When I saw Big Fish at the Chance Theater, I appreciated the beautiful set right away. There were some fantastic performances. The elements of puppetry were remarkable. The theatre itself was charming, as always. But the breakaway star of the show was the animated projection work by Nick Santiago

Nick has worked for numerous universities and theatre companies and he received an Ovation nomination and a LA Drama Critics Circle Award for his work on Rogue Machine’s A Permanent Image.

Big Fish relies on a heavy dose of magic to bring its stories to life. One of the most effective ways this production conjures that magic is with whimsical animated projections that illustrate story elements too big to stage in a normal theatre. Nick Santiago is the man behind the whimsy, and he agreed to give us a peek into his process– and a sample of the animations he created for the show! (If you like them here, you’ll LOVE them in their proper setting!)

RELATED: Check out our interview with Chance founder Oanh Nguyen!

Leona Laurie: How early in the production process for Big Fish did you become involved?
Nick Santiago: I signed on to do the show as I was finishing up Tribes at the Chance Theater last year. They had just announced their new season, and I saw they were doing Big Fish. Having done the musical before, and because I love it so much, I contacted Oanh and asked to be part of the production. Luckily he said yes, and once again I had a blast designing this beautiful musical.

Because video projections were such an integral part of the overall design, we started meeting to discuss them a little earlier than I normally do with other shows. Usually I want to let a show evolve in rehearsals before I create my world. Since the design was centered around shadows and silohuettes helping to tell the more fantastical elements of the story we needed to place actors and objects in a way so that it looked like they were the ones creating this magic. We scoured the script page by page, storyboarding our big ideas so Oanh would know they best way to block a scene to work with the projections. Once rehearsals really started I was able to sit back and go into creation mode.

LL: How collaborative is what you do? 
NS: The nature of theatre is very collaborative, and what I do is no different. Going into the show, Oanh gave me his big picture ideas and larger concepts to play with. We knew we were going to be working a lot with shadow play, and although that is typically done with lights, we would have a lot more creative freedom if video took on the job.

Early in the process we brainstormed some of the larger ideas, and then Oanh left me alone to create the different designs. I used influences from many departments to help with my creative process. The puppet design helped to create the giant’s shadow; costumes heavily influenced the Mermaid design, and the overall set really helped to give me a wonderful palette to paint on. I had to work closely with Masako (Tobaru), the lighting designer, to make sure both video projections and lighting could exist in harmony without one washing the other out. Sound also became very important, as it helped to bring life to the different animations I provided.


LL: How on Earth did you get into this area of stagecraft?
NS: I actually went to school to study set design. In my final MFA year at UCLA, there happened to be an introduction to projection design class being taught the first semester. I have always been a visual person, which is how I got into set design, however I also have a love for editing and animation as well, so this seemed like the perfect blend of the two. I instantly fell in love with the artform and tried to incorporate more of it in my final year of grad school. Only having one official course, I had to teach myself a lot of what I know. I took every video design job that came my way and learned what I needed to do on the fly. If I didn’t know how to do an effect, I learned. I immersed myself in this world and eventually stopped doing scenic design altogether. All of my work now is video design.

LL: Can you walk me through what’s involved in creating one animation? Like the one of Edward being shot from the cannon, for example?
NS: This was my first show really doing this sort of animation, so I learned a lot. First and foremost, each character for the animation had to be designed. I used Photoshop to design out each character in a resting position.

Using the cannon example, the cannon was designed and rendered in its lowered position and Edward in a resting position with his arms out slightly to the side. Once the design was finalized I took them into another Adobe program called Character Animator. This was my first time using this program, and it took a little while to get into, but the results were well worth it. Once a character was imported into the software I had to give them the proper joints and bone structure, so as they moved all the body parts reacted accordingly. For characters like Edward, this was pretty self-explanatory. For characters like the Mermaid, some liberties were taken with the bone structure to help accommodate the tail and different physics in water.

In the original design, the cannon just rolled out by itself. After a day of tech, Oanh thought it might be funny to see Edward’s head sticking out of the cannon. It was a quick fix, and an easy detail, but really helped to ramp up the comedy of that moment.

The cannon animation was fairly simple, it was the animation of Edward flying that was more complicated. Character Animator lets you drag the different limbs in real time to create your animation. So I did four passes of the animating both of his arms and his legs flailing about while he was being shot from the cannon. The cape was also a tech week addition that helped to sell the effect. Once we took the “Flailing Edward” (as I called him) into the video program, we added a rotation effect as a joke and it looked good enough to keep it that way. As he fell back down, we used the flailing model one last time in a larger scale to descend from the sky and transition into our real Edward. Each animation for the show had most of these basic steps to varying degrees, depending on the intricacy of the movements.


LL: How many total hours of your work do you think are represented in this show?
NS: I sort of lost track on this one! I know this was one of the more complicated designs I have ever done. Between preproduction and storyboarding, learning the best way to animate the characters, designing all of the characters, animating them, and finally putting the show together on the different surfaces I can say I easily spent about three weeks straight getting the characters from initial design to fully realized on stage. The week before tech I was in there almost every day perfecting the timing and the way everything looked. Luckily for me the Chance Theater is extremely supportive of their designers and kept me housed and fed while I was working.

Although this was one of the hardest designs I have done, it has also been one of the most rewarding. Seeing all of that time and effort manifest into this beautiful and moving show makes it all worth it.

RELATED: Nick’s projections were amazing in the Chance’s Middletown, too!

LL: What happens to the projections after a show? Is there a digital archive somewhere?
NS: After each show I archive all of my work and save it to a hard drive in case the show is ever remounted or any of the assets designed for a show can be recycled for another show. As I mentioned before, this is actually the second time I have designed video for a production of Big Fish. However the designs and directors’ concepts for the two different shows were so different, nothing I used in my design for the last production was used in this one. The last design was a little more realistic, while this one was very much stylized.

LL: Do you have a favorite projection in this show?
NS: My favorite projection to work on was the Mermaid. Between the water physic and the grace of her movements I had a lot of fun animating that. Plus I thought the character animation to real actress was done most effectively with that character. 

LL: What are you working on now?
NS: I just opened the show Arrival & Departure at the Fountain Theatre. It is a world premiere of a reimagined, modern-day stage adaptation of the classic 1945 film Brief Encounter. It is performed by hearing and deaf actors in a fully integrated, unique blend of Open Captioning, American Sign Language and Spoken English, so it presented quite a different challenge from Big Fish.

This show happens around New York City, so the design focused a lot on the frenetic energy of the New York lifestyle and subway trains. A major part of the design was also about 1400 captions for non-hearing audience members. The captions constantly follow the actors so the audience never has to look away from the action to read what is going on. I learned a lot about effective captioning and a little sign language as well. It was a lot of work but quite rewarding to be able to attempt something rarely done to help include hard of hearing and deaf audiences. It opened July 14th and runs until September 30th at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.

See Nick’s animations in Big Fish at the Chance Theater in Anaheim until July 29. Get tickets at ChanceTheater.org!


Leona Laurie