30/05/22 • News & Happenings

The Lightbulb Moment

With Nathalie Sandstad

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Nathalie Sandstad, FX Supervisor at Lighthouse Studios

Can you pinpoint the moment you knew you wanted to work in animation?

Some people can answer immediately, like Aninka Badenhorst, whose flash of inspiration came from witnessing someone else’s (Blog Here). Some would cite multiple moments, each one representing a separate rung on the ladder of their ambition, like Carlos Mateus, who knew little about animation growing up, but was driven by a burning desire to work with drawings in some way (Blog Here).

Nathalie Sandstad falls into the latter category.

Nathalie works at Lighthouse as FX Supervisor on Netflix’s The Cuphead Show!

Despite thoroughly loving FX, her career path didn’t lead her straight there. In fact, she originally studied Tourism Management before dropping out to pursue a career in animation.

So, what was it that inspired Nathalie to make that life-changing decision?

Let’s find out!

Avatar: The Last Airbender

“There are a couple of moments in my life that really stand out as being pivotal to my decision to work in animation. The first moment happened when I was around 15 or 16. The animated series, Avatar had just come out on Nickelodeon and, like everyone else at the time, I loved it. It was probably the first time in my life that I actually thought to myself how cool animation is.

Because I was such a fan of the show, I kept myself updated with all the news and gossip relating to it. The creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, seemed to have this huge, mapped out storyline that they were committed to from the start – everything was cohesive and, it seemed to me at the time, quite straightforward. When the spin-off, The Legend of Korra, was released, one of the biggest criticisms of it was that each series was almost treated as a one-off and wasn’t as cohesive as the original. The production was plagued with problems. There were budget-cuts and they took the show off air, choosing to only stream the last two seasons.

Despite the criticisms the spin-off received, I loved both these series. And, in both of them, it was the FX that really got me. Both series are based around people in the world having the ability to bend, or control, the elements – and of course that means lots of FX! I realised how the bridge between the characters and their backgrounds really sets the mood of the scene – and from then on, I was hooked.

I’d say that was what made me start noticing FX, but it was actually a few years later that I first realised I actually wanted to work in animation. I was browsing online and came across an animated student film. It was well made, very high-quality, but with this interesting element of the human flaw – something I imagine we all have as students. It was only then that I realised, ‘Hey – this is something I can actually learn’. When we watch a Disney movie, for example, it can seem like the idea of reaching that level of skill is far-fetched and unachievable. This was like something you can actually do – something I can actually do. That was the moment I decided to drop the other educational path I had been pursuing and just go for it.

Nathalie studied Animation at the Arts University Bournemouth

I decided to apply for the bachelor’s degree in Animation at the Arts University Bournemouth. At that point I didn’t have any art qualification, so I needed to complete both the A Levels and an extended diploma to prove I can be somewhat artistic. That was a bit of a drag to be honest, as I was 21 and everyone else was around 16, and the age gap was prominent. I got past that though – and university ended up being really fun.

The first year was very much centred on the principles and history of animation and focused a lot on character animation, which was great, but I really wanted to learn FX. The thing with character animation is that you must follow a structure. The body and shape of the character must remain the same so that they are recognisable from scene to scene. But, as I discovered watching Avatar, in FX there is far more variety. You can have an aggressive forest fire, or you can have a campfire that’s gentle. It’s the physics and the variety of the physics that’s so interesting.

I had a bit more of an opportunity for this in the second year, which was more focused on self-study. However, when I started looking into it, it turned out I could only find one book on FX. The book was a good read, but really was more about the author and the projects they had worked on and less about hands-on learning. Of course, being in university meant there were tutors around, but I found that asking them anything about FX often resulted in the answer “go and study water!” Sound advice, but I didn’t know what it was I was meant to be looking for.

By the third year, FX had slipped down to third place on my list of priorities, as I became more focused on producing and directing our final short film project.

So, when I left university, I still really didn’t know what I was doing when it came to FX. The concept of character animation seemed so much clearer in my mind, and I found it much easier to understand. As I mentioned, in character animation, you move a solid shape from A to B. In FX, there always seemed to be this arbitrary, non-physical material with ever-changing volume. It was a big hurdle for me to figure out what I needed to do.

What helped me in the end was studying other people’s animation and figuring out what I liked about it. I’d Google GIFs and use third-party plug-ins to break each one down, frame by frame, to understand exactly what each shape was doing. I created a massive library on Pinterest where I collected everything relating to FX and shape language. By ‘shape language’ I mean really understanding what the core shapes are of certain things. What shapes should I use when trying to represent electricity? What are the differences between this type of water and that type of water? The styles are obviously different – but what exactly ARE those fundamental differences? This was important in my learning, as I think it’s easy to get distracted by the fancy stuff. If you can’t tell what something is when in a flat colour, I would argue that you haven’t really succeeded in portraying the FX. I think you just need to really understand the very basics of each shape.

Another thing I found handy is finding the communities, for example on Twitch or Discord. Even if you don’t interact directly with them, just listening to what people have to say can be hugely beneficial. I wish I’d known that when I was younger.

For anyone interested in learning more about FX, I would recommend the book Elemental Magic: The Art of Special Effects Animation by Joseph Gilland. It does provide some good reading, even if it’s not as hands-on as I would have liked. And, as I say, studying other people’s animation and finding online communities is helpful. Remember, too, to ask questions! You may not always get an answer, but when you do it could be something really helpful. Some people like to take on a mentorship role, so do reach out – you never know what could happen!”

Thanks for sharing your Lightbulb Moments with us Nathalie! 

Stay ‘tooned’ for further lightbulb moments from our crew.  

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