Interview Tamil

Ponni will serve as an inspiration for change in animation, says filmmaker Sibi Naayagam


The young director speaks about his ambitious project which uses traditional techniques and performance capture to tell the remarkable story of a brave teenage girl in the 18th century.

Sonal Pandya

Filmmaker Sibi Naayagam’s short film Ponni is an impressive undertaking. The Tamil project was conceived and shot when the writer-director was at the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts and made in conjunction with its Production Division.

It tells the tale of an extraordinary young girl, Ponni, in the late 18th century who fights and defends her village against the British troops. Pavithra Lakshmi has lent her voice to the brave teenager while Bianka Kureti's performance serves as the basis for Ponni's on-screen movements. Likewise, Meera Krishna voices her mother, Raajamma, who is brought to life by actress Amber Hameed.

Sibi has co-written the screenplay with Gwydhar Gebien, and Sean Roldan has provided the score for the 14-minute short. The filmmaker, who hopes to release the film soon, detailed Ponni's long but worthwhile journey over e-mail, speaking about the challenges he faced and the lessons he learned.

The maker of the ambitious project, who has utilized cutting-edge technology, hopes to win over audiences and set a standard that others may follow. The film is currently in post-production.

Excerpts:

Your upcoming animated short film Ponni is based on stories you heard as a child. Did they also inspire you to become a filmmaker?

I believe those stories sowed the seed in me to be a storyteller and helped my imagination grow. But I would say the biggest inspiration to be a filmmaker came from the conversations between my dad and his friend, Mr Palanivasan. They were very passionate about films, and both of them would have many hours of discussions analyzing a recently released film. Growing up listening to them inspired me to be a filmmaker.

Who or what made you decide to become a writer-director?

When I was around 10 years old or so, I remember being so bored with one of the classes that I pulled out my rough note and started writing a few pages of a story. It was about a bored school kid who gets rescued into a magical world. Writing these reality escaping stories continued to be my saviour during boring classes. But the turning point was in my second year of engineering college when I wasn’t happy with what I was learning, and I really wanted to do something that I loved. What better path than one I have been passionate about since my childhood? I specifically wanted to be a writer-director because I wanted to lead the creative team and bring to life all these worlds I have built in my imagination. I also love being in leadership roles and the immense responsibility that comes with such a position.

What was the journey like taking it from a writing assignment to the production stage?

It was definitely an extraordinary journey even in pre-production. Once I knew I wanted to make this short film, I had to find a way to actually make it. At that time, only large studios had access to the technology that I wanted to use and there was no prior student project that I could take inspiration from. This meant that I had to come up with new workflows that adapted to the resources I had access to. Also, I needed to convince the university to provide the support for it such as the motion capture space. The fact that there hadn’t been such an ambitious project done at the university before meant that once I got the green light, I had the pressure of setting a happy precedent so future filmmakers do not get turned down on such a venture. It took more than a year of pre-production with a lot of obstacles, but my professors and my friends were extremely supportive throughout. They made my dream a reality.

What was the hardest challenge for you while making the short film?

Any film is going to have its obstacles but the chances of something going wrong increases with increased reliance on technology. With Ponni we relied on new technologies that were very powerful but lacked wide-scale testing and were prone to breaking at unexpected moments. As a filmmaker, there are problems you can plan for and there are those you don’t even know to exist. Although it took a while, I eventually always found solutions for our technical issues, but the pandemic was a different problem. We had to fully halt our post-production for many months and when we resumed, we had to improvise and work from home as none of the facilities was open yet. Getting past these struggles and staying motivated throughout was the hardest challenge for me on this short film.

Ponni involves both the involvement of skilled technicians and high-end technology. How were you able to streamline both to bring the short film to life?

One of the experienced technicians who was helping me said that I seemed to have a talent to surround myself with great artists and technicians. Perhaps I do, but I strongly believe it was the novelty of what I was trying to do and the content of the film that attracted these great people. I have always believed that my role as a director is to present my vision to the many brilliant creatives working on the project and let the vision evolve with their inputs as well. I simply must direct our collective choices towards the same goal.

And working with high-end technology, despite its issues, is a lot of fun. All I had to do was split up the work between us, letting each one be in charge of a certain aspect of the film. It has been uncharted territory for pretty much everyone involved, so to believe and work towards bringing this short film to life is definitely a huge and heart-warming effort. The result of all this collaboration is a film that is better than I could’ve imagined.

What have been your biggest learnings on this project?

I learnt a lot about making an animated film with this new workflow and I feel confident to call myself an expert in using this technology which led to me being an advisor for students who are using it. But there were some overall important learnings that I will carry forward with me such as finishing a film at the right time is far more valuable than taking too long trying to make a perfect film. Be brave to say enough, cut corners and be okay with the imperfections. It’s good to be ambitious but it’s important to plan and schedule a production well to avoid being burnout because a tired filmmaker will not always make the right choices.

In India, animated films are viewed as fare meant only for children. Can Ponni change that notion?

Definitely, it will. Traditional animation is a very time-taking process and the budget and resources needed to make an animated film that engages grown-ups hasn’t been feasible in India. With this revolutionary new technology that is forcing even Hollywood studios to change their approach to filmmaking, animation films have become very accessible and feasible to be made at a high quality with far fewer resources than needed before. We will be seeing an animation boom around the world, especially in India, in these coming years and I believe Ponni, with its content and making process, will serve as an inspiration for that change.

What are your plans to release the short film?

As of now, we are planning to submit Ponni to film festivals and after that, we are hoping to get it on a streaming platform for the public to see. We are very excited to share this film with everyone as soon as possible!