Making Movie Magic

Published April 30, 2018, 12:05 AM


By Donna Patricia Lopez Manio

Photos courtesy of Legacy Effects San Fernando, CA and Paulo Santana


Most of us have looked to the silver screen for entertainment or relief from the humdrum of daily living. There are also some who have been deeply touched by movies, giving them an influential place in our lives. Movie magic has touched us in one way or another as we are transported to a different world for at least a couple of hours.

Legacy Effects Digital designer Paulo Santana is one of the creative forces who help create the magical worlds we see in the movies. The humble work he does in the boutique visual effects studio based in San Fernando, California is seen all over the globe through movies such as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Shape of Water, Power Rangers, Pacific Rim: Uprising, and Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War. Santana recalls being enthralled by the world of movies when he was still completing his studies. “When Pacific Rim was released in 2013, I was still in school and it was my favorite movie. I never would have thought that I’ll be working on the sequel as part of the design team.”

Starting out as a 2D artist, Santana completed his studies in the Los Angeles-based Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Games + Animation where he was able to efficiently learn the tools that would help him become an effective 3D artist. Motivated by his drive to create art that would easily be seen and appreciated, he figured that joining a studio that creates props and costumes would be a great step toward achieving that goal.

Shortly after graduating after trade school, he landed a digital designer gig at Legacy, where he now designs assets for various Hollywood studios. Aside from movies, TV shows, and commercials, Legacy also creates collectible maquettes in collaboration with Sideshow Collectibles, a company known among toy enthusiasts for creating limited edition statues, busts, articulated figures, and film prop replicas in various scales.

“We would receive concept art from our clients and it would be up to me and the team to translate the art into digital 3D that will be eventually be 3D printed and finished at our workshop by a team of traditional artists. Occasionally, I would be asked to design something from scratch.” Santana also shares that working in a creative field also requires structure and discipline, as they often have tight production deadlines. Artists should also possess a keen eye for detail that will enable them to balance work quality and speed.  He also adds that fellow Pinoys are doing quite well in the creative industry they are currently a part of. “Filipinos are famously known for being very dependable no matter what field. I know a lot of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans working in the entertainment industry, and they’re all very successful in their professional careers.”

Working as a visual effects artist in Hollywood isn’t glamorous all the time, Santana adds. Making it in the industry takes a lot of discipline and grit. “Commercials are notorious for having extremely quick turnarounds for art assets. Oftentimes commercial jobs would require us to finish something within a week or less. Movies and collectible statues usually give us more time to complete, sometimes up to four months or more depending on the project.” The artist also names some of the programs they must know in order to remain marketable in the creative workspace. “We [must know] many different softwares such as Zbrush, Maya, Modo, Keyshot, Photoshop, and Magics.”

Pacific Rim: Uprising is one of Santana’s most challenging projects to date. “I was part of a team that was involved with providing designs for the pilot suits. Everything begins with an idea which is then realized through digital art. Approved concepts are then 3D printed and sent to our workshop. A lot of people are involved in making costumes and props for shows. Legacy employs many talented artists from painters, sculptors, fabricators, mold makers, makeup/hair artists, and engineers. [For me], this project was special because it was the first movie I was able to design something new with very little guidelines. It was basically a blank canvas and I had free reign to design something cool that could fit in the Pacific Rim world. I really liked designing some of the flourishes for the suits. Adding the little details can really help a lot in terms of completing the final look of the suit.”

For Marvel’s highly-anticipated surefire blockbuster, Santana and the team at LegacyFX was able to handle multiple facets of the movie. “Our digital design team at Legacy Effects did a lot of pieces for the film. We worked on highly-detailed suits and pieces of costumes that are worn by the actual actors and their stunt doubles. We also worked on creating intricate half-scale maquettes of characters that will then be used as lighting reference for visual effects. Marvel movies are always fun to work on because they have a concrete visual language that spans across their films! Half the fun is trying to figure out how we can keep the visual language intact as we try to fit costume pieces onto actors. My favorite is seeing it all come together; the digital 3D pieces printed out into the real world and handed over to our talented team of practical artists to be finished and fitted onto actors.”

From being a young kid in Manila who loved anime and manga, Santana has realized his dreams of sharing his art to the world through movie magic. Being a true creative spirit, he has also taken an interest in photography and jewelry design. An artist, he says it is very important to have personal projects or “something of your own.” This helps him keep things fresh while also enriching himself professionally and personally. “Working in 3D can be a slow process sometimes; so, I picked up photography and jewelry design as a means to enable myself to explore artistic concepts in a faster timeline. Photography for me is instant gratification, I love taking pictures and exploring my artistic options during the post-processing stage. As for jewelry design, I felt that it’s a natural step for me since I deal with creating digital objects and turning them into real-world objects that we can hold and touch. My jewelry designs, again, reflect my desire to design something within a compact timeline.”

While it’s common for Filipinos to be discouraged from entering the creative field—careers in law, medicine, and engineering are given more preference—Santana offers some words of encouragement to those who want to pursue creative work in Hollywood. “Study hard and always be open to learning new tools. Make friends, and never burn bridges; the industry is a lot smaller than you think. Take time to move away from in front of your computer. Be open to seeking new experiences and use it to supplement your art. Try to find time to pick up a new hobby or allow yourself some dedicated personal artwork time.”