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Brilliant short film made by husband and wife features beautiful watercolour timelapse

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Sai Selvarajan takes viewers on a journey through India and New York in his brilliant short film Sugarless Tea.

The film is narrated by political comic Hari Kondabolu, and delves into themes of identity and fate.

What makes this short stand out though, is the beautiful artwork captured in each scene. Sai’s wife Amanda Selvarajan is a talented painter whose watercolours beautifully represent the story, as well as show an exploration of the painting process throughout the film.

We spoke to both Sai and Amanda about their project and the role of art in filmmaking.

When did you get into filmmaking and what inspired you to get into that field?

Sai: “I got into filmmaking in college when I was a graphic design major. I had to take a required video class, it didn’t take long for me to see the power of film and I’ve been making films ever since.”

Can you explain your creative process for Sugarless Tea?

Amanda: “My creative process for the film was improvisational. We were on a very tight schedule so I knew it was just going to be: paint as long and as fast as you can and figure it out as you go. I was not pleased with the first painting and I told Sai we needed to scrap it and choose another photo. So we did. It was an intense six days but went pretty smoothly.”

How did working on a short film differ from other projects you’ve worked on?

Amanda: “First off, film is an intrinsically collaborative art form. Whereas I am used to drawing on my own, painting on my own, writing on my own, etc. It was so interesting to see where the project would go after my part was done. My trust in Sai and his vision made it a lot easier to surrender my part of the film.”

Tell us more about what prompted you to write and make a film about separated brothers. Is it based on a true story?

Sai: “I took a trip to India in 2005, it was the first time I got to travel through India as an adult. I saw things and felt things I’d never felt before. That was the starting point of Sugarless Tea. I was born in Sri Lanka, but I was raised in Nigeria, my family and I had to leave Nigeria when I was nine, this was one of the most traumatic experiences in my life. I wanted to capture that feeling, the feeling of being pulled apart and the yearning to reunite.”

What was most challenging about producing watercolours for a film?

Amanda: “The most challenging aspect was trying to imagine how the painting would appear as it was showing up piece-by-piece on the screen. I created my paintings in a vacuum – without knowing exactly where the dialogue would go or where the musical score would surge, etc. The first time I saw the film on a movie screen I was blown away by how everything just clicked together.”

How were your paintings-in-progress captured?

Amanda: “My starting point with the paintings began when all of the equipment was set up. I pushed a button on a remote control to take a photo after almost every stroke. As I worked through the paintings I became more aware of how to accomplish my vision of how the image should appear, piece-by-piece, on the screen.

“We rented the camera equipment for six days so I had to complete all of the paintings within a short deadline. It was a great lesson in pushing through the pain when you’re working on a project. So many times I would get to a point where I thought the painting was irredeemable but there was no time for doubt. I would simply switch to another painting for a few hours and then return to the previous one. This meant that the paintings would not appear on the screen in the exact same place – since that would be impossible. In turn, this informed Sai’s decision to zoom out and show the desk when he did the edit.”

Amanda’s watercolours perfectly capture the Sugarless Tea story. Had you always wanted to collaborate on a project? How different was the filmmaking process when art was involved?

Sai: “Yes, I’ve always wanted to work with her on something, but I could never figure out how to merge the two mediums. Time lapsing of the watercolours was the only thing I could come up with. We did one test shoot and it seemed to work, so we just went for it. The process was very challenging, because we were having to operate outside of our comfort zones. Once we took that leap of faith and just trusted that we were going to focus on what each of us does best, it all came together.”

If you haven’t watched Sugarless Tea already, do yourself a favour and spend the next four-and-a-half minutes watching this beautiful short. And keep an eye out for more work by Sai and Amanda Selvarajan online and on Vimeo.

About the author

Rachel Oakley is an Aussie writer based in NYC with an obsession for the creepy, cool and quirky side of life. Some of her main passions include philosophy, art, travel, and sarcasm.

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