Nina Paley Talks Sita

Sita Sings The Blues

A terrific interview in Film & Video with filmmaker Nina Paley, who completed a full-length animated feature by herself…on a Mac…for $200k. Making an animated feature isn’t easy, and there’s a lot of costs associated with one that the average person doesn’t even consider. Take, for example, the problems she describes with making film prints:

“Its world premiere was at the Berlinale. And Berlin only shows 35mm, at least in the section I was programmed in. I wanted to do a DCP [digital cinema package], and I was looking forward to doing a DCP, but they couldn’t show a DCP at Berlin. So suddenly I had to make a 35mm print, and I had no money. So I posted on my blog that this had happened: “The good news is, I’m going to Berlin. The bad news is, I need $30,000.” I actually ended up raising about $15,000 from strangers – some of them were friends, but people donated $15,000 that month. That was really freakin’ exciting. I also got a freelance job around that time, and I borrowed money from friends and family. So I was able to make a 35mm negative and get the sound done, and we got a print.

“Now there are three prints circulating. One of them is about to become a French-only print, because it’s getting French subtitles burned into it for Annecy [the International Animated Film Festival, in Annecy, France], which only accepts 35mm prints with subtitles. It’s all very expensive for an independent filmmaker. I am out of money and in debt and I have about $13,000 in bills coming. And I just have no idea how I’m going to pay for them.”

(Thanks, Karl Cohen)


  • Zep

    “And I just have no idea how I’m going to pay for them.”

    I have an idea: she sells the feature. ; )

    I’m sure it will find a buyer. To be honest $13k isn’t all that far into debt, even if she were still a student. I applaud the amazing moxie to get the film done, but can she really have “no idea” how to pay her resulting bills? There’s commercial jobs, studio jobs, grants and awards to apply for, trolling for investors-all the same routes others have done since time immemorial. If it’s any comfort to her I doubt there’s a single indie filmmaker of any feature, ever-documentary, short docs, short animation, you name it-that wasn’t deeply in debt afterwards, usually for more like the high fives-low six figures. And she owes a hell of a lot to those anonymous people who helped her get the 15 grand so fast…that’s a wonderful gift to receive.
    Congratulations are due on her film though! This will be an incredibly exciting time for her.

  • celia

    Nice Post!

    Nina proves that independent filmmaking isn’t for sissies.

    Nobody enjoys going into debt, but overall, she took the risk and came out on top!

  • http://gavinscartoons.blogspot.com Gavin Freitas

    Bad Ass!! Congrats on it. That’s ALOT of work…

  • http://www.AnimatusStudio.com Fred Armstrong

    Three weeks ago on June 7th we showed one of her beautiful 35mm prints at the Rochester High Fall International Film Festival. It was very well received and it is a stunningly beautiful film on many levels. In my opinion (among others who were at the screening) think that this film deserves distribution. Hopefully it will and Nina can make back some of her investment. If you get a chance check it out. I don’t think you will be disappointed. It is a unique and daring film.

  • Chuck R.

    Can she make a limited edition DVD and sell them through her site for $20-30 a pop, until she can find a high-volume distributer? Or would that ruin her future prospects? No collector tins are necessary, but an autograph or mini-giclee-print of pre-production art would be nice.

    I’ll join those who applaud Nina for keeping on.

  • http://torontoanimation.blogspot.com TempleDog

    Yeah, I’m with Chuck, I’d pony up for a Sita DVD.

  • http://www.rauchbrothers.com Tim Rauch

    Every successful independent and studio started out by taking the kinds of risks Nina has. It takes extraordinary fortitude, unrelenting trust in your work and requires you to be a bit crazy. Three cheers for Nina for possessing each of these traits. I’m sure she’ll dig herself out of the hole and be much further along the path she wants to follow than she would have been otherwise. Gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet…

  • http://www.animationinsider.net/ Aaron H. Bynum

    Sita certainly deserves credit for taking on the challenge of technology, while making her film… She started production with a G4 titanium laptop, switched to a 1.8GHz tower three years into it, and eventually settled on a two-by-three GHz Intel tower, a couple of years later. That’s outstanding.

  • http://niffiwan.livejournal.com/ Esn

    Hmm… so… why are there still festivals that don’t allow digital projection? Is it an ideological thing? (which would be odd, since HD digital images aren’t inferior to film) Is it just that these festivals can’t afford to set up the equipment for digital projection? Is it in order to keep the “riff-raff” (independents without a lot of money) out?

  • ridgecity

    Oh my god, this story is making me afraid of keep doing my short… why don’t all theaters get digital before August?

  • PorkyMills

    Beautiful still. I wish there was a way to watch this movie. Perhaps she should look into licensing the property to a distributor, she could fund the project and expose her creation to a wider audience.

  • slowtiger

    The Berlinale is certainly far from being ideological about digital projection. And as one of the “A” festivals of the world it couldn’t possibly afford to be. In fact the Berlinale was one of the first mayor festivals opening its screens for films in video format, and they are famous for showing films from lesser known film countries as well as independent films, always taking care to show the films in the best possible format.

    As you can see at http://www.berlinale.de/en/service/spielstaetten/kinos/index.html, the festival films are shown on about 45 screens in 14 cinemas all over the city. In 2006 there was a total of 1800 cinemas in Germany with about 4850 screens (see http://www.berlin.de/sen/waf/register/kinowirtschaft.html). Of these screens less than 200 were digital in 2008 (digital according to DCI standards).

    From the 45 Berlinale screens I estimate 15 to 25 being digital. “Sita” was scheduled to run at the Babylon which is a traditional arthouse cinema just recently restored. They have a video beamer, but not a HDTV one. A standard 2K projector costs at least 50.000 €, a 4K one not under 100.000 €. This investment has to be spent by the cinemas, not by the festival.

  • http://eggheadcheesybird.co.uk Alex

    It sucks that you literally have to be suicidal to consider making an independant animated film.

    I can’t wait to see it, though.

  • http://www.sitasingstheblues.com Nina Paley

    Thanks y’all for the kind words!

    Unfortunately I can’t “get a job” to support the film, because I have a job, being the full-time producer, manager and press contact for “Sita.” It’s unpaid (for now) but essential, and doesn’t leave much time for paid work. I do small freelance jobs when I can. “Sita”‘s sales rep says he’s very confident he can sell the film, and I hope he’s right. And yes, I am eternally grateful for the financial support given me by friends and strangers, not to mention the moral support from countless others. In the words of Robert Crumb, “I’m grateful, I’m grateful!!!”

    Some festivals don’t accommodate DCP simply because the theaters they use don’t have it. The only other projection available in the Berlin theater that showed “Sita” was Beta SP; no HDV (which would have been ok with me) let alone DCP. DCP is not cheap either, but it’s less than an 82-minute digital film-out. Cinema-quality digital projection systems are still expensive, and art houses are understandably reluctant to invest in them when technology is so unstable. Film’s been around forever, and it will stay around forever in some form; it won’t become obsolete and unplayable in 15 years, which could happen with DCP.

    Anyway, I’m a lucky animator indeed, and have no regrets no matter how much debt I accumulate.

  • http://rohitiyer.blogspot.com Rohit Iyer

    Great work again, Nina! Hope you don’t stay in the red for too long. I’m glad that Sita is getting great reviews.

    Do try to arrange a screening in India. We’ll handle the Hindutva! ;)

  • Alf Kotkin

    How much does it cost to do a YCM three strip archival backup? That would be a good idea, once “Sita” sells and brings in the real loot. Only Disney and Paramount have enough sense to routinely do that with their libraries, and it’s the best insurance against negative fading over the long haul.

  • Nisa

    I am so glad this film is getting so much attention! I was lucky to see it in New York and it was amazing! Congratulations Nina!
    and yeah! I agree with Chuck R and TempleDog… bring out the DVDs! I’ll be first in line to get one :)

  • Adam

    Thats an incredible feat, I have never heard of someone animating a whole feature by themselves.

  • http://www.omanaman.com omanaman

    Can’t wait to see the film… As an independent filmmaker who just finished an 11 minute animated short over the past year, following the production of Sita has been a great inspiration. It won’t be long before Nina is basking the success of her efforts.

  • BigHorse

    Makoto Shinkai’s Voices of a Distant Star is a film produced in much the same way as Sita, by a single person on their Mac, and has enjoyed success as a DVD release.

    If Nina Paley could find a company willing to produce, package, promote and peddle it (like ADV films did for Shinkai) she’d be able to recoupe some cash. I’d love to own a copy myself. Looks interesting.

  • http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/marmaladearmy Doug

    I too am in the line of those waiting for the dvd … though I’m wondering if offering it for sale would exclude Nina’s film for inclusion in other festivals? Can’t wait to see it!

  • John A

    I’d buy a DVD. Isn’t it possible to copy only(a large) part of the film and include it as part of a “making of” documentary? That way she wouldn’t be selling the actual film, which I assume, would allow her to enter it in any film competitions in the future. Does anyone know if this is a safe way around this problem?

  • http://www.sitasingstheblues.com Nina Paley

    Neither festivals nor distributors will take a film that’s already available on DVD, so for now I must wait. My sales rep has asked me to give him until the end of July to make a distribution deal. If I don’t sign with a professional distributor by then, I will publish and sell the DVDs myself with an order fulfillment service (most sales are online anyway, and I’ll get to keep all the profits). It’s possible I’d make less money going through a distributor, since they take most of it; but they would potentially put the film in front of more eyeballs, and I care most about that.

  • http://southwesternlight.com Rebecca Parsons

    What a fabulous piece of work “Sita” is! I just saw it in Santa Fe, NM and loved it. I have been to India and have loved all things Indian for many decades, not to mention a love for jazz, so it said a lot to me. Also, my husband was once a documentary filmmaker, so I know how that goes too. Congratulations of the highest order to you, Nina. I hope your great talent and sense of humor take you far. I look forward to seeing “Sita” again and recommending it to everyone I know!