In a world of blurring boundaries and the rise of divisive discourse as a populist political sentiment, the notion of home and identity become key. Inspired from her personal journey, Director Asavari Kumar (of Supernova Design) created Passage in response to the growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the US while exploring the intersecting narratives of varied immigrant experiences, through a feminist lens.
An early childhood obsession with cartoons and comics set the stage for her to pursue a diploma in animation film design from NID, Ahmedabad. Although she had a short but successful stint at working in Broadcast & Advertising in Mumbai (Disney, VH1, Channel V); the desire to tell personal stories and develop her artistic voice led her to CalArts, to pursue an MFA in experimental animation.
I found myself drawn to cross-cultural narratives and felt compelled to parse my personal, cultural and political identity while exploring ideas surrounding ‘home’ and ‘belonging”
AG. What (if any) was the Eureka moment for the inception of the film? We know that it was conceived as a reaction to your socio-political reality, but what triggered you to make the film, f you could detail that out for us.
Having grown up with the age-old idea of what the American dream entails for immigrants that come to the US, and witnessing it rapidly disintegrate - particularly after the US presidential elections of 2016, led me to start thinking more deeply about home, identity and belonging. My own struggle with American immigration and the limitations it creates for international students with modest means started as soon as I entered the country for the very first time on a student visa in 2011. 7 years, many visas and thousands of dollars later, the convoluted and bureaucratic immigration process influenced every single personal, professional and financial decision I had ever made and it was far from over. I was (and still am) in a state of limbo, unable to travel back to India but not knowing whether I can call Los Angeles home.
girl riunning in dali esqe desert
Sadly, I am one of the fortunate few that is in this predicament by choice. Thinking about the hidden emotional toll of immigration, acculturative stress and driven by a desire to find solidarity with other immigrant narratives, 2018 felt like the right time to create a short film like Passage.
AG: Creating something which is both personal and universal at the same time can prove to be tricky and challenging, how did you navigate this? Did you volley ideas off others ? In terms of the actual narrative and the visual iconography used in the film, how did you go about developing it?
What makes animation so incredibly powerful as a medium is that it can simultaneously be exquisitely specific and leave enough room for individual interpretation. Passage follows the story of an Indian woman in pursuit of the American dream, who revisits her immigration journey. While the character(s) and elements in the film are deeply personal, the relationships between them and the themes and moods they represent are universal. The desire to chase after a dream, the longing to see a loved one, the pain of personal transformation and the strength of collective hope are inherently human.
Thinking of the film as a loose, somewhat linear narrative and approaching it like a visual poem where vignettes flowed into one another helped bring these ideas to life. While creating the color scripts, and Initial concept art, I decided that each theme would be represented by a dominant color and there would be ‘transition’ scenes in between the themes that would allow us visual moments to evolve seamlessly from one theme to another. Having shared the better part of our lives together, Shaivalini who also served as art director for Passage was a key collaborator during the visual development of the film. A lot of the elements we came up with - particularly in the section that talks about memories of home - are inspired by objects, games and food we remember from our childhood. Both of us have different visual styles, and through a series of iterations we ended up designing a unique look that was an amalgam of both our visual sensibilities.
colour script
AG: What were the creative challenges, while making the film? Given that this is your first Indie film, how did you set about some of the practical aspects of an independent production, like funding and finance for instance?
Engaging with a loaded topic like immigration made the scriptwriting and storyboarding phase particularly difficult. However, the biggest challenge was giving myself permission to take time out of commercial commitments and put aside 6-8 months to write and direct a passion project that had zero financial viability. It's nearly impossible to get distribution for animated shorts and it's no secret that animation filmmaking is expensive, labor-intensive and time-consuming. This makes it particularly challenging to undertake once we’re out of school and confronted with the inherent unpredictability of a creative career.
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AG. The film has obviously struck a chord, given it's growing list of festival screenings! As a filmmaker how do you reflect on this project now? How have the audience responses been? Is there any particular interaction that you remember and would care to share with us?
The immigration experience is emotionally and physically taxing so making Passage and sharing it with the world has been quite cathartic. Created as a labor of love, we are pleasantly surprised at the numerous awards and selections the film has received and we’re only halfway through our festival journey. More importantly, it has led to several incredible conversations and a myriad of positive responses from people all over the world that have both gone through immigration and those that are only vaguely aware of it. We definitely felt that the steady rise of authoritarian governments and growing anti-immigrant sentiments across the world has contributed to the film’s relatability. We’ve had a fair number of audiences tell us that Passage accurately captured complex feelings and thoughts surrounding immigration that they had struggled to articulate and believed to be personal and solitary, which has been wonderful to hear.
AG: Coming to your studio, SuperNova, tell us how it all started?
After graduating from CalArts, I founded Supernova Design with the intent of creating personal and commercial projects with like-minded collaborators and to retain my autonomy as an artist. Soon after, my sister Shaivalini Kumar joined me as a creative partner followed by my husband Siddharth Zutshi who took over business development and marketing for Supernova. Living and working in Los Angeles has afforded me the opportunity to work as a filmmaker and a visual artist in feature animation, advertising, VR and tech with incredible brands and studios like Warner Bros., Google, Youtube, Adobe, etc. and become a part of a thriving multidisciplinary creative community. Over the past few years however, I’ve consciously tried to create more time for personal projects and be selective about the commercial work we take on through Supernova.
AG: Sometimes working with close friends and/or family is a tricky balance, as you negotiate both personal and professional joys and stresses. How do the two of you maintain purrrfect harmony across continents and time zones ? Do you guys have a typical work process?
In the initial days of Supernova, Shaivalini and I started with an incredibly messy work process of sending stuff through emails and talking over phone and text. But after many years, a lot of intercontinental yelling and several cat gifs later - we’ve managed to find a somewhat streamlined workflow involving, dropbox, slack, asana and a host of G Suite products. We’ve found that this not only works well for us but is also scalable as our virtual team tends to expand and contract on a project to project basis. We try very hard to separate our work and personal lives but being passionate artists, that line often gets blurry. Regardless of who takes lead on a project, each undertaking starts with a creative brainstorm between me and Shaivalini (supervised by resident cat-muse and company mascot Nova). This is followed by Siddharth creating budgets, project schedules and contracts with collaborators and clients so we have a tentative roadmap and task lists for the project. So far we’ve been fortunate enough to work with lovely people who have great communication skills and a strong work ethic so the issues caused by time zone differences have been nominal.
AG. What else can we expect from the SND kitty 🙂
I am currently an artist in residence with Adobe and am exploring how Augmented Reality can be a compelling medium for telling personal stories. At this point, I'm just experimenting with the medium but explorations can often lead to full-blown projects. I recently started working on a feature script idea along with collaborating on a few pitches for animated series. We just finished a very cat-focused animated brand film for Supernova and a couple of fun design projects with some wonderful clients so we’re really excited to share those in the coming months!
AG. Lastly, any thoughts on the Animation Scene in India? What are 3 movies that changed your life/ or rather which you would strongly recommend to others?
I still feel there is some hesitation to embrace animation by the industry at large and outside of independent work, there isn't a lot of content that I’m excited about seeing. I am truly excited and amazed by the projects being showcased on Animators Guild. India is a vast and diverse country teeming with talent and I would love to see animation embraced as a compelling medium for meaningful storytelling that is not limited to exoticized and derivative representations of our country and culture. Three films I would strongly recommend are ‘The Farewell’, ‘Persepolis’ and ‘Parasite’ although in light of recent events, I’m fairly certain the last one has already been watched by everyone. I love these films for their incredible character performances and the delicacy with which they handle class, culture and familial relationships.
As a parting thought I would like to add that for any kind of a creative undertaking to be possible - whether its a design studio or a film, it is seldom a solitary journey. For all its rewards, life as a creative is frustrating, meandering, demanding and fraught with uncertainty. During challenging times I feel deeply fortunate to have Shaivalini and Siddharth be such an integral part of Supernova Design and am incredibly thankful to be surrounded by a supportive creative community whose sage advice and timely encouragement have been instrumental in my personal and professional journey.
asavari kumar supernova design