The Planetary Society
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David Santiago  –  visual effects artist
Click for larger image " I typically use an engineering analysis approach to everything. This works whether designing a Mars community, making a movie, or cooking a large meal."
How were you motivated to become a visual effects artist?
  Growing up I was always involved in artistic endeavors. My school had art and music requirements every year. I voluntarily took wood shop from third until eleventh grade,but I was also subjected to art classes in drawing, printing, carving,ceramics, painting, pen & ink, and more. I was not very good and, although I enjoyed the creative endeavor, the results discouraged me. I understood the concepts, but my mind and hands had trouble in the implementation. I dreaded going to art class. The only thing I could draw relatively well (proper scale, perspective, etc.), whether it be pencil, pen & ink, or charcoal, was architecture.

I have always loved theater and performing and was involved with plays, musicals, bands and choirs from third grade until my senior year in high school. I helped design, build and paint sets for many school productions besides singing and dancing in them. With my particular drawing, construction and performance skills, theater seemed like the appropriate artistic direction for me.

I also loved math and science. I wanted to know how everything worked and math problems were puzzles to be solved. My classes taught me the foundations for proper research and experimentation. As it came time to go to college, I knew I wanted a mix of math and science for problem solving so engineering was the way to go. Electronics and computers were a hobby since the 4th grade so I chose electrical engineering with the possibility of specializing in biomedical since I loved biology as well.

During college my engineering classes kept me pretty busy and in my free time I chose to pursue intramural sports, work with student organizations and enjoy time with my new friends. I was interested in space and had many discussion with my aerospace enginering friends, but never thought I would be involved with the space program until the Jet Propulsion Laboratory offered me a job. Space became more interesting as I worked to support of its exploration, and the various engineers and scientists who were now my friends explained their research to me.

At JPL, I was involved with many "extracurricular" activities to balance the engineering part of my life. I played sports, pursued many outdoor activities like backpacking, sang with the Caltech Glee Club, and was involved with some theater groups – Theatre Americana (TA) and Theatre Arts at the California Institute of Technology (TACIT). Besides enjoying the technical and artistic sides of theatre, I also go to work with many creative and talented people. My theatrical activities grew until I was working on plays in Hollywood, videos and low budget and student films. After six and a half years of engineering as a career with entertainment as a hobby, I had the opportunity to make my hobby my career and vice versa.

Digital Domain, a visual effects company, had hired a fellow JPL/theater enthusiast a year before and had found it was easier to teach an artistic engineer/scientist the art tools for digital effects than it is to teach a traditional artist the math and physics required to create realistic natural phenomena. So Digital Domain spoke with several of us at JPL and some of us decided to join them to create the lava for Dante's Peak. For now, it is a good combination of the technical and artistic for me.

  Click for larger image
What can you share about your creative process?
    It depends on what I am working on, but I typically use an engineering analysis approach to everything. This works whether designing a Mars community, making a movie, or cooking a large meal.

The point of visuals effects, or the set for a play or movie is to help tell the story or convey the theme the director has in mind. Using engineering problem solving techniques, even artistic choices and needs can be broken down into quantitative or qualitative specifications. It's best when this begins early in pre-production or the planning phases for a project. This way the dialogue begins among all the technicians and artists on the team who need to work together to create the final product. They all need to be clear on common goals and parameters like budget and schedule. In conceptualizing the goals for the project a common language is often developed to bridge the gap between the the many expertises of the team.

I believe in teamwork, but each individual must be allowed to develop the areas under his particular expertise before bringing them to the group for discussion, modification and implementation. Be prepared for the modifications. Be general and flexible in designs to be able to accomodate the full range of possibilities of the original contraints and then some. When it comes to final design for implementation, then we can streamline the design for efficiency, keeping only the features needed to satisfy the project goals.

What ideas do you have for a future human community on Mars?
  I don't know if any of these ideas are unique, but my vision of a community on Mars is very pragmatic and less fanciful than most. Most designs you see for Martian or Lunar communities have an artist's "futuristic" look about them with domes, spires, tubes, etc. My vision for a first planetary colony is low to the ground. Simple landing pads which dock craft to a series of interconnected environmentally secure mobile homes. On their roof tops are solar panels, power plants and the various other equipment needed to maintain the human habitat inside. These habitats will extend into the martian soil at least a story.  
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