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Low Budget Legends

Nina Paley Interview Part 1

Nina Paley is one of our heroes. We met her at a theater in the town of Apt, in southern France, during the Avignon film festival. After seeing “Sita Sings the Blues” that night in that beautiful mountain town, we realized were in the presence of the Jimi Hendrix of modern animators – a truly talented virtuoso.

It has been our privilege to talk and hang with Nina over the last two years. We finally prevailed upon her to share her thoughts with us and the world on low-budget filmmaking, free culture and the system.

Visit her truly awesome website to see more of her work and her menagerie of cool ideas and causes: http://www.ninapaley.com

Enjoy!


13BIT:
Okay, so Nina, how did you get involved in filmmaking?
NINA PALEY:
How did I get involved in filmmaking? Well, I have been an illustrator and cartoonist my whole life, I guess. And that led into animation. So I guess I got into filmmaking as an animator. And I still don’t really think of myself as a filmmaker because animation is such a different process than conventional filmmaking.
13BIT:
So it was not always what you wanted to do. But, did you always want to be a cartoonist or an illustrator?
NINA PALEY:
Yeah. Well, when I was very little I wanted to be an artist. Yes, I’ve always wanted to be an artist. I also wanted to be a pink and purple giraffe. But that was when I was very young. And actually when I was, like, 13 and 14 I borrowed a neighbor’s Super 8 camera. And got into animation. But I was already into drawing.

And then I abandoned that after a couple years because there was nowhere to go with that in Central Illinois. And all the books that I read pretty much indicated that you could you do your amateur Super 8 thing. And if you wanted to do something good, then you needed an audio department and this and that – engineer and a whole production thing – and it got really expensive. And you needed a camera stand and lots of money. And that was, you know, just not viable. So then I got more into comics, sequential art. But when I was very young I thought the best artists were the ones that drew most realistically. And —
13BIT:
But you were poorly guided in that decision by budget constraints?
NINA PALEY:
Yes. I mean, if — had I grown up 20 years later it would have been a different story.
13BIT:
Right, right, right.
NINA PALEY:
But it simply was not possible at the time. But, you know, it’s good because the cartooning which I could do alone, and I could control entire worlds myself with just ink and paper — that was the best background for doing filmmaking later. Like, there’s no storytelling challenge like a three panel or four panel comic strip. You really have to learn how to make a point and be concise. And, you know, visual storytelling, all that stuff.

So if I started — yeah, if I started when I was younger than 15, and started doing animation when I was almost 35. So yeah, 20 years of being a cartoonist helped a lot when I started doing the films.
13BIT:
So did you storyboard Sita?
NINA PALEY:
No.
13BIT:
Interesting.
13BIT:
Yeah, you know what, it’s (LAUGH) not strictly just filmmaking. We may branch out into just low budget everything.
NINA PALEY:
Yeah, low budget everything. Like what? Like, sewing, knitting?
13BIT:
Exactly. If it’s low budget, we are —
NINA PALEY:
That’s my life. I mean, it’s, like —
13BIT:
–low budget people.
NINA PALEY:
–yeah, low budget —
NINA PALEY:
–it’s what we all do.

13BIT:
So how much did it cost to make — so your first — wait, so you made a bunch of shorts. Sita was your first feature.
NINA PALEY:
Yes. My first and possibly my last feature. Let’s just say I won’t cry or anything if it is my last. I’ll make another feature if the muse moves me to do so. But I’m not a feature filmmaking factory as I’m expected to be. It’s very odd — not odd. But, like, you make a feature film and everyone’s, like, “Well, when’s your next feature film?” It’s, like, I remember learning to juggle when I was a teenager using the book Juggling for the Complete Klutz. And the book itself said, “Once you learn how to juggle, you know, people will be impressed for one minute and then they’ll say, ‘Can you do four?'” It’s like that with the feature films. Like, what’s — they say, “What are you working on now?” And any — I tell them, it’s not registering ’cause I’m not telling them what my next feature is.
13BIT:
But when you give people, you know, 140 minutes or whatever of happiness and joy they just want more.
NINA PALEY:
Eighty-two minutes. No, they’re —
13BIT:
Was it —
NINA PALEY:
–they’re —
13BIT:
–eighty-two?
NINA PALEY:
–yeah. It only felt like 140 — 14 or however.
13BIT:
It was longer than 82.
NINA PALEY:
No, it’s 82 minutes.
13BIT:
Really?
NINA PALEY:
Yeah. Anything over 70 minutes is a feature film. And animated feature films are usually 72 minutes. They’re shorter.
13BIT:
But when you give people 82 minutes of joy.
NINA PALEY:
Yeah. No, they’re being very kind. I shouldn’t complain. And it’s sweet that they want me to make another feature film. But, you know, when I made Sita they were disappointed that I wasn’t doing another daily comic strip. You know, whatever it is that I do that people like, they want me to do more of that. And there is a real risk in getting attached to that. And then, doing what people desire and expect of you, rather than doing what the muse tells you to do. Which frequently is something that sounds completely insane.
13BIT:
Like when Dylan went electric in ’65 in Newport.
NINA PALEY:
That’s —
13BIT:
He got booed. He got —
NINA PALEY:
–before my time.
13BIT:
Yeah.
13BIT:
He was following the muse.
NINA PALEY:
–I am making more shorts. I don’t know if I will forever. But that is one of the things that I’m working on now. Minute Memes, which are shorts about freedom and — intellectual freedom, free culture.
13BIT:
Nice. I like the title.
NINA PALEY:
You haven’t seen the Minute Memes? Oh my god, I’ll show them to you.
13BIT:
–okay. Well, let’s do this first.
NINA PALEY:
Yeah.
13BIT:
The only thing I saw was, like, a 20 minute doc on you –
NINA PALEY:
It’s called the Revolution Will be Animated.
13BIT:
So, how much did it cost to make Sita?
NINA PALEY: There are three ways to reckon the budget.
13BIT:
We want it all.
NINA PALEY:
Okay. The first way is $80,000. $80,000 is what it cost me to pay actors, pay the sound designer, make film prints, you know, buy materials. $80,000 was production costs.
13BIT:
Including festival fees or no?
NINA PALEY:
–yeah. I only paid a couple of festival fees. I think the only fees I paid were for Berlin and Chicago. I really wanted to be in those festivals. And they were, like, $100, $150 each. But that’s it. I haven’t paid any other festival fees. Because festivals are kind of a racket. And once you’re in one festival then the festival, you know, festival directors go from festival to festival. And then they just invite your thing.

And when they invite you to submit you write back and say, “If you want my film that’s fine, but I’m not going to pay.” And they say, “Oh okay, sure.” That’s how it works unfortunately. But, you know, it did include, like, just all the materials and expenses and tapes and CDs and envelopes and postage and more envelopes and hard drives and stuff. But I did pay people. Oh musicians. I paid for some of the music.
13BIT:
Rights.
NINA PALEY:
But that’s a different part of —
13BIT:
I’m baiting —
NINA PALEY:
–the budget reckoning. So that’s how much it —
NINA PALEY:
–that’s how much it cost to make the film. However, I add another $120,000 in terms of paying me because that’s what I needed to stay alive for the three years. Or, you know, alive in comfort obviously. In the comfort of a tiny Manhattan — or actually first a Brooklyn apartment. So, you know, $120,000. So that’s $40,000 a year approximately. Although, it could be less than that because it was really five years. So whatever, you know, but that’s just what I budget for myself. It seems like a reasonable amount to keep myself going for three years.

So that brings the whole budget if you take $120,000 plus $80,000 than it’s $200,000 to make the film. So that’s the budget of the film. Until the rights thing happened. Not happened. But until it became time to clear the rights. And to even talk to the, well, you probably want the number first. I add $70,000 for that. Remember that the rights are not fully cleared. But the film is legal.

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1 Comment

  Louie Fleck wrote @ September 10th, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Nina Paley’s film is a major accomplishment on several levels. As an AfterEffects animator of creepy corporate videos, I can see every bit of work she put into Sita. It is not only beautiful it is different than anything else out there. The copyright issues she raises are important and are bound to have impact on the way feature films and other forms of time based commercial art are made in the future. I wish her and 13 bit great success. Please keep up the good work!

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