Sita Sings the Blues

I just discovered today that the image I’ve been using of Ravana on the blog for two years is actually from a movie that has just been shown at the Tribeca Film Festival. It seems to be historical in more ways than one. Here’s’s piece on it:

One-Woman Pixar’s Animated Film Premieres at Tribeca

Sita Sings the Blues weaves together Flash animation, original watercolor paintings and rotoscoping techniques in this colorful, modern-day take on an ancient Indian epic.
Courtesy Nina Paley

NEW YORK — Amid the documentaries and live-action features at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival is a first for the event — a feature-length, computer-generated animated film rendered entirely by a single animator, working out of a home office.

Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues, which makes its North American premiere Friday at the festival, tells two parallel stories: the ancient Hindu epic the Ramayana and the breakup of Paley’s 21st-century marriage. It does so through four distinct styles of animation, a “greek chorus” of Indonesian shadow puppets and wildly imaginative musical interludes that use authentic 1920s blues recordings to link narratives 3,000 years apart.

Best known in the 1990s for her comic strip Nina’s Adventures, Paley turned to animation in 1998, mostly using Flash, and produced the illusion-rich Fetch and the award-winning series of shorts The Stork (which portrayed each “bundle of joy” delivered by the stork as a population bomb).

Over an Indian lunch in the Curry Hill section of Manhattan, Paley talked about tech, heartbreak, rotoscoping and her new film.

Nina Paley mixes the Ramayana, blues songs and her personal tale of heartbreak in Sita Sings the Blues.
Courtesy Nina Paley

Wired: What is your movie about?

Nina Paley: Sita Sings the Blues is a musical, animated personal interpretation of the Indian epic the Ramayana. The aspect of the story that I focus on is the relationship between Sita and Rama, who are gods incarnated as human beings, and even they can’t make their marriage work [laughs].

Wired: And that ties in with the film’s second narrative.

Paley: Right, and then there’s my story. I’m just an ordinary human, who also can’t make her marriage work. And the way that it fails is uncannily similar to the way Rama and Sita’s [relationship fails]. Inexplicable yet so familiar. And the question that I asked and the question people still ask is, “Why”? Why did Rama reject Sita? Why did my husband reject me? We don’t know why, and we didn’t know 3,000 years ago. I like that there’s really no way to answer the question, that you have to accept that this is something that happens to a lot of humans.

Wired: And this whole movie was rendered on a laptop?

Paley: I started on a G4 titanium laptop in 2002. I moved to a dual 1.8-GHz tower in 2005, moved again to a 2-by-3-GHz Intel tower December 2007, with which I did the final 1920 x 1080 rendering.

Wired: What software did you use?

Paley: It was animated primarily in Flash. I made some original watercolor paintings by hand, which I scanned and animated in After Effects. I can’t believe I’m such a tech booster now, ’cause I used to be a Luddite!

Wired: Mostly in Flash? How many .fla files, for the Flash geeks out there?

Paley: Let’s see; say six shots per minute, 80-odd minutes, so it’s close to 500 individual scene files.

Wired: I thought I saw some rotoscoping in Sita.

Paley: You did. That was Reena Shah dancing. She did the speaking voice of Sita and she also danced. I videotaped her and traced elements of the dance in Flash. That wasn’t an automatic program, it was all by hand.


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