Smile Politely

The triumphant return of Nina Paley

EbertFestaphiles, EbertFestaholics, and those consumed with EbertFestivia were happy to see the first EbertFest 2009 film leaked on Roger’s blog back in December: Sita Sings the Blues, by Nina Paley. True, Roger did threaten last year to include Joe vs. the Volcano, but there’s been no confirmation as of yet on Joe, who may end up being the bridesmaid again.

Besides, much more interesting to C-U is that Nina Paley is a homegrown Urbana talent, described as “the mayor’s daughter” by Ebert. This sent Smile Politely scurrying to find out about this alleged “Mayor Paley.” He sounded a little too close to a scary combination of “Mayor Daley” and “Governor Palin” for us to be completely at ease.

Turns out, Hiram Paley was mayor of Urbana in the early seventies, and is best known for leading the effort for Urbana to become the first city in Illinois with a human rights ordinance. He is now a retired math professor at the University of Illinois. So, not to worry. Nina comes from solid Urbana stock.


But what about Sita Sings the Blues?  We’ll let Roger Ebert describe it:

I put on the DVD and start watching. I am enchanted. I am swept away. I am smiling from one end of the film to the other. It is astonishingly original. It brings together four entirely separate elements and combines them into a great whimsical chord. You might think my attention would flag while watching “An animated version of the epic Indian tale of Ramayana set to the 1920’s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw.” Quite the opposite. It quickens.

We caught up with Paley on the phone this week, to ask her about growing up in Urbana, the trauma of being a junior-high girl, her transition from comic strips to animated films, the trap of perfection in art, and whether she is looking forward to her return home in late April to attend EbertFest.

Smile Politely: Did you grow up in Urbana?

Nina Paley: Yes — born in Mercy Hospital and raised in Urbana. I was there the first 20 years of my life.

SP: Is there anything about being a mayor’s daughter that has scarred you for life?

NP: [chuckles] I was very young, maybe six years old. Even then I was an artist, but when I was at school and did something I was proud of, the other girls would say, “Oh you’re just showing off because you’re the mayor’s daughter.” I didn’t get it.

SP: So it’s true, that it’s hard to be the daughter of a famous person?

NP: As far as I know, it wasn’t a very good deal, being mayor of Urbana in the late ’70s. But being mayor’s daughter wasn’t too hard. The real scars came from the nightmare that was Urbana Junior High School, which I felt should be eradicated from the face of the earth.

SP: So you had what many would consider a fairly typical junior-high girl experience?

NP: Now it’s funny to hear that others were having similar problems, but I thought I was the only one going through it.

SP: What happened?

NP: In grade school, I hung out with a lot of relatively smart kids doing smart things. And then over the summer before Junior High it was like all the girls had gone to girl-reprogramming school or something.  All these girls that I remember as being people, they showed up wearing weird clothes and makeup and they had piercings and all this stuff I didn’t care about at all. Suddenly they were cool girls and I wanted nothing to do with it. 

The first two weeks, everyone was figuring out where they fit in the pecking order and I was like, well, I’m not going to do this. So I got the bottom slot, and it was open season on Nina Paley. I had no idea why — I was trying to have as little to do with it as possible, wishing I was on another planet, hoping the aliens would come to take me home. I didn’t really come out of it until I was in my 20s.

SP: Where did you go to high school?

NP: I went to Uni [University High School].  My older brother and sister went there, so it had this mythic dimension surrounding it, promising freedom and autonomy. But by the time I went it was the ’80s during the Reagan years, and Uni was going through an oppressive stage. Everyone was experimenting with authoritarianism. I was also shocked at how much cheating was going on. But I was so scarred from Junior High that I was already a complete mess before I went to Uni.

One thing to mention was that I was raised partly by PLATO computers [University of Illinois’ pre-cursor to online communities]. I spent a lot of time in my teen years using the PLATO terminals at CERL [Computer Based Education Research Lab]. There were games, message boards, chat. We had access at Uni and CERL was right across the street from Uni. There was an old joke: “Why did the Uni student cross the road? To get to CERL.”

SP: Being addicted to PLATO is a common report from those who grew up here around that time. So, when did you graduate?

NP: Either 1986 or 1987. I didn’t actually attend graduation, because I left Uni a year early. There was a program that instead of doing your senior year, you just go straight to university, so I did that. They accidentally sent me diplomas both years, which I thought was great — one to give to my parents, and one to burn. (Actually, my parents have both of them.)

SP: So you went to the University of Illinois?

NP: Yes, but I dropped out after two years, which, had it occurred to me, I would have done earlier. It scandalized my academia family, but that is not why I did it. I did it because as an artist there were things I was interested in doing and school was keeping me from them rather than bringing me towards them. No regrets. It was one of my first really great life decisions.

Being an artist was not really presented to me as a career option. It was more like, “Oh isn’t that cute? Now let’s talk about a real career. Architect, maybe? Ecologist?” In my heart, I’ve always been an artist. No one around me was prepared to deal with that, including myself. The paradigm did not exist within the circle that I lived in.

SP: Where did you go after leaving Champaign-Urbana?

NP: I wanted to be a hippie, because the cool people that I knew at the time in Urbana were basically hippies. They were the students that never quite left, still in student housing. They were the coolest, the iconoclasts, so I thought well, I’m going to move to Santa Cruz, where everyone is an iconoclast. But of course I learned very quickly that no, in Santa Cruz, hippies are conformist, not iconoclasts. So I realized that I was really a contrarian.

I didn’t quite make my dream of being a hippie, but I did start being a cartoonist there, which was my first love. I started an autobiographical comic strip called Nina’s Adventures in Santa Cruz which was published in the Santa Cruz Comic News, and for me that was huge, a fulfillment of a dream to really be a cartoonist and have a cartoon that expressed something meaningful to me.

SP: How did you make the jump from cartooning to animation?

NP: By 1998, I had gotten bored — I had turned comics into my job. I had once loved them and then they became an obligation and I was really looking for something to restore my joy in creative expression, so it was animation. I actually made little animated films when I was 12 and 13 in Urbana. My next door neighbor lent me his Super-8 camera and I did little clay things on the table. In ’98 I picked up where I left off. I borrowed a friend’s Super-8 camera and made a few clay things on a table. This led to 16mm, 35mm, even 70mm, and then eventually, I discovered Macromedia Flash.

SP: So how did you get from there to a full-length animated feature?

NP: Sita Sings the Blues started with a short. And I thought I was done with it, but by Jan. 2005, for various reasons, I felt like I had to do a full feature and that I had a story to tell. A lot of people didn’t understand the context of the short, and I wanted to provide that context.

And I really had no idea exactly how I would achieve this. I had only faith. I knew that I’d made short films and it took a certain amount of time to do short films and if I took all that time and put it into doing a long film and cut a lot of corners, and just be as economical as possible, I could probably get it done in 3 years. And I did cut a lot of corners. My motto at the time was “adequate is good enough.” So I did things only until they were adequate.

SP: Was that hard for you? Are you a perfectionist at all? 

NP: No, I’m not. I intentionally ignore any perfectionist tendencies. It is very much part of my philosophy. I have brilliantly creative friends who get trapped into perfectionism, and I’ve seen so many people get stuck there. It’s heartbreaking. I would see people fuss over things for years. It seems to me that 90% of the work gets done very, very quickly, and then perfecting the last 10% of it takes 90% of the time. If I can just let go of that last 10%, I can get it done in 10% of the time, so that’s what I did.

SP: How much has Roger Ebert’s mention of Sita on his blog helped with promotion?

NP: It seems to have created a big spike of attention of late. Ebert is like a filter. People trust his opinion, and give the film credibility or attention they might not have otherwise, so that was a huge boon. And then the NY Times did a thing about it, which also increases its credibility. 

SP: Are you going to be here for the whole film festival? 

NP: I am! I haven’t visited in person for a few years, but yeah, I’m really looking forward to it. Also, to come back as an “important person” instead of as a number in the university system will be fun.

SP: Are there any junior-high girls you might want to invite, and say, “Hey, look, I made it?”

NP: Sure! In fact, in one of my Nina’s Adventures comic strips, I imagined a future where I was invited back to speak at Urbana Junior High to give an inspirational talk. When I got there, I just yelled “Drop Out! Drop Out While You Still Can!”


Sita Sings the Blues is currently embroiled in legal copyright issues, due its use of 1920s-era jazz recordings of Annette Hanshaw. Coming soon will be an additional interview with Nina Paley about the state of copyright law as it relates to entertainment, culture, and especially to Sita Sings the Blues.


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