Sanjana Chandrasekhar

By Hannah Brewerton

Excerpt from The Dog with Wings (7) (2020) by Sanjana Chandrasekhar

Sanjana Chandrasekhar is an artist and filmmaker working between Chennai, India and London, UK. A 2020 graduate of the Royal College of Art MA Animation programme, Sanjana has spent the past two years developing an approach to filmmaking that skillfully interweaves the personal and the political, blurs boundaries between filmmaker and subject, and incorporates just about any form of mark making you can think of – the slower the process, the better. Her transdisciplinary technique derives from an instinctive desire to experiment, a keen sense of social responsibility, and a playful wit that manifests in her acute observations of interpersonal relationships within the familial unit. 

As she outlines below, through her practice, Sanjana often arrives at meaning through form to the extent that for her, the process is almost more important than the outcome. Her films consist of intricately interlaced elements from printmaking, cameraless and traditional animation practice, standard 8 shot footage and digital frame-by-frame image building.  Her compositional choices are informed by a slowed down method of improvisation, which allows time for maker, subject and viewer to reflect on the sharp social commentary that drives her narratives. 

Through a physical and intuitive engagement with materials Sanjana builds worlds that embrace chance as an artistic instrument and that refuse to respect the well-established rules of interinterelations between documentary and animation filmmaking. She has crafted a method of storytelling that is as innovative as it is participatory, in which she and her subjects confront deeply personal, uncomfortable, even painful issues head on. The aim is never resolution however, it is the process that is most significant. Over the past few months, several video calls and back and forth written correspondence, Sanjana and I have been talking about this process, why it appeals to her, and where it might take her next.

Still from The Peacock in the Room (2019) by Sanjana Chandrasekhar

HB: Can you tell us a bit about your background and what brought you to animation?

SC: I was born and raised in Madras, India. I didn’t always know that I wanted to do animation. I obviously loved watching cartoons as a kid but I was more interested in painting and drawing. My journey to animation was pretty convoluted. I started painting in school, then I became interested in making sculptures and I moved to the UK to pursue fine art but when I got here, I chose to do a BA in illustration, halfway through which I decided to try animation. I think it was a point in my BA where for one of my briefs I just couldn’t communicate with still images. I took a camera and tripod and made a stop motion animation. I made characters and sets at home with found objects, that’s how I started.

I’ve always been interested in making things. But I was also interested in trying different mediums and different ways of communicating. I think it’s like how I work right now, I’m still always looking at different ways of animating and how to turn any medium into moving image. 

Sketching on 16mm film with acrylic paint (2019) by Sanjana Chandrasekhar

HB: You have talked in the past about how for you the process of making the film is almost more significant than the result. Can you talk a bit about your process and what you gain from it? How much would you say meaning and thought are produced through formal textures and how much through theorising?

SC: I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘making of’ or behind the scenes of a project. In my first year at the RCA, I made The Peacock in the Room, a film about my Grandmother’s experience with her recurring hallucinations of threads that kept appearing all around her. So I spent a few days in the darkroom exposing thread onto 35mm film. The whole process felt really significant because of the act of me being in complete darkness, trying to feel round for the threads, preparing them on the film ready to be exposed, and when I press the button, the light comes on and I see the threads for just seven seconds and then it goes dark again. I think it felt more personal and that I was doing justice to her and her experience. And I think that’s why it’s so significant for me.

Image of the darkroom before exposing threads onto 35mm film (2019)

Exposed threads on 35mm film. Clip from The Peacock in the Room (2019) by Sanjana Chandrasekhar

SC: I enjoy the idea of not knowing where my work is going to take me aesthetically. Though it may seem like I’m improvising as I go along, I think subconsciously I’m constantly thinking about composition and theory … sort of like a planned improvisation.

I often find myself arriving at meaning through form, and it’s interesting to see how the mind creates meaning from something that you’ve made spontaneously. I enjoy the suspense and I enjoy watching / looking back at what I’ve made and creating connections or my own interpretations in my head. I connect a lot with Bruce Bickford’s approach to line animation where he starts with something and it’s constantly transforming and mutating, much like in ‘Boar’s Head’ (2006). This improvisational technique of world building is a really fascinating way of working to me.

The Peacock in the Room (2019) by Sanjana Chandrasekhar

HB: Your work has a tactile element to it that is communicated through the materials you use to draw, scrape and expose images onto the frame. Celluloid film seems to play an important role, can you talk us through how your relationship with analogue film production developed, and why it appeals to you?

SC: Before the RCA I hadn’t really come across a lot of celluloid film. While doing an elective with Joe King, that was when I discovered it and fell in love with the concept of how a single strip of film can become moving image. The filmmakers that triggered this interest for me were Norman McClaren, Gina Kamentsky, Vicky Smith, Len Lye, and Steven Woloshen.

I only started to question it when people started asking me about it. You know, ‘what does it add to your work?’. For my most recent film The Dog with Wings (7) it was an aesthetic choice, for example, I was really inspired by the work of Jonas Mekas and his film diaries, which contain highly personal shot footage on 16mm that he’d edited together over years and I thought that was so poetic and personal. 

Stills from Standard 8mm film footage shot in Madras, India (2019) by Sanjana Chandrasekhar

SC: For The Dog With Wings (7) I filmed the live action parts on my standard 8mm camera. I initially chose to do that because I wanted to directly draw and scratch on it but due to COVID 19, there were delays in getting back the film from processing and other restrictions with equipment. I just decided to use the film as is. I think it has a quality and meaning to it on its own and I feel like if I manipulated it, it might have lost its humanness actually. Yeah I’m glad I didn’t manipulate it because it would have changed the meaning of it.

I guess I use film as a way to kind of doodle, when I’m lost for ideas I don’t sketch in a sketchbook I like to sketch on film so I start with a simple shape or image and see where my consciousness takes me.

Sketching on 16mm film with acrylic paint (2019) by Sanjana Chandrasekhar 

HB: There’s certainly something appealing about the spontaneity of working with film. You also embark on some very lengthy production processes with multiple junctures, what is it that attracts you to these slow methods of filmmaking?

SC: When I’m producing work I do love to take my time with the process, and I love the idea of waiting. Animation’s already a ‘slow-motion’ medium, but I feel that slowing it down even more creates more time for you to think about what you’re actually doing and how you’re actually creating this work. Especially with being able to physically engage with the process like what we were talking about earlier with regards to putting yourself in the process in order to directly relate to an experience … for example in Vicky Smith’s films, the body feels very present because she literally physically applies herself on the film and takes the audience with her on her journey.

West Five Bar (2020), Monoprint by Sanjana Chandrasekhar

HB: Your recent films deal with very personal topics and include input from real people close to you. There is a kind of blurring of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction filmmaking. Can you talk a little about the relationship between yourself as the filmmaker and your subjects, and how that developed?

SC: When making my most recent films The Peacock in the Room and The Dog With Wings (7), I started off with interviewing my subjects and found that I was left with hours and hours of recorded content and I found it so overwhelming to edit it down enough to say what I wanted to say. I became interested in manipulating the recordings in a way that would tell the same story while maintaining the authenticity and truthfulness of the subject matter. I guess I use animated documentary as a form of reenactment where I can get my subjects to perform or reenact past experiences which seamlessly becomes a participatory experience of filmmaking. 

I’ve always thought that it was problematic representing someone else’s reality. Not that it’s wrong or right. At the end of the day it’s just interpretation, but I always felt that through the making it’s interesting to engage with the subject in any way you can. 

Still from The Dog with Wings (7) (2020) by Sanjana Chandrasekhar

SC: In The Dog with Wings (7), the subjects were my own family. The film is about my own frustration communicating with them about sensitive issues for example sexuality, arranged marriage and politics. Initially, I wanted to use unedited recordings of interviews with them. One of the films that was a big influence for me at the time was Chronicle of a Summer by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin. The interviews and recordings in their film were very spontaneous, and I wanted it to be like that. But through the making process, I realised it would be more engaging if I got my subjects involved in the writing of the script. So during lockdown I spent weeks working on the script with them (my family). It was weird to engage directly with them because it’s a very personal film but ironically the whole idea of the film being about a lack of communication, through the making it became easier to communicate with them.

My dad is obsessed with cryptic crosswords so the film uses that as a structural device that allows the dialogues on difficult topics to develop. So again when making the script I consulted him and he would edit some of the clues and give me suggestions for structuring the crossword. I thought it was interesting to use something that is real for the subject. Something that’s a reality for them to engage with, and weaving it into the animated world of my film. And with my mom she would make suggestions like adding a few lines here and there, which, in a strange way was her trying to communicate with me about the subject matter so it was a weird kind of blurring of this boundary and it allowed my subjects to bring their own knowledge and interpretations of the film and to have their own conclusions which I, as a filmmaker, could not anticipate.

HB: Was there ever any resistance on their part to participate in this way? If so how did you deal with that? 

SC: There was never any resistance… they were always happy to participate. But at the same time it wasn’t a breezy experience, because I spent weeks with them on zoom calls trying to engage with them and keep them interested in the process. The challenging part was to get them to realise that they had a purpose in the filmmaking process.

Excerpt from The Dog with Wings (7) (2020) by Sanjana Chandrasekhar

HB: Your most recent film The Dog with Wings (7) was produced under lockdown.  What stage in the production were you at and what were your immediate thoughts when you were told the RCA studios were closed for the foreseeable future?

SC: At the time I had actually just started to get into production. The film was meant to be entirely hand drawn on paper. So I had to reassess my process because my entire film was in the studios and I couldn’t access it. Naturally I wasn’t pleased but I had to reimagine everything in a digital form, I just had to make that decision. But I think it didn’t matter. Once I started reimagining this space digitally it didn’t matter anymore what medium it was.

HB: So you reacted quite quickly then, were there any moments of panic or interesting new findings?

SC: Oh yeah there was a lot of kicking and screaming.. ‘I need my paper, I need my … I worked so hard I …’ There was definitely a period of time when I was very distraught. I had my heart set on a certain thing but then after a while I realised it didn’t matter because I could always find a way to do the work.

For a while I couldn’t bring myself to work on the film. One day I was just clearing out some of my stuff and I discovered some block print material that I’d abandoned years ago and I decided to start making monoprints and it was kind of like going back to where I started. Then what was procrastination transformed into a productive idea to start animating with. Again, it took a really long time to get each frame printed but it was very meditative, much like the process of working with film.

Backyard (2020) Monoprint by Sanjana Chandrasekhar

Laundry Day (2020) Monoprint by Sanjana Chandrasekhar

HB: It’s really interesting how your new and drastically altered relationship with time and space was mirrored in the type of work you were creating. Can you talk more about what that was like?

SC: Yeah, it changed drastically because, like you said, purely because of the space that I found myself in, if I was still in college I’d know that the scanner was there, I would start drawing on paper plan for a certain scene to be done by the end of the day because I could just scan it in a few seconds. So I definitely had to limit myself to all the analogue stuff that I was doing. I think psychologically it had an effect on how I was making. There would be days where I felt I needed to relax so I would do the monoprint stuff because I knew it would take time and I anticipated that but I felt like I needed to take a step back from digital elements of work. Again, the prints would have to dry and I only had a certain amount of space so when I ran out of space I would go back to my computer, and then return to the monoprinting when I needed to clear my thoughts.

I think that the stretching of time is visible in the monoprint animation because I don’t think you could achieve that in any other form. Every print is different. There’s no print that’s the same, you can’t achieve that. So even you don’t know what’s going to come out of it. In that way it definitely does show through I think.

Frames from The Dog with Wings (7) (2020) by Sanjana Chandrasekhar

HB: You have talked a bit about parallels between printmaking and working with celluloid, are there crossovers with other types of art practice that you recognise or that you would like to experiment with?

SC: Lately I have been thinking about sculpture and its crossover with animation, sort of like kinetic sculptures. Lockdown got me thinking about the different ways you can produce animation in your room, using found material or DIY ways of working. Even if you don’t have a rostrum or animation paper you can still create something. I’ve been really inspired by artists like Marie Paccou who’s been making DIY phenakistoscopes using vinyl players, umbrellas, and various household materials; Eric Dyer’s participatory sculptures; and Gina Kamentsky’s homemade kinetic sculptures. And of course Norman McClaren’s amazing DIY structures that he designed with whatever was around him to ease the filmmaking process.

Section from Animals Getting High, drawn on 35mm film (2019) by Sanjana Chandrasekhar

HB: And what’s next for your artistic practice?

SC: I’d love to explore participatory animation further by conducting workshops and producing more short films. It would be interesting to see how that can be carried out considering the time that we’re currently in. Everything is so uncertain now. I’m temporarily moving back to India, and I’m hoping to work with people from local LGTBQ communities, and with young people from local schools, and see how we can use materials from our immediate surroundings to create documentary animation.

You can find more of Sanjana Chandrasekhar’s work on the RCA 2020 show site here and on her vimeo and instagram.

©2021 Hannah Brewerton