This feature originally appeared on MTV News.
It seems like any animator would leap at the chance to direct one of Pixar’s signature shorts. After all, the films are consistently beautiful and critically acclaimed, not to mention often Oscar nominated.
However, the first-time director behind the upcoming “Sanjay’s Super Team” was anything but champing at the bit to get his story on screen.
“I had to drag it out of him,” producer Nicole Paradis Grindle laughingly told MTV News of director Sanjay Patel. It’s not that Patel, a longtime Pixar animator and CalArts alum, wasn’t excited to have his short playing before “The Good Dinosaur.” The hesitation was due to the highly personal nature of the story.
“Sanjay’s Super Team” tells the story of Sanjay (same Sanjay, yes), a little boy who would rather play with his superhero action figures than pray with his father. When his father finally gets him to meditate by his side, Sanjay falls into a daydream where his toys are an Avengers-style superhero team, fighting against a mystical evil spirit.
It’s autobiographical: Patel said that daily he would struggle with his dad’s desire to have him meditate with him for 30 minutes. He began to explore the themes of his childhood and spirituality with art while at Pixar. Eventually studio head John Lasseter took notice and asked him to develop a short out of the concept.
“I was really reluctant, I was very scared to do it,” Patel said. “It just felt like, it’s taken me 30-plus years to feel comfortable in my own skin, let alone kind of embracing this part of my identity, let alone even talking about my parents culture or their rituals, it just felt like really sacred to me and really personal and really vulnerable, and so I was really scared to talk about all of that in such a public way.”
Eventually, Patel’s father convinced him to turn his story into something bigger.
“I was really scared and I had a tough conversation with my dad, and he really helped me sort of see things a bit different,” Patel said. “I had mentioned to my dad how scared I was and what they were offering and my dad thought, ‘you know, it would be bad karma to not at least try and do what they’re asking you to do.'”
Patel’s father pointed out that Pixar had supported and educated the filmmaker for the better part of 20 years, so to not go through with the project would be “bad karma.”
Still, Patel was scared of telling such a personal tale, but it was Pixar head John Lasseter who encouraged him to take it further. Lasseter told Patel that he needed to be “honest” with his father’s story — which allowed Patel to push things forward.
“You almost need permission from somebody like that to be able to take down your armor and really show who you are,” Patel added.
In addition to being a personal milestone for Patel, “Sanjay’s Super Team” is also a landmark event for Pixar: it’s the first Pixar short directed by someone of Indian descent, and one of notably few non-white protagonists in animation.
Grindle said that it was “not a conscious choice to become diverse” in picking Patel and his story for the next short, but that “of course we all live in the real world and we know what the conversation has been in terms of who’s directing and who’s in the media. So I think it was also exciting for the studio to say how we have this storyteller with this great story and we’re excited to put that out in the world.”
Patel, however, had definitely been feeling the lack of representation both on screen and behind the scenes.
“I was missing it,” he said. “I had felt these sort of the pangs of it deeply, and so when I presented my ideas to John, I was all in on something that was completely from a different culture. I was completely one thousand percent driving in a way that was going to honor my parents faith, their tradition, their skin tone, their foreignness, a thousand percent. And it was also telling the story about how somebody like me was straddling a line between American and Indian, a very American story and I think John really heard the truth in that, he saw.”
When the work on the film was finished, it was time to show his father what Patel had made, the story of “such a beautiful thing that my dad was trying to expose me to, just trying to still me, how to center me. In hindsight it’s beautiful, but when you’re a kid it’s like torture.”
So what did his father, a man who hadn’t seen a movie in decades, by Patel’s account, but who had encouraged his son to commit this very personal story to screen, think of “Sanjay’s Super Team”?
“It was beautiful,” Patel said. “My dad, English isn’t his first language, and he turned and he just, he said, ‘the father and son look into each other’s eyes and they compromise.’ It was just so beautiful the way he sort of synthesized what was at the heart of it.”