First movie 'a full-time job' for Uni High grad, illustrator

First movie 'a full-time job' for Uni High grad, illustrator

After Nina Paley's husband dumped her by e-mail, rather than wallow in misery, she made a personal feature-length animated film about the breakup.

Now making the rounds of the international film-festival circuit, "Sita Sings the Blues" tells two parallel stories: Paley's contemporary Dear Nina saga, and the tale of Sita and Rama, gods incarnated as humans in the ancient Hindu epic "Ramayana."

In it, Rama dumps Sita.

Variety reporter Ronnie Scheib, who saw "Sita" at the recent Tribeca Film Festival in New York, described it as a "delightfully subversive feminist musical version of 'Ramayana.'

"Punctuated with classic bluesy ballads mouthed by a highly stylized Betty Boop-ish Sita and sung by '20s jazz icon Annette Hanshaw via vintage 78s, Paley's feature, along with Bill Plympton's 'Idiots & Angels,' constitutes an irrefutable argument for classic 2-D animation as a viable, vibrant low-budget arthouse medium for adults," Scheib wrote.

Unlike Plympton, who works with a producer and assistants, Paley made the 82-minute "Sita" by herself, except for the sound design, by Greg Sextro. That means she directed, wrote, animated and produced, among other things.

"Hopefully, if I make another film, I'll have some money. That's my dream. I can't imagine doing this again," Paley said Wednesday in a telephone interview from her midtown Manhattan home office.

That day, Paley was preparing to ship a 40-pound print of "Sita" to a festival in Serbia. In addition to Tribeca, it has been shown so far at festivals in Denmark, Stuttgart, Rochester, N.Y., and Berlin.

At the Berlin International Film Festival, "Sita" received a special mention in the "generation 14-plus" category, meaning young and older viewers would like it, according to the all-teen jury.

"Sita" will be shown in at least 20 more festivals. Paley travels to each festival to do a question-and-answer session after nearly every screening.

"I'm becoming an old hand at Q-and-A," she said. "I love it, because it's a very strange film, and audiences always have questions.

"They're uncannily similar, the questions I get asked."

Among them is whether her ex-husband really ended their marriage by e-mail. Yes. Another query: Has he seen "Sita"?

"Yes, he has," Paley replied "He was relieved and thought it was tactfully done."

Viewers also ask Paley, a former cartoonist, about the different animation styles in her movie.

"The present-day story is rendered in the sketchy, loopy, hand-drawn style of her popular 'Nina's Adventures' or 'The Hots' comic strips," Scheib wrote for Variety.

"An intermediary animation layer acquaints the uninitiated with the finer points of the 'Ramayana' legend, (via) compositing maps, excerpted texts, reproductions of paintings and various other graphics. The history is introduced and lengthily mulled over in wittily written, brilliantly acted fashion by three Indian-accented voices, represented on screen by a trio of Indonesian shadow-puppet cutouts.

"But the bulk of the action is conveyed through a third, dominant art style, wherein '20s ballads are crooned by Sita, designed as a smooth, impossibly curvaceous assemblage of arcs and circle-shapes rendered in Flash animation."

Paley gets a kick out of Scheib's description of the narration as "wittily written, brilliantly acted." That part actually was improvised by three Indian friends of Paley's in a recording studio, where they responded to her questions about "Ramanaya."

Another animation technique that Paley used for a dance scene involving Sita, was digital rotoscoping, in which animators trace over live-action film movement, frame by frame.

Paley began working on "Sita" in 2002, initially on a G4 titanium laptop. Three years later, she switched to a dual 1.8-GHz tower and then, in late 2007, to a 2-by-3-GHz Intel tower.

"It was animated primarily in Flash," she told Wired magazine. "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."

Paley, who is 40, began drawing cartoons when she was a University High School student. Her comic, "Joyride," appeared in the Daily Illini, the student newspaper of the University of Illinois, where Paley spent two years after graduating from Uni in 1986.

"I then dropped out, in disgust actually, because the art department was horrible or to be diplomatic, it wasn't a good fit," she said. "Cartooning was the bane, the lowest form of scum at the time. It's changed tremendously in the last 20 years. Now you can get advanced degrees in cartooning."

After leaving the university, she moved to Santa Cruz, Calif., and began creating "Nina's Adventures," a self-syndicated comic strip, and then "Fluff," a daily comic for a mainstream syndicate. After two years, she began making "The Hots," for King Features. Then she quit cartoons for filmmaking.

While she's done almost everything else regarding "Sita Sings the Blues," Paley has a sales representative negotiating a possible theatrical release.

Paley, the daughter of former Urbana Mayor Hiram and Jean Paley, is so busy with "Sita" otherwise that she can't teach – as an adjunct faculty at Parsons The New School for Design, she taught visual storytelling and Flash for film and video – or do any other work, for that matter.

"I'm running on empty right now," she admitted. "Sometimes I do a good high-paying freelance job, animation or illustration. But I'm only doing high-paying jobs. Basically being the producer of this film is a full-time job. It's just endless, the things I have to do."

One thing she did early on was go online to ask for donations to have "Sita" transferred to a 35mm print for festival screenings. That brought in an amazing $15,000 – most from strangers. The total cost was $30,000.

"I was very heartened by that," Paley said. "It was an exciting thing to be part of. I hate to ask any more because anyone looking at this would think, 'Oh well, the film is doing so well.'"

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