The Indian-Canadian animator Ishu Patel is emblematic of the spirit of pioneering, unconventional, and personal animated filmmaking that characterized the most brilliant talents at the National Film Board of Canada, through which he created six films over a period of two decades. In each of those six films, Patel adopts a novel visual style and storytelling mode to express his vision, often drawing not from other animators but from his own ingenuity, resourcefulness, and experiences growing up in rural India and afterwards. Even now, his works are easily among the most inspired in animation, with their beautiful artistry typically backed up by equally powerful, allegorical, universally-appealing stories and compellingly offbeat soundtracks.
Patel had no intention of becoming an animator from a young age; indeed, not until he had begun a career at the National Institute of Design at Ahmedabad was he first exposed to international animation, particularly the short films of the NFBC. Realizing that animated films could be the work of a single visionary, and that his own interests and skills (particularly in illustration, photography, and design) were all involved in making animation, Patel began devoting his time and energy to using the materials and equipment at the NID to learn animation, often by experimenting, shooting tests, and watching other animators’ films; his being self-taught in this manner undoubtedly accounts for the singular quality of his work once he established himself as a director at the NFBC in the mid-1970s.
Perspectrum / Perspectre (1975)
In 1970, Patel received a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship to study animation in America, using it to gain access to the National Film Board of Canada for a year. During this early period at the studio, he created a student film, How Death Came to Earth, based on an Indian creation legend: while it does suffer from tepid pacing, its sprightly, rhythmic cutout animation, with occasional bits of cel animation, is an ideal fit with the story and the abstract folk-inspired design and motifs, and the film suggests the potential for future brilliance on Patel’s part. (Unfortunately only the first less-than-10 minutes are available online, and even then dubbed over with a new soundtrack.) To Patel, working at the NFBC for the first time was a life-changing experience, not least because he was able to meet other filmmakers, including the legendary Norman McLaren: “[He] had inspired me so much in my student years in India, and [he] now was encouraging me one-on-one.”
In 1972 he resigned from the NID for good to immigrate to Canada and join the NFBC as a full-time staffer. In his first few years at the studio, he directed three sex education films (Conception and Contraception, About Puberty and Reproduction, About VD); given McLaren’s influence on him in his early years, perhaps it is not surprising that, for his first real film shortly afterwards, Patel chose to create abstract animation using multiple passes and variable exposure on an optical printer—this technique, by which images can be multiplied several times within the same frame with different levels of intensity, was one McLaren had earlier used to astonishing effect in his 1968 ballet film Pas de deux.
Perspectrum is an elegant start to Ishu Patel’s oeuvre, featuring multiple images of flat squares in constant movement to variations on the Japanese folk song Sakura as played on koto by the late Michio Miyagi (he died years before in 1956). Already the international scope of Patel’s films is evident in such an unorthodox musical choice; Miyagi was a gifted arranger and player, and his interpretations of the same melody have different musical textures to leave distinct impressions.
So too with Patel’s increasingly complex animation of the squares (with Simon Leblanc handling the camera), which like Miyagi’s elaborate arrangements are rooted in a simple element. The film begins with a single white square, which divides into four squares that begin leaving trails of multiple transparent squares behind as they move on a two-dimensional plane. As the film progresses, the squares begin taking on different sizes and moving around in three-dimensional perspective, making plausible the appearance of several additional squares from out of the blank space, and each subset of squares takes on a distinctive palette (often various hues of the same color); all these elements become evermore elaborate in tandem with the music, until at the climax the squares have created a kaleidoscopic, colorful world in which they all multiply and move around the three-dimensional space in their own modes. Ultimately, though, the squares revert to their original configuration as a lone white square—in real life, even the most complex organizations are made of basic units, and Patel’s ingenious use of the optical printer to multiply moving squares into an intricate community underlies this point.
It’s in how that point is emphasized—and not just in the dynamic between the squares and Miyagi’s music—that Perspectrum succeeds as a masterpiece of abstract animation. On the one hand, the squares and their actions in themselves do not invite comparisons with anything in the natural world; they are, for all practical purposes, completely abstract. But at the same time they are not cold, mechanical, and calculated in their animation; there is an air of spontaneity and grace to how they move through the blank space, to say nothing of the beauty of their interactions and the formations they create, as though they were reflections of Ishu Patel himself. In effect, Patel creates a world that seems completely separate from the real world—but parallels it in terms of building up larger structures from simpler components, with both the squares themselves and their aural accompaniment in the arrangements of Sakura acting in this manner, and on top of that bears Patel’s personal stamp as an artist and person.
During his career at the NFBC, one of Patel’s main jobs was conducting animation workshops throughout the world. One such workshop took place over a winter in Cape Dorset, which, owing to the efforts of James Archibald Houston, had been a center of Inuit art since the 1950s; there, Patel taught Inuit artists about creating the illusion of movement by moving objects under the camera. Upon returning to Montreal, he was struck by the contrast between the peaceful Arctic and the Cold War-era world with its pervasive specter of nuclear annihilation, and began developing what he called “haunting ideas about aggression”. Additionally, at Cape Dorset he had noticed that the women artists used seed beads to decorate their sealskin clothing, and experimented with animating them; he realized that beads in a line could be animated in versatile ways—moved in a chain, broken up, re-attached, scattered, and so on. He decided to merge these two streams of thought, and the result was his first truly groundbreaking film, which earned him his first Academy Award nomination.
Due to the delicate, painstaking nature of its medium—between each frame, the beads were moved slightly under the camera on a solid, smooth black-painted worktable—Bead Game required extensive pre-production and planning. In addition to shooting tests to determine how to best animate and film the beads and synchronize them to music, Patel researched visual references of animals and drew hundreds of creatures (both fantastic and real, as he noted) such that they could eventually be rendered as lines of beads.
Bead Game expands on Perspectrum‘s motif of complexity-built-from-simplicity, utilizing it thematically to raise a frightening point: as animals and then humans evolved, their basic instinct towards aggression never disappeared, but correspondingly grew more destructive with each further advancement—culminating in modern humanity, with its carnage-inducing nuclear weapons and technology. Visually, to accentuate the seemingly unbroken chain of evolution over several centuries, Patel chose to film the beads themselves growing in a constant flow of movement into larger and more complex creatures and images, with the camera continuously zooming out to accommodate the escalation; this required him to film on a continual basis without deviating from whatever path he had taken once filming began, and cuts had to be kept to an absolute minimum. Having already created several concept drawings until he had a general idea of what images to use from small to large, Patel decided to begin the film at a small camera field size 7 and end at a wide field size 24; between each frame exposure, the camera was raised one increment.
In keeping with the escalating images, Patel had to find music that exhibited a similar crescendo; he had already settled on drums as the instrument, owing to their being the instrument of war since the dawn of mankind. Ultimately, he chose a tabla sequence from a raga as performed by the tabla player and Hindustani musicologist Jnan Prakash Ghosh; eschewing a storyboard, Patel created exposure sheets to time the movement to the music, from which he visualized how the beads would evolve within the musical framework as the film progressed. The actual animation and shooting took a year, Patel working the same hours daily with no assistance: the three-month-long pre-production was meticulous enough that he ran into virtually no problems afterwards.
As a result, Bead Game is Patel’s most tightly-constructed film and also one of his finest virtuoso pieces: not a single frame is wasted in the build-up of the beads to nuclear war, their psychedelic colors against the black background making their imagery that much more striking. The first three minutes of the film ingeniously trace the messy evolution of life, from microorganisms and sea creatures to carnivorous land animals and apes; as Patel said, the beads’ “incremental movements created the impression of metamorphoses – or evolution – from one [creature] to another. I found that a controlled ‘scattering’ of the beads, frame by frame, gave the impression of destruction and I used this throughout the film.” The manner in which the beads grow, are consumed by other beads, or are dissembled altogether underlines how, even before mankind, aggression could benefit only one side, and often was violently flux-inducing to all the animals involved.
During this progression, aggression goes from being a natural result of the need for food to being fueled largely by vanity and malice. Soon, as the modern, thinking human evolves—heralded by an image resembling the Vitruvian Man—so too does warfare, with each successive advancement literally tearing the previous one down in its wake; the tragic, if inevitable, irony is that, rather than using their intellect to try and prevent aggression, mankind has been more than willing to embrace its increasingly suicidal character as part of their wider civilizational evolution. Patel is well aware that the past century of war, in particular, has mobilized not just armies but entire populations and cities: witness the scenes, chilling in their seeming nonchalance, in which whole crowds of people are blown up by cannons placed inside houses and a city’s growing skyscrapers are launched as missiles.
As Ghosh’s music becomes increasingly explosive, human warfare comes to a technological peak in the discovery of the atom bomb, and with it the potential for destruction on an unprecedented scale. The blurring and lighting effects employed for this final sequence, along with the synchronization of the explosions to the rattling drums, Patel’s impressive simulation of dynamic camera movement using the beads, and the abrupt stop on man wielding atomic power, all serve to heighten the dramatic impact and with it the ultimate message: aggression has now reached a point where, if left unchecked, the only possible conclusion is the total annihilation of humanity.
Bead Game remains one of Patel’s greatest achievements, a tour-de-force of economic yet effective and timely storytelling through vigorous, innovative animation intimately synchronized with a compelling soundtrack in a rapid acceleration towards a doom-laden conclusion. That such a stunning accomplishment in animation history was only his second film, and made entirely by himself no less, speaks to his extraordinary talent even in his early days; his establishment of new forms of animated filmmaking would go on for years to come.
Afterlife / Après la vie (1978)
Patel’s next film was the result of his reading the work of the Swiss-born psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who is perhaps best known for formulating the terminally ill patient’s five stages of grief. Kübler-Ross’s pioneering in near-death studies interested him: “She found that similar memories were common to all the [victims of near-death experiences] she studied. The shared memories of dying were of images of passing into tunnels of light, etc. I thought this would have interesting visual possibilities and an interesting mood, and Death was certainly a universal theme.” To gain additional inspiration, Patel also read old religious texts and teachings on death, particularly the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Bardo Thodol.
Afterlife is Patel’s most impressionistic and purely symbolistic film, if not his greatest work. As depicted in the film, the afterlife is an otherworldly, ever-transforming phantasmagoria of memories, supernatural creatures, and strange realms beyond the reach of reality that the soul enters as it arises from its dying human body.
The freewheeling imagery could not have been achieved without the pliability and properties of the Plasticine used to create the film. According to Patel, his use of the medium resulted from a stroke of good fortune: “I accidentally discovered the luminescent quality of Plasticine when the setting sun shone through a smear of it…I marked it with my pencil and found that the thinness or thickness could control the light or darkness needed to make images. I experimented on a sheet of under-lit glass and finally achieved the technique that would allow the mysterious and shifting quality needed in this kind of mystical film.”
The visuals, as such, were the result of carefully sculpting and re-sculpting the Plasticine to create the desired images and transfigurations, with the fine shading an effect of the back-lighting as manipulated by the variable thickness of the material. Moreover, Patel chose to expose most of the animation in a constant cross-dissolve between the various individual frames; the continuous fading brings a ghostly, ethereal effect to the animation, enhancing the eerie atmosphere of the film. Topping it all off is Patel’s magnificent choice for the film’s soundtrack, namely the David Mills composition In Tangier as performed in a hauntingly serene manner by jazz flutist and world musician Herbie Mann and his personnel (the recording is from his album Stone Flute, the first on his Embryo Records label).
The quotes that open the film establish the main theme: death is the gateway to the beginning of a new life. The first image is of a small yet bright light, shining on and off, as though it were representing the conception of life; this is followed by the contrasting scene of an old, weary man on his deathbed, his loud heartbeat signaling his last breaths. But then, to the intense string opening of Mann’s music, the soul frees itself, morphing and shrinking back into the ovum from which the man was born, and becomes a second shining light representing the re-creation of the soul in an intermediate state after death; during this time, the soul experiences wondrous, elliptical visions that, upon closer examination, are in fact recountings of the soul’s previous life in a vast, cosmological space, the latter impression aided (as it was in Bead Game) by the seemingly unabating flow of onscreen movement with practically no discernible cuts. The most prominent twist, though, is that the soul itself and the people often mutate into grotesque animal-human hybrid creatures, an allusion to the guardians of the path to the afterlife in the Book of the Dead; it is almost as if the memories themselves are guardians that have to be relived in a distorted, yet strangely metaphorical form before the soul can proceed.
The color styling is limited mostly to various shades of gold and red in the midst of the black void, with the red hues used to represent the darkly-shaded regions of the images: they create the impression of a divine, heavenly light illuminating the inner recesses of the human body and blood. At times, however, objects and details are depicted in a bright shade of green: besides making the afterlife more beautiful from an aesthetic standpoint, the use of that color may be thematically significant, symbolizing as it does renewal and rebirth.
Throughout these initial visions, there is a recurring motif of a preborn or newborn baby that often becomes part of the next memory. Eventually, after a dreamy kaleidoscope of enigmatic scenes and transformations, the soul comes to an elaborate display of humanity’s inevitable mortality in numerous skeletal figures; thus enlightened, as seen in the sparkling effects afterwards, the soul enters a lush, clouded garden in the cosmos, whereupon he encounters various Buddha-like figures perched on the tall plants. They form a pathway leading to the human eye, and henceforth to eye-shaped patterns, a possible climactic display of their omnipresence or of the soul’s own spiritual renewal. With its old life now left in the past for good, the soul finally holds an egg-like form, symbolizing a new life, before floating off into the distance, at which the lone shining light returns to herald the soul’s re-conception.
Perhaps the structure of the film, as outlined above, is where the influence of the Bardo Thodol is most noticeable: it defines a similar order for how the afterlife proceeds, from death to an intermediate state filled with visions to rebirth. A substantial amount of the imagery was likely inspired by the book as well: for instance, according to the text, there are two Clear Lights experienced at the moment of and immediately after death, surely paralleled in the film by the two shining lights seen towards the beginning, and the aforementioned Buddha figures may be based on how the intermediate state as described in the book features visions of Buddha forms. At any rate, several clips from the film were later utilized in the second part of a two-part documentary on the Bardo Thodol that the NFBC co-produced in 1994.
In its own way, Afterlife is a renewal of what is possible in animation: it is a perfect example simultaneously of Patel’s own intense artistic vision and of how animation at its best is an eclectic combination of all the arts. The fusion at work represents a truly international kind of animated film, drawing as it does from contemporary scientific studies, old religious books, Plasticine molding, crossover jazz, and pure imagination to create an astonishing representation of what happens after death—an event that affects literally every person in the world, and yet has not been delineated with universal certainty. By starting from an essentially abstract concept, unconstrained by typical narrative expectations, Patel allows his knowledge and imagination to run free, resulting in a transcendent experience unlike almost anything seen before—or since—in the medium.
Top Priority (1981)
The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was the Canadian government’s organization for administering foreign aid to developing countries and attempting to promote human rights in them. At one point, to bring further attention to their cause, the CIDA published a short story by South African novelist-journalist Enver Carim about how the governments themselves were unwilling to help their own people; this became the basis of Patel’s fourth film for the NFBC.
Top Priority is perhaps the antithesis of Afterlife, employing Plasticine for decidedly opposite filmmaking purposes. Instead of the black base of the earlier film, Patel applied the material to a translucent white Plexiglass surface that was “left exposed where appropriate to give the impression of the bright white heat of drought.” More importantly, Top Priority is Patel’s most narratively conventional film; in contrast to Afterlife‘s pure impressionism, this work tells a gritty story set in the real world, complete with humans as the main characters. Rather than carving and re-carving the Plasticine to create a sustained flow of ethereal imagery, Patel did so using “a variety of tools to vary the movement of fabric, textures and edges, in order to move subjects around.”
The main gist of the story is that “top priority” too often means different things to governments and their subjects. In the midst of a long drought, a family in a poor country sells off their belongings to pay for irrigation equipment from the government; after months of waiting, however, just as the situation cannot seem to get any worse, the incoming lorry carries not pipes but advanced weapons for a border war with a neighboring country, the military commander dismissing the family’s welfare and livelihood as being less important than national security.
The film is a curious case-in-point in which a strong story does not necessarily equate to a great animated film: indeed, it is the least satisfying of Patel’s six NFBC films, in large part because the story is so didactic and the other elements are too subordinate to it. Perhaps it could have benefited from a longer length and in turn a further fleshing-out of the story and dialogue; the film’s brevity does not allow the kind of extensive thinking and mulling over the themes raised by the aphoristic dialogue that reading the short story in real time would, but neither do the visual and aural additions adequately compensate. The synthesized music, by regular NFB composer and sound director Normand Roger, is only moderately effective at creating the feeling of a desolate, drought-stricken foreign country, largely serving as bridging between the dialogue scenes; Roger’s sound effects in otherwise-silent scenes work better in that regard, whether they be the cries of livestock or the wind blowing across the dusty landscape. The voice acting, by prolific actors Walter Massey and Vlasta Vrana with support from Maureen Hill and Paula Mazzone, sounds too solemn, without real immersion or emotion; it is as though they knew they were appearing in a dramatization, and chose to act accordingly. For the most part, it feels more like an animated play of the original short story than a film in its own right.
Even so, Patel’s beautiful, technically accomplished animation in itself makes the film worth a look. The effort that was surely put into rendering the various details and textures, to say nothing of animating the intricately-rendered objects, animals, clouds, and humans moving around in three-dimensions, is staggering enough; on top of that, the dynamic cinematography throughout the film, with copious amounts of perspective animation and zooming around, creates a dazzling sense of the vast land that the characters inhabit. The film’s best sequence, in which the father dreams of how his land will prosper once he has access to water, is particularly striking in its vivacious, colorful vegetation and almost realistically sculpted water combined with the aforementioned cinematography; additionally, there are traces of the metamorphosing that distinguished Afterlife, and the constant cross-fading reminiscent of that film adds to the dreaminess of the sequence. Where the animation falls short, unfortunately, is in the superficial and rather stilted character acting; this would not have been as problematic if the story didn’t depend so heavily on how the characters felt from moment to moment.
Top Priority is by no means a bad or even mediocre film. Patel’s animation is technically and aesthetically impeccable, and compelling in its creation of the film’s marvelously stylized yet life-like settings; at the same time, though, the story comes off as rushed and preachy, its timely message largely presented as-is, and the audio does not bring the emotive impact required by the subject matter. Nevertheless, while it does not work as a whole the way Patel’s earlier films do, it is still quite beautiful as a showcase of Patel’s talent and humanitarian worldview.
Paradise / Paradis (1984)
The film that won Ishu Patel his second Academy Award nomination marked a definite change from his previous work at the NFBC. Whereas earlier he had crafted all the visuals by himself using a single technique, for this opus he relied on the collaboration of others with regards to the design and animation, and utilized several techniques at once. The result, unsurprisingly, proved to be the longest and most visually extravagant film in his career, with a running time of over 15 minutes.
Paradise was based on a cautionary tale that Patel’s father told him as a boy: a blackbird in a forest covets the high life and status of a beautiful palace bird who dances for an emperor in a gilded palace, but discovers that such a life is at its root a repressive cage. Eunice Macaulay, who co-created the NFB’s Oscar-winning 1978 short Special Delivery, expanded the story into a plot capable of sustaining an extended length, with ample opportunity for enchantingly animated set-pieces not unlike Patel’s previous films.
Patel’s main collaborator on the film was George Ungar, who I assume was responsible for the film’s unique character animation; he is credited for “character interpretation”. Under Ungar, the palace bird has a majestic, almost metaphysical nature, undertaking a variety of unexpected actions and transformations with a subdued elegance; the blackbird, in contrast, is a comic character, with the pliable, cartoonish quality of his movement highlighting his clumsiness and, more pertinently, his desire to be something he is not. Ungar also drew the complex layouts of the multi-layered, impressive palace, which were then rendered in a beady, glittery form that emphasizes the palace’s glitz without having to show all the internal details.
Undeniably, the highlight of the film from a visual standpoint is the palace bird’s extended dance for the emperor. Patel worked closely with cameraman Pierre Landry to figure out how to achieve the numerous visual effects, several of which involved “multiple-pass opticals, travelling mattes, pin holes, under-lighting, and staggered mixes”; the noted effects animator Joseph Gilland’s contributions to the film were presumably to this sequence as well. Just as Norman McLaren’s dance film Narcissus from a year earlier was a final compendium of his preceding career, so too can this dance be seen as a summary of Patel’s career at the NFB up to this point. The aforementioned beady style of the palace and of the angels that tend to the bird, created using under-lit pin holes, seems to harken back to Bead Game; the bird’s mind-bending and supernatural transformations are highly reminiscent of those in Afterlife and Top Priority, complete with mystical cross-dissolving; there is even an extended abstract interlude in which the bird’s colorful feathers dance across the screen, leaving trails behind them, in a clear continuation of the optically-multiplied squares in Perspectrum. The sequence’s impact is heightened by the use of James Last’s instrumental The Lonely Shepherd, in which Last’s typically kitschy style is given a surprisingly profound character thanks to the bird song-like introduction and accompaniment by Romanian pan flute player Gheorghe Zamfir.
Immense work was put into creating the film’s thousands of pieces of art, not just for the palace but also for the lush, vivid, exotic environment surrounding it; responsible for the color design and rendering were Joan Churchill, Brenda Martin, and Aileen Brophy. In essence, the forest paradise is the true star, awash in glowing color and lavish, varied textures, inhabited by equally attractive birds. Rather than driving relentlessly forward to the conclusion, the film sort of meanders, allowing the viewer to explore the gorgeous settings and witness how the blackbird plays off of them, accompanied by more of Zamfir’s fluttery bird-like playing and additional electronic bridges by Normand Roger.
The bird’s initial contempt for his natural home, hand-in-hand with his desire to live in the palace, is evident in the sequence where he gathers resources to make himself look exotic, callously mistreating other birds, destroying egg-filled nests, and even knocking hungry chicks off trees in the process. The entrance to the palace is the scene of some delightful character animation as the disguised bird launches into a funny burlesque of the palace bird’s dance; the ironic contrast is played up by such elements as the cross-fading when the bird tries stretching his body out to an absurd length, to say nothing of how The Lonely Shepherd is heard playing in the background during this time only to be abruptly halted when the bird breaks something on his way to meet the emperor. His exuberantly-animated, amateurish dance, punctuated by a catchy tune from Zamfir, entertains the emperor—but then he is promptly caged and forced to weather a stormy night without any protection, by which he finally learns that beneath the glitter of imperial life lies inequality and oppression.
The contrast between the forest and the palace is underlined by the interesting paradox inherent to the film’s artistry. The palace bird’s dance sequence, as described above, is indeed very beautifully crafted; however, there is an underlying artificial feeling to it, as though it were all a superficial, illusory display of pomp without real substance. And yet the fact that the imperial ceremony, with its extensive special effects and stylish grandeur, is an empty show is precisely the theme of the film: the final minutes depict the blackbird re-examining the forest and its inhabitants’ radiant plumages, in all their painterly attractiveness, and realizing that only in the natural, open world can he find true beauty, freedom, and happiness. It is insightful to compare the end of the film to the palace bird’s dance in this light: as the blackbird arouses the other birds to fly up to the sky and show off their plumages in the moonlit night, there are no overly elaborate special effects or complex settings, just pure, lovingly-colored animation, augmented towards the end by more multiple-pass opticals from Perspectrum. Zamfir’s music is pleasantly but not overbearingly triumphant, culminating in a final flurry of bird calls.
Though uneven at times, Paradise is a triumph of animation as a collaborative art form, in which a key visionary both supports and depends on other talents to create the best work possible. Having already established himself as an independent creative powerhouse in his previous films, Patel now worked with others for what proved to be his most ambitious film to date, its artistic richness unmatched to this day. Alas, having already reached a peak few other filmmakers in animation have, and in the span of a single decade no less, Patel seemed to largely resign himself to the role of mentor and producer for his next several years at the NFBC; among the films he produced during this period was Paradise collaborator George Ungar’s macabre masterpiece The Wanderer, based on the transgressive Québécois playwright-novelist Michel Tremblay’s short story “The Devil and the Mushroom”.
Divine Fate (1993)
It is not that Patel was completely inactive as a filmmaker in the late 1980s. His next film was supposed to be The Island, about a boy who becomes the victim of his own imagination and is forced to destroy his fantasies when they become realities; in Patel’s words, the boy would learn that “without creation there is no destruction, without destruction there is no creation”. This film was to be even more ambitious than Paradise, combining 20 minutes of live-action with 10 minutes of animation representing the boy’s fantasies. Said animation was to be made using four techniques: cutout animation, Patel’s trademark back-lit Plasticine animation, a technique created by fellow NFBC filmmaker François Aubry (the creator of Nocturnes) in which 3D objects were integrated into 2D spaces on the rostrum camera, and, in a first for Patel, stop-motion models within the live-action sequences. The film was in production in the summer of 1989; sadly, for uncertain reasons, it was left unfinished. Perhaps it proved too challenging for Patel and others to handle even with the NFBC’s resources; as it stands, nearly a decade passed before Patel was able to fully realize one more film, this one a co-production between the NFBC and Channel 4 of Britain.
Divine Fate marks Patel’s return to the transcendent, oneiric subject matter and atmosphere of Afterlife, depicting the story behind the humans’ exile from the Land of the Divine Gates to a new planet as atonement for their greed and wastefulness towards the Land’s resources. Having spent his earlier career reflecting on the human condition and its inevitable interdependence with the natural world, it is fitting that, for his final major film to date, Patel explored the beginnings of Earth and of humanity as we know it; here, he proposes that the modern wastefulness of natural resources under the pretext that they are purportedly endless catalysts for modernization and wealth was the Original Sin that brought about humanity’s fall from grace to begin with.
Designer Aileen Brophy and camera/effects man Pierre Landry, both of whom had worked with Patel on Paradise, were his two most prominent collaborators here, assisted by the late Gisèle Boileau. The art direction is a drastic departure from the earthier look of Patel’s earlier films, with highly stylized, geometric settings rendered in flat, bold color gradients; the striking layouts and compositions are reinforced by the luminescent color stylings for each location. The futuristic landscapes, in tandem with the intense, ethereal electronic music by Normand Roger and Denis Chartrand, emanate a metaphysical ethos, befitting a world that truly lies beyond all other worlds as, in the film’s words, “a stepping-stone to heaven”; their sleekness and lack of ostentation could be said to tie into the film’s theme of using only what is necessary to achieve an end. They also create an interesting dichotomy with the visitors who, while certainly supernatural in form and movement, are contrastingly colored in a detailed, shaded manner, grounding them closer to the natural world. An additional color designer was Georgine Strathy, while the late Sidney Goldsmith, a veteran animator of the NFBC whose career at the studio went back to the late 1940s, created the airbrush effects.
The Canadian poet Marilyn Bowering was brought in to pen the film’s dialogue, which in turn was spoken with great sensitivity by Linda Morrison, Jason Lang, Aron Tager, and Susan Glover. The first half of the film is essentially an anthology of eloquent poetry that establishes the unique power of the Land of the Divine Gates, with portraits of visitors and the gates they enter in their pursuit of the divine. Each portrait consists of an enigmatic poem by Bowering that is mesmerizingly animated as it is spoken, always with the pertinent color scheme and composition and metaphorical visual ideas, brought to stunning lengths by the use of multiple passes and cross-fading; even as the poems and imagery are ambiguous in meaning, they work as visual storytelling that emphasizes the Land’s fulfillment of even the most fantastic dreams. Finally comes the introduction of the multi-windowed Emerald Gate, the greatest gate in the Land, which fulfills any desire on one condition: “take only what you need, and give something good in return”. As an example, a yellow-green creature with gray ram horns takes a blue sphere that allows him to take on long, colorful heads; not only does he give a bundle of colorful feathers to the Gate in return, but the blue sphere also brings joy to the other visitors in the Land.
The second half of the film focuses on the sudden arrival near the Emerald Gate of two humanoid creatures, who are told that they have arrived before their time—they are, in effect, the first humans. Fascinated and then overjoyed with the Gate’s power, they regrettably misunderstand the intention behind it right from the start: they become desirous of growing numbers of increasingly opulent crystals and jewels, more than what they need, and what they give in return amounts only to a small fraction of what they had received in the first place. Their lust for wealth soon becomes a bitter rivalry born out of vanity as they attempt to outdo each other in showing off their riches through rapid civilizational advancements: one human’s cluster of towers gives way to the other’s industrial city, and eventually both humans have nuclear-powered cities, the perverse wastefulness of the situation underlined by the newly-built pipes feeding the cities directly with spheres of power from the Gate’s windows; at this point, they give nothing good in return, neither to the Gate nor to the other inhabitants of the Land. Just before they can harness their newfound scientific knowledge to cause a nuclear apocalypse, however, bursts of energy zap their cities and technology into nothing and bring the Emerald Gate down; henceforth, the cloudy god who rules the Land exiles them to a bountiful planet, revealed at the end to be Earth, as a way of giving their race a second chance to heed the lesson behind the Emerald Gate.
Patel had clearly improved as a character animator in the years following Top Priority. The latter half of the film is told almost entirely through pantomime, outside of the voice that speaks to the two humans, and accordingly hinges almost entirely on the performances of said humans. Their expressions, poses, and movements convincingly convey their emotions over the course of the film, ranging from the fear and bewilderment they feel when they arrive, to their excitement over the seemingly endless resources, to finally their surprise and agony over seeing their cities warped away.
In a sense, Divine Fate is Patel’s ultimate statement as a filmmaker and storyteller, and in that regard a proper final word to bring his career to an end. Its environmentalist theme of using only the most necessary resources for effective ends is an undercurrent that runs through all of Patel’s previous films for the NFBC, starting from how he crafted his first four films almost entirely by himself: it is evident in the bare-bones abstraction of Perspectrum, the concise storytelling and small medium of Bead Game, and the sculpting of Plasticine to create dynamic images in Afterlife and Top Priority, and afterwards in the critique of overt spectacle in Paradise. Its role as an origin story for humanity also helps tie Patel’s filmography together as an extended corpus of the range of human experience and the world—if not the universe—that is integral to it.
The film was not intended to be the end of Patel’s association with the NFBC, however. In 1995 came the news that Patel, once again collaborating with Aileen Brophy, was working on a two-hour, two-part special named Kama Sutra, which, like his earlier unfinished project The Island, was supposed to combine live-action and animation. The film’s stated intention, as “a meditation on the ancient philosophy that ties healthy sexuality and loving relationships to non-violent and richer lives”, unfortunately may be a hint as to why the project ultimately fell out; the article already noted that the film was supposed to be “[s]hort on moral judgments, with graphic sequences illustrating the arts of love,” and that there were “concerns the program’s sexual content might put a damper on North American TV and media sales.” Whatever the case, Patel left the NFBC a few years later, bringing the curtain down on his important 25-year career at the studio.
During his time at the National Film Board of Canada, Patel, like other independent animators of the period, created a number of beautiful segments for Sesame Street. To date, the most comprehensive listing of his work on the show can be found on the Muppet Wiki, of all places.
In 2007, Patel created four commercials for Nippon Oil’s ENEOS gasoline, notable for achieving the synthesis of live action and animation that he had attempted in his later NFBC years. The following year, he created Moondust, a brief sequel-of-sorts to Afterlife, for United Airlines’ “It’s Time to Fly” campaign.
Since 2011, Patel has been traveling throughout Southeast Asia to document the traditional lifestyles and hardships that have remained unchanged even in today’s globalized world. His passionate interest in photography, and its potential to document the realities of the world, goes back to when, as a young man, he served as a guide and photographic assistant to the great humanist photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson during the latter’s journey through Gujarat and Rajasthan; his photographic work, as well as his teaching, has been influenced by Cartier-Bresson’s ideology, expertise, and generosity. Extensive samples of Patel’s photography, along with some production materials for his films, can be viewed on his website here.
A great deal of the production information in this article was sourced from an insightful interview that Nikita Banerjee Bhagat conducted with Patel in 2009, which can be found here. I would like to thank my dear friend Xiaoyi for translating the information on Patel’s unfinished film The Island, which can be found in French here. I also want to thank my friend Ben Wang, affectionately nicknamed Popka, for reading the article before it was published and offering feedback and suggestions for improvement.