Cinesite’s recently appointed Feature Animation Head of Production Nathan Santell talks about what it takes to succeed in VFX, and the people and projects that have inspired his work
What inspired you to work in visual effects? Tell us about your career path; how did you get to where you are now?
My grandfather was a director so I grew up with quite a bit of wonder and amazement about the film industry. Both my parents and all my brothers were huge sci-fi fans, so I was exposed to a lot of books and films about the future and exploring new worlds. Movies like Blade Runner, 2001, Star Wars, The Terminator and Jurassic Park were repeatedly viewed in our household. In my senior year at UCLA, I was hired as an intern at Jaret Entertainment which had a first-look deal at MGM. Learning about the industry from the inside got me hooked! I gradually worked my way up the ladder and migrated toward animation and visual effects, working on several amazing series, video games and films along the way.
Can you tell us about some of the most exciting and unique projects of your career, especially recently?
It was so exciting to work on Mad Max: Fury Road. Even though I just oversaw a small team of previs artists at The Third Floor, it was thrilling to see the final product and be inspired to create projects of my own that I could only hope will compare to that film. I also loved producing the documentary film, Light in the Water for Logo. It was a passion project of mine that was about something extremely personal to me — swimming! I worked with a fantastic director (Lis Bartlett) and we created a movie that I’m so proud of. Disney’s animated series Doc McStuffins was also really fun to be a producer on at Brown Bag Films. It sends such an inspiring message, especially to Black and brown children. Angela’s Christmas was also really exciting to co-produce with Colm Tyrrell and Director Damien O’Connor. I learned so much about Irish culture and the struggles that families endured in the early 1900s. More recently I worked on “Brown & Friends” for Netflix, which is going to be a really funny animated series. I developed a great relationship with Showrunner Seth Kearsley, and I even got to write one of the episodes!
What are the main responsibilities of your job role?
Team management and project management are the two main components of my job. I work with the Producers, Line Producers and Department Managers to make sure all the projects come in under budget and stay on schedule. I’m also in constant communication with the Department Heads to ensure that Production is collaborating and working effectively with them. Every project is different, and the creative process creates so many unpredictable challenges. So, we strategise together as a team to see how we can solve these problems as they arise. It can be stressful for sure, but mostly fun!
What is it like to work at Cinesite? What are their values, and what is the culture like?
Cinesite is a big company with a small company vibe. It doesn’t feel like decisions are made solely with profit in mind. We’re focused on maintaining good relationships with artists and staff, growing their careers and creating loyalty. Also, the caliber of the projects themselves is of a high artistic level but cost efficient at the same time. It’s exciting to be at a company that focuses on cultivating relationships and working with some of the most talented filmmakers in the industry.
What kinds of projects do you most like to work on?
I love science fiction and fantasy – anything that focuses on world-building and exploration. A window into a world we’ve never seen before – that’s super exciting. I also love anything with heart and good intentions. If something is meanspirited or pessimistic, it’s usually not appealing to me.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Aside from schooling and training, my advice would be to watch a lot of films and series. And in that process find out which companies are creating work that you identify with creatively and emotionally. That way when you’re contacting one of those companies about a job opening or you’re in an interview, you can speak truthfully about your passion. That enthusiasm goes a long way. People can feel it and they’ll want to work with you.
Who has been your biggest influence and why?
One of my biggest influences has been a producer named Kate Langrall Folb. I’ve worked with her on a number of projects (including a theatre play we produced together) and she has always exemplified the qualities I admire most in a boss, mentor and collaborator. She is patient and compassionate, gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, doesn’t cast blame, is honest and trustworthy, minimises drama, treats everyone with respect regardless of their role, has an impressive work ethic, is super supportive, recognises the efforts of others, brings a sense of humour to every situation, commands respect without demanding it and is truly inspirational in terms of the causes she champions. I constantly aspire to be like her, and I often think about her influence on me in the work I do.
What film or project has most inspired you?
I would say the project that has inspired me most is Mad Max: Fury Road. The amount of thought, time and energy that George Miller and his team put into creating such a cohesive work of art is truly impressive. Every detail of every moment of every single shot in the film has a purpose — and that’s to support the storytelling and world-building. Aesthetically and tonally it really resonated with me, and although it was a dystopic vision of the future, it left me feeling uplifted and hopeful. The team of previs artists that helped George bring his vision to life were so inspiring and I feel honoured to have worked with them.
What skills are required in your role?
I feel like the most important skills to have in my role are patience and perseverance, knowing when to listen and when to speak up, an understanding of both the creative and business sides of the industry, and an ability to laugh combined with an awareness of when to be serious. But above all, the ability to stay super calm under pressure is probably the most important skill to possess, one which I’m still constantly trying to master. Ommmmm…