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Writer Sunita Balsara’s tinnitus inspires animated short film, “Ostinato”, made by women in ACE program

ACE PROGRAM Ostinato
Nuha, a composer with tinnitus, is the central character in "Ostinato".

Design artist and writer Sunita Balsara is a rarity in the North American animation industry. That’s because she has just written a short film, “Ostinato”, which was made entirely by women. It’s a product of Women in Animation Vancouver’s ACE [Animation Career EXCELerator] program.

Balsara tells Pancouver over Zoom that the film was inspired by her experience with tinnitus, which causes ringing in the ear. Ostinato means “a continually repeated musical phrase or rhythm”.

“It’s about a composer, Nuha, who is having the best and gentlest kind of morning, and this tone interrupts her composition—and her life,” Balsara says. “And she has to deal with that.”

Balsara realized that she had tinnitus when she was in a Grade 9 physics class. Her teacher mentioned this condition while discussing how sound waves interact with the ear.

“I had thought that this was a universal experience—that everybody had ringing in their ears,” Balsara states. “It turns out that’s not the case.”

The Toronto-based Balsara graduated from Sheridan College in 2010 with a bachelor in applied arts in animation.

“I started working about a decade ago as a background designer on Bubble Guppies, and since then have worked in character and prop design,” she reveals. “I’ve done some visual development, which was very exciting as well.”

Netflix and Women in Animation Vancouver will present the world premiere of “Ostinato” at the Spark Animation Festival. The screening will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Friday (November 10) in the theatre at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre. The entire creative team will be present for the Mothers of an Artform event, which includes a question-and-answer session.

Balsara said that the ACE program provides mentorship to those accepted in the program. She benefited from tutelage from feature film director Elaine Bogan, Dreamworks story artist Katherine DeVries, and writer, producer, and director Ann Marie Fleming.

ACE program member Sunita Balsara
Sunita Balsara says that she benefited from the mentorship offered through the ACE program.

ACE addresses underrepresentation

After the mentorship period ended, Balsara collaborated with the other women in the ACE program on the short animated film.

“They’re so talented and so smart,” she says. “Getting to bounce ideas of them was just a joy, honestly.”

She’s proud of the final version of “Ostinato”.

“I feel like when I write it, I’m imagining in my head with all of my own personal limitations,” Balsara states. “And when it gets to the team and they bring all of their hard work and talent to it, it becomes something that I could never have imagined.”

Vancouver producer Rose-Ann Tisserand (Edgar & Ellen, Hoodwinked 2: Hood vs. Evil) is one of the executive producers of “Ostinato”. She founded the ACE program in Vancouver after seeing statistics on underrepresentation of women in the industry.

According to Women in Animation, which has a chapter in Vancouver, only 34 percent of creative jobs in this sector are held by women. In contrast, 70 percent of animation and art school grads are from underrepresented genders.

To address this imbalance, Women in Animation Vancouver issues callouts for applications to create a film in the ACE program.

“We shortlist it to five women, maximum, per group,” Tisserand says. “So, if there are eight women, it equates to 40 women that we provide as much information and workshop options as we can to help guide them.”

For example, she notes, a pitching coach will teach them how to market themselves and their ideas.

“Then, we have someone do a day in the life of an art director,” Tisserand adds. “That’s a reality check of what the job is.”

ACE program founder Rose-Ann Tisserand
ACE program founder Rose-Ann Tisserand is executive producer of “Ostinato”.

Netflix backs program

Juries, which often include CEOs, then select the final candidates. Tisserand says that the program aims to demystify the whole process of creating an animated film.

Moreover, those who become part of the production team are provided with backup if their child is sick and they can’t complete their work on a specific day.

“We have moms in the program,” Tisserand reveals.

She tells Pancouver that the first iteration of the ACE program had five roles. The second had six roles.

The Vancouver ACE program is supported by Netflix Canada. Sponsors include Creative BC, Telefilm Canada, the Canada Media Fund, and various animation houses.

In addition to Balsara, the current version has seven other roles: director (Sonia Furier), producer (Stephanie Hodgson), assistant art director (May-Yun Ong), story supervisor (Anna Bohac), animation director (Molly Lacoursière), editor (Isabel Ribeiro), and composer (Amanda Cawley). The second executive producer is Tracey Mack.

Tisserand says that the ACE program makes a special effort to reach out to candidates who are BIPOC, LGBTQ, or have disabilities.

Balsara hopes to make more films

Meanwhile, Balsara describes herself as “half Indian and half Guyanese”. And it was important to her that her character, Nuha, reflected some of that heritage. In fact, most of what she writes—whether it’s for films or indie comics anthologies—centres around characters who are women of colour.

To her, diversity makes the landscape more interesting.

Balsara doesn’t hesitate when asked where she sees her career progressing if everything falls into place.

“I would love to make my own film,” she replies.

She adds that she always appreciated independent filmmaking. And that’s only been magnified by her experience working with a team of women on “Ostinato”.

“Now, it’s definitely something I want to do again,” Balsara says. “Also, a personal project of mine would be to work on and publish a graphic novel. I also really love independent comics—and being part of that world would be amazing.”

Watch the trailer for “Ostinato”.

Netflix and Women in Animation Vancouver (WIA) will present the world premiere of “Ostinato” at the Spark Animation Festival. It will be screened at 6:30 p.m. on Friday (November 10) in the theatre at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre, followed by a question-and-answer session. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.