Pixar, the Bay Area’s Oscar Award-winning animation studio, is responsible for such modern classics as A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., and Up. Sanjay Patel is a supervising animator and storyboard artist at Pixar and has worked on such films as The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Toy Story 3. He also has created a series of works that draw upon his Indian heritage, illustrating adaptations of ancient Hindu epics. Spark catches up with Patel on the occasion of the Oakland Museum of California exhibit Pixar: 25 Years of Animation.
Patel was a student at CalArts’s renowned animation program, founded by Walt Disney to train his animators, when he was recruited by Pixar, not long after Toy Story‘s 1995 release. Patel was amazed by how Pixar’s films were able to tell compelling, emotionally engaging stories through the use of computer animation. He traded in his pencil for animation software and a mouse and began working at Pixar.
Pixar encourages its artists to grow creatively, offering classes in drawing, painting, and sculpture, and to pursue projects outside work. Since 2006, Patel has been illustrating retellings of ancient Hindu mythology. Under the brand name Ghee Happy (named for the clarified butter commonly used in Indian cooking), Patel has created a line of books, apparel, and other products that celebrate Indian traditions through his distinctly fun and modern design sensibility.
Ghee Happy finds its roots in Patel’s upbringing. Growing up in San Bernardino, California, in a Gujarati family, Patel found himself surrounded by two sets of compelling iconography: the Hindu gods and scenes that populated his family home and the Warner Bros. and Disney cartoons that he watched obsessively on television. Patel absorbed everything he could from these programs and started to draw his own comics, often spending hours at a time working on them. Patel recounts that as he began to see himself as an artist, he felt in some ways a disconnection from both the broader Southern California culture and the Indian community in which he lived. His work with Ghee Happy reconciles these two iconographies that were so influential to his development, creating a unique and fresh expression of his experience.
Spark checks in with Patel as he develops his latest book, about the Hindu deity Ganesha and Ganesha’s legendary love of sweets. When creating these projects for Ghee Happy, Patel often finds himself drawing on the skills he acquired while working at Pixar. Important story points are reduced to single panels in the book format, so he takes into consideration animation concerns like acting, narrative arc, and the importance of illustrating moments that reveal character and transformations.