Sanjay's Super Team, the latest short film from Pixar Animation Studios, begins with the words "Based on a true story... sort of." And so it's not much of a surprise when the director introduces himself as Sanjay Patel, the real-life inspiration for the boy in the story. A shy technical artist, Sanjay is not very comfortable talking about the film and needs to be coaxed out of his introverted shell.
So how did a shy artist like Sanjay become the director of a short film? As a Pixar veteran for twenty years, it was actually his extracurricular hobbies that caught the attention of John Lassiter. "He developed an interest in pursuing South Asian art and learning more about his culture," explains producer Nicole Grindle. "And that lead to him writing books, and those lead to several shows of his work at the Asian Art Museum." Perhaps some of our readers have even attended his exhibits in San Francisco before.
As word got out within Pixar about Sanjay's exhibits, artists encouraged him to present a display in-house for the artists to see. "And when we did that, John Lassiter saw this show, this beautiful artwork, and he said 'Sanjay, you have to make a short film.' That's not usually how short films are chosen at Pixar. People don't usually get invited." After a discussion about the relationship between Sanjay and his father, Lassiter realized that the universal father/son story would be perfect while also telling a unique story that hadn't been told before in animation.
Sanjay was initially reluctant and originally said no to Lassiter's invitation. "I didn't want to direct... That doesn't seem like fun." But Lassiter was able to convince Sanjay to make the short. For the superhero team onscreen, Sanjay was inspired by his love of Superfriends, but at one point the show-within-the-short took more of a He-Man approach before landing on its final design, which is based on the animation style of Genndy Tartakovsky, most famous for Cartoon Network shows like Samurai Jack and Dexter's Laboratory.
Regarding the bland, barren apartment that Sanjay and his father live in, "That was a very deliberate choice. I think the art direction was beige on beige," Nicole jokes. "The idea is a classic, kind of basic immigrant's space. They don't have a lot of stuff." Sanjay continues, "This is an immigrant that left all of the ethno-stuff back in the home country, and they got nothing here in some part of Southern California... And the artists that we explained it to, they got it right away. Especially the immigrants. They were like 'Oh, we had an apartment like that.'"
It was also essential to the story that the apartment be barren. That way it was easy to see why Sanjay wanted to escape into the world of his favorite TV show, and why his dad wanted him to celebrate his culture. Something most viewers won't pick up on is that the apartment is deliberately separated by East and West. Keen viewers will notice that the dad occupies the West side with a shrine and an Indian calendar. Sanjay has the East, with a TV and an American flag. Sanjay adds another layer of depth, referring to the square apartment vs. the circular dream world in Sanjay's imagination. "The whole shape language that this was based on, the mandala's principle is a square in a circle. And so it's only when the two things unite at the very end, we find this sort of harmony." However, it was never Sanjay's intentions for audiences to pickup on these themes.
The only way to see Sanjay's Super Team in theaters is to attend a showing of The Good Dinosaur. "We don't intentionally pair the short film with the features, so they don't decide 'Oh, that short will go with that feature.' It just happens. It's happenstance. And so, we think it worked out well this time," explains Denise. The themes and visual styles of the short and feature are quite different, creating some nice diversity on the program.
Speaking of diversity, Sanjay is really excited to see his animated childhood reach audiences. "When you don't see any reflection of you, or your community, or your parents on TV, or in pop culture, other than a show, you just sort of figure out a way to exclude yourself. You figure out a way to not be included... Or you're suddenly told that you're not important. You don't matter." Reflecting on the shift in the industry moving towards cultural and ethnic diversity in cinema, he says "It's awesome. I've seen tons of good momentum in that direction, and I get so inspired by that. This is the number one reason why I wanted to make this short. I have nieces and nephews... That was the purpose for me. To sort of show this family that people might not otherwise see, and have it written and directed by someone that knew that experience versus somebody whose making it up." You certainly can't argue that Sanjay's Super Team feels authentic and real. A touching father and son story that celebrates the culture and diversity of where they came from.