Pixar's first Asian directors behind The Good Dinosaur, Sanjay's Super Team

It took a long while for the family of The Good Dinosaur director Peter Sohn to get behind his career choice of animation; he is the first non-white director of a Pixar feature

It can be a hard sell convincing your parents that drawing cartoons is the right career for you - especially if you are the child of Asian immigrants who moved to the United States seeking a better life.

Animators Peter Sohn, 38, and Sanjay Patel, 41, know this first- hand. Sohn was pressured to take over his Korean family's grocery store in New York instead of going to arts school. Patel's Indian parents wanted him to stay home and help run their California motel.

Sohn says: "For first-generation immigrant families, the arts are never something you make a living from."

But he and Patel both went on to do their families proud by blazing a trail at Pixar, the award-winning animation studio behind hits such as Toy Story (1995) and Finding Nemo (2003).

Sohn directed The Good Dinosaur, which opens in Singapore on Nov 26. A tearjerker about a boy dinosaur trying to find his way home, it is the first Pixar feature with a non-white director at the helm.

The movie will be screened together with Sanjay's Super Team, Patel's short film about an Indian boy who learns to appreciate his heritage and the first Pixar film by a director of Indian descent.

Speaking to Life on the Pixar campus in San Francisco, the pair say that despite their families' initial objections, animation proved to be a powerful tool in helping them bridge the cultural and generational divide between their parents and themselves.

Still, pursuing drawing and animation was "the rebellion of my teenage years", recalls Sohn, who is married to Anna, an artist.

"I'm the oldest son and I had to take over the store, but did not want to - I wanted to draw and my mother and father were like, 'You are going to be a business person and take this over.'

"But I just couldn't give it up," says the 15-year Pixar veteran, who has worked on films such as Finding Nemo and whose face was the inspiration for Russell, the boy scout in Up (2009).

"At one point, my father said, 'Okay, you are passionate about this, let's try and find a good school for you.' But my mother wouldn't let it go up till the day I left for school and went to the airport.

"I still remember her fighting and crying and saying, 'Don't go.' She didn't even want to look at me as I left."

Patel, who like Sohn attended the California Institute of the Arts, one of the top US universities for the visual arts, had a similar experience.

He says: "My parents were very supportive of me and my creativity, but it became an issue when it was time for me to go off to arts school.

"They own a motel in Southern California. Even though for 15 years I had been winning awards and scholarships and lots of different things were lining up towards me going to arts school, when it came time for me to leave, my dad asked me to stay home.

"My parents live in the motel, they run it, and me and my dad were the employees. If I left, he would lose an employee, so he said, 'You can't go, I need you to stay and help the family.'

"This is where my older brother stepped in and said he would go to to a closer college and support my parents, sacrificing the better school he wanted to attend, so I could go to arts school.

"He told me, 'Sanjay, the best way you can help this family is by helping yourself.'"

When Patel eventually got a job at Pixar, where he has worked for almost 20 years, he began writing and illustrating books about Indian mythology aimed at younger readers in his free time.

It was an exhibition of his work in the hallways of the studio that caught the eye of Pixar boss John Lasseter, who urged him to create a short film based on these mythological characters.

Patel, who is married and has a 21/2-year-old son, initially refused.

He says: "I was scared to put that part of my culture and identity on display out there for Pixar to examine.

"When I make a book, it's just me and an editor, and when you work here at Pixar, there's an army of people you collaborate with and I was just really scared about collaborating over something so personal with so many people."

Then his father stepped in.

"I talked to my dad and he said, 'These people have stood by you, paid you and gave you all these wonderful opportunities to learn and grow. So for you to suddenly not participate in the relationship just felt like bad behaviour.'

"His words were that it was 'bad karma' and he advised me to just try it."

The result is a very personal film inspired in part by Patel's relationship with his dad - the story of a young boy who would rather watch superhero cartoons than join in his father's morning prayers, but then discovers an exciting new side to the Hindu deities his father worships.

It was inspired by his childhood embarrassment over his parents' background ("all those years spent wanting to have nothing to do with them and being embarrassed of my dad").

"I don't think I'm alone there, either - it's just really hard if you're an immigrant. I was the only South Asian kid in my high school, I was the one kid with the funny name and parents who did the funny rituals, and there was no reflection of those even in pop culture, except for cartoony stereotypes on television.

"So when I was growing up, identifying with Indian culture kind of felt like a running joke."

Patel says his eyes were finally opened to the richness and beauty of his heritage once he began researching Indian mythology for his art, books and film.

This then became a way for him to better connect with his father, who wept with pride and joy when he first saw his son's movie.

For Sohn, it was his mother who showed him the power of the kind of non-verbal storytelling that animated films do so well at.

"Any time our grocery store made any money, my mother would take us to go see a movie, but she didn't understand English so she would ask me to translate what they were saying in the film," says the animator, who has also voiced Pixar characters such as Emile the rat in Ratatouille (2007).

"But with animated movies, the Disney ones in particular, she would never ask me anything, she would just be watching and crying because she understood everything.

"So the power of visual storytelling really became something that transcended the cultural differences between my mother and me, who was born here. My parents understood this new language."

•The Good Dinosaur opens in Singapore on Nov 26.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2015, with the headline 'Making history'. Print Edition | Subscribe