Interview Canadian

Sanatan Suryavanshi: The Breadwinner was an ambitious project


The art director on the Oscar-nominated and Annie award-winning film speaks about the creative process of bringing the animated story to life on the big screen.

Sonal Pandya

Last year, a unique film, The Breadwinner, was released in theatres around the world. Set in Kabul, Afghanistan, the animated feature tells the story of a young girl, Parvana, who disguises herself as a boy to help her family after her father is taken away by the Taliban. As Parvana tries to sustain the family and free her father, she entertains her younger brother by telling him stories.

The international film (from Canada, Ireland and Luxembourg), directed by Nora Twomey, is based on the best-selling novel by Deborah Ellis. The film picked up a number of accolades around the globe for its artistic storytelling. It was nominated for an Academy award and a Golden Globe and was the best independent animated film at the Annie awards this year. The Los Angeles Film Critics also awarded it the best animation film of 2017.

Cinestaan.com reached out to Guru Studio who worked on the project to speak to its art director, Sanatan Suryavanshi, a Sheridan College alumnus, to learn more about the creative process and see how the beautiful sequences of the animated film were brought to life. Excerpts from the email interview:

This is the studio's first feature film project. How did you get involved as art director on The Breadwinner?

Stuart Shankly (assistant director), who had worked with Cartoon Saloon in Ireland as well as Guru Studio in Canada, made the initial introductions when the project was looking for co-production partners early in 2015.

I led a test Guru showcasing what we could bring to the light and atmosphere of the film and we pitched Nora Twomey and Andrew Rosen (executive producer). They liked what they saw, as well as our process, so we were brought on board and I was assigned as art director on Guru’s end.

What was the brief given to you when you began?

The brief was to figure out how best to create ‘Storyworld’ — the story within a story that had to replicate the look of paper cutout style but be achieved digitally.

Painting exploring lighting during look development

This was an ambitious goal as it had a lot of moving parts. The finished product had to be visually compelling, capable of expressing the changing moods in the narrative and achievable technically — not to mention be within budget and schedule.

Lighting exploration for 'Sulayman in the Clouds'

I worked extremely closely with Jeremy Purcell (sequence director) at Saloon, as well as Sheldon Lisoy (compositing supervisor) and Chris Fourney (technical director) at Guru to find solutions that led to these sequences looking the way they do.

What sort of references for look and colour did you use? Did you have to do any research before you started work?

The project involved a lot of research. To begin with, Jeremy provided us with a lot of great material that Saloon had already gathered during pre-production, including some gorgeous real paper cut footage created by Janis Aussel. I was also fortunate to have the Aga Khan Museum a short commute away which houses a tremendous collection of Islamic art.

On the light and paper cutout aspects, we looked at a lot of artists. Personally, I was particularly drawn to the works of Su Blackwell for their mood, Britney Lee for their exceptional design and several Broadway stage designers for their use of light to express different emotions within the same set.

There are many story-within-a-story sequences which employ paper cutout style of animation. How did you and your team collaborate to achieve the look in those sequences?

The process began with Nora briefing me on her vision for the narrative outlining how she saw each sequence play out. I would then do several paintings visualizing these and pitch her and Jeremy a version of how the light and colour could support the storytelling goals.

Rough Colour Keys

Once we had something we were all happy with, executing the vision involved another layer of collaboration. I would brief Stefano Scapolan, the incredibly talented BG (background) supervisor at Saloon, on the colours required in the backgrounds and Sheldon Lisoy, compositing supervisor at Guru Studio, on the lighting. We would then have a lot of back and forth with one another constantly trying to solve creative and technical hurdles to achieve the art direction that had been established.

Layer breakdown for digital characters (for the softwares Nuke & ASP)

What were your biggest challenges on the film? Was it harder or easier to work on an international production like The Breadwinner?

Co-productions can be challenging at the best of times and especially so when they involve studios in a different time zone separated by an ocean. Jeremy and I certainly had some long days with me taking Skype calls at 4.30 in the morning in Toronto or him talking to me at 9 at night in Ireland.

This production was exceptional thanks to the incredible crew at both studios. We developed a lot of trust over the course of the project which translated into some interesting risk taking on both sides and ultimately work we are all really proud of.

Production on an animation film is usually lengthy. How long did you and your team work on the project?

Three of us started look development work on the project intermittently since 2015, but the larger Guru crew spanned about a year-and-a-half, finishing mid-2017.

The film was nominated for an Academy award and won the Annie award for Best Independent Feature Film. What do you think of the finished film and the feedback you have received from the public?

We are all thrilled with how well the film has been received.

Finished frame from the film

What advice would you give someone who is looking to get into a career in animation?

I think it’s too early in my career to be giving out advice, but I remember vividly what the reality of my life was when I was pursuing animation in India and perhaps I can offer this: keep at it, because no matter how challenging it may seem some days, it is possible.