was your aspiration to become a cartoonist, an animator or both?

NP: My aspiration used to be cartoonist, then it became animator. I started animating in 1998 as I was burning out on syndicated comic strips.

ZF: Your great success came with Sita Sings the Blues, a so-clever but also touching feminist adaptation of the Ramayana story. Did you expect to make a feature film out of the material? The film also has an autobiographical feel, in line with Satrapi's Persepolis and Folman's Waltz with Bashir. Do you consider yourself more in line with this kind of animating that explores personal issues?

NP: Sita Sings the Blues emerged organically from my experiences; I didn't expect to make a feature film when I started, but that's the direction it took naturally. Sita is semi- autobiographical, like my comic strip"Nina's Adventures" before it. Note that both I and Marjane Satrapi were cartoonists/graphic novelists before we made our films. Autobiographical comics have been popular since at least the 1980's.

As more low-budget independent animation becomes possible, there are naturally more autobiographical films.

ZF: What was important in Sita was not only its content and amazing technique, but also its free distribution and legal downloading, making it a phenomenon of the free culture movement. Was that a conscious choice and how did it come about?

NP: While trying to market the film, one reputable distributor told me  that I  might realistically expect to make $25,000 over a 10-year contract, perhaps $50,000 in her wildest dreams. The highest advance she was offered by a distributor was $20,000.

Rather than sign with a distributor, I opted to work with nonprofit organization Question Copyright. They made digital files freely available on the Internet, relied on word-of-mouth and modest promotion to spread its name, and then counted on audiences and exhibitors wanting to be on the artist's side.

The model they chose is meant to encourage sharing and makes the artist the focal point, but not the exclusive owner, of economic activity surrounding the work.

The approach was a huge success. From March 2009 to March 2010, "Sita Sings the Blues" brought in $132,259, nearly $75,000 in donations and voluntary fees from screenings and broadcast, $12,500 from awards, and $45,000 in merchandise sales from the film's website. I fundamentally believe you cannot own art and treat it as property (more details at Nina's own blog post)

You recently animated a segment of the much-anticipated Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, along with an A-list of animators. Could you tell us more about your contribution, the technique that you used and the project itself?

I'm still using Macromedia Flash 8 and Final Cut Pro 5. Both these programs were originally developed by the now-defunct Macromedia. Adobe bought Flash and ruined it right away; Apple bought Final Cut Pro and ruined it after a few good years.

(The Prophet still via Variety Latino edition)



They were beautiful, elegant programs, and I grieve their demise. I will continue to run them on old, increasingly obsolete Mac computers until that's no longer possible. I think general-purpose computers and software peaked around 2009; it's been downhill since.

I haven't see the full "Prophet" movie yet but I'm really looking forward to it! I've only seen my own segment, which I made using Macromedia Flash 8.

Your Land is Mine 2012 short {view it on Vimeo]  on the troubled national relations in Palestine and Israel recently created a social media excitement. You were accused of being an anti-Zionist. Your response?

NP: I was also equally accused of being a zionist. When you're accused of both being a zionist and an anti-zionist, you've done something right.

You first experienced the great success of winning the Crystal D' Annecy festival for Sita Sings the Blues, which has enjoyed an illustrious festival career since. What do you think of festivals in general? Do you think they have the potential to make a difference in the animation industry?

NP: I don't think in terms of "the industry, but rather "the art." Festivals are great for the art of animation because they provide the best venue for films: theaters, with appreciative audiences. There's nothing like seeing an animated movie with other animation fans. Festivals provide this setting, often the only opportunity many of these films get to be seen this way

You are an invited guest at Animasyros fest, as part of the Woman in Anima tribute, among distinguished guests. How do you feel about this?

NP: I am really happy to be in Greece! I came almost a week early to do some sightseeing. It's my first time in this legendary country. It is even more beautiful than I expected, and I like the food. So I am thrilled to have been invited to AnimaSyros for that reason alone, even though I haven't seen Syros itself or the festival yet.

As for being a woman in animation: I'm an animator, and I'm a woman. I usually think of artists as artists first, more than men or women. That said, I am happy to see more animated films made by women.

I'm not really in "the industry" so I can't speak to that; I don't work for a studio. Hopefully we'll hear from female studio animators about their industry experiences as well!

ZF: Nina, thanks for talking to Zippy Frames.

Nina Paley will be present at the 7th edition of Animasyros festival, which takes place between 2 and 5 October in Syros, Greece.

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