Nina Paley, Sita Sings the Blues, and the Free Culture Movement

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Imagine my surprise when long-time buddy Lesleigh Luttrell told me that Nina Paley was scheduled to appear in nearby Wisconsin Rapids and Lesleigh wondered whether I was planning to attend one of the days of that community's "Betty Boop Festival." Imagine my renewed surprise when, having forgotten all about it, I received another e-mail from Lesleigh reminding me, saying that Friday would be the only day she could attend, and asking whether we could get together to see Paley.

I've admired Paley's work for years and years but hadn't seen it for ages. What a terrific opportunity! And the Central Wisconsin Cultural Center (240 Johnson Street) is a surprising facility in the midst of relatively rural Wisconsin. Lesleigh and I wandered through the facility, admiring the art from Paley's cartoons and stills from her Sita Sings the Blues (which Lesleigh had seen and I hadn't - but the stills were gorgeous). Then, the panel was about to begin, and I grabbed front-row seats. The panel members were David Farbrough (above, a freelance writer and photographer, who has been a lawyer and also written (taught?) on the history of film; Paley; University of Wisconsin Baraboo Literature and Film Professor Frances Auld; and Festival Director Cathy Meils.

Much of the focus was on Sita Sings the Blues, and, asked how she'd done it (all the animation on the feature film), Paley responded, "I was a hermit for three years." She said it was possible for one person to animate a film today because of the technology: She said of her Mac, "You direct the computer to do in-betweens," and, "I played tricks to hide how many corners I cut." Thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship, she didn't have to move in with her parents to afford to complete the film in the roughly 8,000-10,000 hours it took to put the project together. She waved her right hand to show the ring she wore on the middle finger: "I married the film."

The film is a version of the story of Sita as told in the Hindu Ramayana - as told in part through animation of songs performed by Annette Hanshaw, each song appropriate to a plot development in Sita's story, sung by Sita. While the performances are public domain today, the songs themselves are not, and Paley entered into the challenge of structuring her work so as to enable it to incorporate the performances that are ordinarily restricted. (More on that in a bit.) Given that the Jewish Paley was adapting a work of religious significance, not all the response has been positive. She laughed that, while her name could be taken as Indian, someone had responded, "No, Nina Paley is a white Christian woman who hates Hindus."

Why an animated film? "I made an animated film, because that's my skill. I'm a control freak, so animation is good for me." And, "A lot of the film is the result of happy accidents."

The discussion moved on to Paley's espousal of the "free culture movement." The home page of Sita Sings the Blues (linked above) goes into more detail. In short, anyone is welcome to use the film, copy it, send it to their friends, and otherwise spread it - as long as the new usage doesn't restrict it in some way. Details are on the website - which is where I saw the feature for the first time (today, in fact). "A work is lucky if it has fans," she said. "All elements are Flash files and available for use. They can be changed - though, if that happens, the source should be attributed to me and the changes to them." She referred to Question Copyright (where, I note today, she's the winner of the 2010 "IP3 Award" from Public Knowledge) and said she'd "made way more money by releasing [her film] for free." Replacing the costs for advertising, for example, are word of mouth and the ability of those who like it to share the work.

So how to make money for devoting three years of her life to the film?
(1) Voluntary payments from arts organizations and the like, which invite her to attend events and to lecture
(2) Direct donations "My main income comes from that. I'm happy to be a charity."
(3) Merchandise "The visuals are open-sourced, and you may not sue someone else for producing it, but no one else has done it." (I bought a cool cloisonne pin she had made: the "peacock phonograph.")
(4) Conventional distributors, which can still be used, but only 5-10% of her income comes from such use.

Will that bring success? "There is no recipe for success."


farmbrough August 9, 2010 at 12:39 AM  

Thank you for attending. My name was spelled wrongly on the label!

Maggie Thompson August 9, 2010 at 4:58 AM  

Well, I was even going to comment on how great the panel labels were, so that people who wanted to identify speakers would be able to do so. So much for that ... Thanks for the input!

(I note you seem to be another Doctor Who obsessive. LOVE Steven Moffat's season - and look forward to Neil Gaiman's episode in the next one ...)

farmbrough August 9, 2010 at 4:33 PM  

I enjoyed Season 31 (the latest) too. Panel member Dr Frances Auld and I were divided over the new Doctor though. I loved him, she wanted David Tennant back!

Maggie Thompson August 9, 2010 at 5:37 PM  

Wow, we could have had a completely different discussion in what was, after all, a complete geek-out! My job qualification for my current job was, in part, because of my creating the magazine Fantasy Empire, devoted to fantasy and SF from the British Empire. And that was so that we could feature Doctor Who on our covers ... That was back in the day when U.S. fans could only see weird tapes that looked as if they'd been recorded through a goldfish bowl.

Anyway, not Tennant's fault, but Davies (whose work I do admire) turned his Doctor into the post-traumatic-stress Doctor. To the point in which "Waters of Mars" irritated me to the point of "Horror of Fang Rock." Which is to say: What the heck difference did The Doctor make? Or: Why did I bother to watch the episode? When the viewer says repeatedly, "Why doesn't he just -?" Well, as I say, PTSD is my excuse for the plotting, but that doesn't make Tennant's last season better for me. Did enjoy the last few minutes of his incarnation, though.

farmbrough August 11, 2010 at 2:16 PM  

I bought a few issues of Fantasy Empire in England - imported, and with a high cover price stickered over the original.

I was puzzled by the PTSD Doctor at the end of Waters Of Mars, because Davies announced that by the beginning of the next story, he'd got over that. So a reset switch had been hit, which essentially trivialised the fairly well-handled character development in TWOM. I felt that TWOM WAS interesting, but was really one of a pair with its counterpart, the Fires Of Pompeii.

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