As a storyteller, Neeraja Raj embraces her status as what she calls a “Third Culture Kid (TCK for short)”. Her upbringing was spread across cultures beginning with her parents’ Indian background. She spent the first part of her formative years in Jakarta, Indonesia and then high school in Dubai, her Bachelors in Ahmedabad, India and recently finished her Masters in the UK. “The ever-shifting backdrop of my youth has opened my mind from a very young age to a multitude of ideas and I believe that helps me with my storytelling, having been exposed to so many different environments and cultures,” she says.
Watching the films on Neeraja’s directing reel (she’s represented by Nexus Studios these days) might give you a good clue as to her personality, which she classifies as “optimistic nihilist ambivert”, mostly happy-go-lucky except for “moments of crippling doubt and existential angst”. Pretty normal for someone living in 2021 then! Happily, this combination results in adorable animated stories with a hard edge of realism as a welcome-but-subtle undercurrent.
Growing up, some of her hobbies were “unsolicitedly walking the neighbours’ dogs”, roller skating at the local rink and of course drawing a whole lot. She was also obsessed with the Disney Princess movies growing up and would play them on repeat and sing along to them 24/7. “It’s a wonder my mother didn’t get sick of me!” she marvels.
With a love for animals, visual creativity and Disney, it probably came as no surprise that Neeraja ended up dedicating herself to animation (roller skating has yet to feature in her career however). So, for her Bachelors degree she studied Animation Film Design at the National Institute of Design, India. “Having never grown up in my own country, it was definitely refreshing to go back to my roots and I learnt so much more than I would have on my own - not just in my educational growth but also in my personal life,” she says.
Her animating style began to find its form at the time, in such films as the infectious warmth of ‘Stars’.
Placement week in her fourth year brought her closer to her childhood dreams. After “rounds and rounds” of interviews with different companies, competing against other students, Neeraja ultimately landed her first choice, at the Walt Disney Company, no less.
Of course, it was incredible, “a dream come true, beyond my wildest imaginings,” she says. Neeraja was tasked with creating and developing an original TV show concept for the Indian demographic. Her fondest memory of her six months at the dream factory was getting tickets to sit front-row at the premiere of the Beauty and the Beast musical in Mumbai. But the placement no doubt worked wonders for her development as a director too.
In 2018, she started a two year Masters at the esteemed National Film and Television School, UK. “This was the best decision I’ve made for my career,” she says. The course provided her with the tools and impetus to fine-tune her skills as a filmmaker. She learnt to collaborate with others and build a film from the ground up together, from nothing more than a spark of an idea.
“For a long time, I used to think I had to be the best at everything in order to do anything decently. This is a crippling thought for any creative,” she says. It was at the NFTS that Neeraja learnt that it’s not what you know, it’s who. “Especially as a director, your role is to get the smartest creatives in their own fields onto your team, in order to make the best possible version of your film that you can.”
Putting those lessons into practice, Neeraja’s graduation film ‘Meow or Never’, a complex yet life-affirming stop-motion musical about a 'cat'stronaut' who travels the galaxy in search of the meaning of life.
The short is being developed into a series by Nexus Studios, and has already been shortlisted for a Student BAFTA award and won Women in Animation Class of 2020 for Best Short Film.
She’s not a director with a singular process, preferring to let each project evolve in the most natural ways. She loves the “nitty-gritty of understanding why I’m telling a particular tale. Sometimes, it’s the characters. They’re so engaging, so dynamic, that they have to exist somewhere beyond the confines of my head. Other times, it’s the story - it just has to be told and there’s no better time than now.”
A challenge Neeraja faces is getting the ball rolling. “Sometimes I just have to force myself to get started, because I can spend way too long staring at a blank paper, having a time-out with my impostor syndrome. When art is your job, you can't afford to 'wait for inspiration to strike' - you have to go out there and look for it, grab it by the horns and bring it home.”
She has plenty to energise and inspire her, such as personal heroes like Julia Pott, the creator of Summer Camp Island, the second original Cartoon Network series to be solely created by a woman.
Neeraja’s also excited about the place animation has risen to in the broader film industry due to the growth of streaming. “Now, we’re no longer dependent on making content for a general audience for TV - our horizons have been widened, we can make stories about any niche topic that we’d like and there’s always going to be someone out there who will binge-watch it. A new age for filmmakers, for sure.”
From her position of burgeoning success, she believes every person with privilege in the industry should make conscious decisions going forth - from whom to hire for a film with a particular subject matter to working on getting rid of internal unconscious biases. “We must broaden our intellectual vision to include a wider range of perspectives of races and gender; that is how we grow,” she says.
That’s why she’s a member of the Primetime Network, which is a vetted visibility platform for all women working above and below the line behind the camera, campaigning for gender equality across every department in the entertainment industry. “This means no more excuses,” she stresses. “Hire local talent, grow local economies, invest in women all over the world!”
Apart from doing her bit for representation, Neeraja’s already lent her animation talents to good causes, including a beautiful film she made through Nexus for Water Aid, highlighting the fact that while some people get excited about water on Mars, many on our home planet still lack access to clean water.
Neeraja’s currently spending time with her family in Dubai. Being stuck at home, she’s had lots of moments for introspection and delving deep into her thoughts, but she’s been channelling it into positivity. “I wrote a lot of poetry and lyrics during the lockdown, which eventually led me to make music with some composer friends virtually. With the threat of the pandemic, there was literally nowhere else I could escape to, apart from my own head. And of course, books!”
When she was 14, she aimed to finish a novel before she became “an official adult”. She even wrote 40,000 words before she abandoned it. Now, the aim is to pick that up again and “look at it with a fresher perspective, see if there’s anything worth salvaging”. This is another side project keeping her occupied these days.
She’s been immersing herself in Stephen King novels for inspiration and going to see the horses at stables near her house. “If I wasn’t a director, I’d probably be a jockey, just so I can spend more time with them,” she says.
Video Games are the best decompression though, in Neeraja’s view. “They flow differently and thus, feel immersive and all-encompassing when you’re playing as a protagonist.” Some of her favourite creators in this space are Jean-Luc Cano, Keiichirō Toyama, David Cage and Larry Fessenden. Her brother and she “take it out on each other” on the PS4 - either on Call of Duty or Gang Beasts - and she’s been hosting game nights with friends wherein they play survival horror games and see who will be the last one standing.
Culturally, you can see that her interests are broad. “I hope to tell good stories, no matter the genre or medium,” she says. “I hope to keep bettering myself, keep flourishing - never becoming complacent. The only way one grows creatively is when one is exposed to new ideas, themes and explorations. As such, I enjoy making art in a variety of genres: horror, comedy, romance and more.”
Animation is her most burning passion because it allows space for all of this to blend. Neeraja loves a quote from Brad Bird (Ratatouille, Incredibles, The Iron Giant): “Animation is not a genre. It is a method of storytelling. People are constantly analysing it and misanalysing it as if it is a genre. It isn’t a genre. It can do horror films, it can do adult comedies if it wanted to, it could do fairy tales, it could do science fiction, it could do musicals, it could [do] mystery, it can do anything. Because Disney has been the only one that’s lavished any care on it, people [then] think it’s the only kind that can be told successfully.”
On the impulse that drives her, she recycles more filmmaking wisdom from the mouth of Andrei Tarkovsky: “Unlike all the other art forms, film is able to seize and render the passage of time, to stop it, almost to possess it in infinity. I’d say that film is the sculpting of time.”
This resonates with her. “I've always struggled with feeling like time is slipping between my fingers,” says Neeraja. “Perhaps the antidote to that is to capture our stories through the medium of film and hold them in time. My art is what will last, long after I have left the Earth and gone on to whatever there is next. I hope to say something meaningful into the void.”