Episode 173 — Pixar’s Animation Sup Gini Santos


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Episode 173 — Pixar’s Animation Sup Gini Santos

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 173! I’m speaking with Gini Santos, one of the Animation Supervisors at Pixar. I’m really excited for this Episode. I want to make this intro short and sweet.

Let’s dive in!



[01:14] I have some new training and course coming up. There will be free tutorials as well. To learn more, please join my VIP Insiders’ Circle at www.allanmckay.com/inside/.



Gini Cruz Santos is a Filipina animator at Pixar studios based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She worked on numerous Pixar animation films including Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Toy Story 3, Up, Lifted and Brave. She was nominated in 2004 for an Annie Award for her animation on Finding Nemo and was nominated by the Visual Effects Society for an award for this project as well. Her animation of Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, was praised for integrating “fish movement, human movement and facial expressions to make them look and feel like real characters”.

Santos was born in Pasay City in the Philippines. She moved to Guam after age three but returned to study in the Philippines. She studied Fine Arts at the University of Santo Tomas with a major in Advertising. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Computer Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York.

In 1996, she was hired by Pixar after submitting her short feature reel titled The Eclipse without submitting her resume. She was the Supervising Animator on the Pixar short film entitled Lifted.

In this Podcast, Gini talks about her training and career, how she got her Dream Job at Pixar and the most important part of her job as an Animator — the STORY.


[01:37] Allan: Thanks again for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Gini: Yes! First of all, thank you for inviting me! My name is Gini Santos. I’m an animator at Pixar.

[01:49] Allan: How did you get started? Did you always want to be an artist?

Gini: I think I was born an artist because it wasn’t too much of a thought. I just grew up drawing a lot as a kid. I remember stacks of papers in the living room with whatever drawings I was interested in. At one time, I thought I would be a marine biologist because all I ever drew were underwater scenes.

I knew as a grew up, I wanted to study Fine Arts. When it was time to pick a course, I knew I wanted to be an artist. It’s interesting because I grew up in an era when my parents thought — especially in our culture in the Philippines — the art was not going to be a lucrative career. You were either a doctor or a lawyer, or an accountant. Something safe! So my dad was never really on board with me becoming an artist. He imagined me selling paintings in the park. My parents were both accountants. They wanted me to be part of a business course. We met half way, so I ended up taking Advertising Art at the University of Santo Tomas. My dad was cool with a job like that. We were on our way to immigrate to Texas, but we ended up in Guam. When it was time for me to go to college, my parents sent me to the Philippines. That’s were I majored in Advertising Arts. I was interested in that, actually, because advertising involved a lot of psychology. You had to design to convince people to do things. I ended up graduating with a degree in advertising. To appease my parents, I went and I worked in Guam in an advertising company.

The company I worked for doesn’t exist anymore, but in Guam you’re a big fish in a small pond. I got to do jobs that normally I wouldn’t get to do unless I were much older. I got to do a lot of logo and package design. I worked my way up to become an Art Director in the art room. Interestingly enough in the 90s, desktop publishing was exploding onto the scene. The personal computer was kind of coming out as a new technology. The first time I saw a Mac was in a class I took for painting on a computer. I was blown away at the concept of that. I remember reading about MacIntosh and how it became a way to create art and do layout. I convinced my boss to get one of those for the art department. Back then, we usually had to use the typesetter company. A computer was a promise that we could do more stuff in-house — and my boss was supportive of that.

I knew I wanted to move on and work for a bigger agency. I thought I should get back to school for a Masters Degree. But there was something that was starting to bug me: I needed to learn more on computers. I had applied to Syracuse University, but at the same time I learned about the School of Visual Arts in New York. I think that was in 1994. They had a MFA in Computer Art. [The School also] encouraged diversity among their students. I felt like I had a good chance. I ended up enrolling in that Computer Art course, specializing in Animation. It was interesting that was the first school that asked what artists could create on a computer. That’s when I first saw animation on the computer. At the time they had Softimage and Waveform Alias. I was never drawn to 2D animation, but when I saw what the computer would do the in-between, I thought, “Wow, this is amazing!” It blew me away!

But I never knew where I was headed with it. A whole new world opened up and I was trying to absorb this new medium like a sponge. It wasn’t until the second year that I saw Toy Story. That’s when it clicked into place: I can do animation but on the computer! I remember Pixar was doing a visit of the school. When I graduated, there were computer companies but they were making more commercials. There was Art Greenberg Internship; and the more famous ones were on the West Coast.

[13:14] Allan: Yeah, the only one around you was Blue Sky. 

Gini: You’re right! By the time I was graduated, there was ILM, Skywalker and PDI on the West Coast. I actually interviewed with Blue Sky first. After I had seen Toy Story, I looked at Pixar as the place — but I didn’t think I could get in. I had sent a reel, but in my head I didn’t think they would take me. I sent it more for the heck of it. I didn’t even have a resume, just contact information. I had gone to the West Coast to interview with PDI. I remember meeting with ILM at SIGGRAPH, I think. Pixar didn’t call me after a month after I sent my reel. They said they didn’t know what I was applying for and wanted to get more information. Sure enough, they invited me for an interview.

I remember flying in. It was one of the most unforgettable job interviews because I got to meet Steve Jobs. I remember being walked around by the HR person. We had passed a room that had Steve Job’s nameplate on the door. The reason I knew who he was because my mom told me this story about a guy who started a computer company out of his garage. The reason she told that story is to tell me that I could do anything I wanted to, if I had the [passion] for it. Then the HR person goes, “Do you want to meet him? You should meet him!” She told me to wait while she [went to get him]. I was so nervous because Apple was the computer for artists. She walked in with him. He shook my hand and said, “I’m Steve Jobs. Where are you from?” I said, “Currently, I’m in Manhattan.” And he said, “Manhattan isn’t the place to be, you want to be out here!” He told me I was like a young plant and they wanted to guide me to grow into a big tall tree. He was profound in the way he said it. He was just talking about character and what they were about as a company — and what I could be as a part of it. I was stuck in that. I remember flying home excited to tell my mom that I met Steve Jobs! There was no question where I was going to go. That’s how I ended up there, and that was in 1996.

[20:12] Allan: That’s kind of amazing, all of it! That’s so profound that after so many job interviews — where they were more transactional — you meet someone so influential. And he told you how they can help you grow.

Gini: The statement was: We know you’re an artist. We already trust you on that part.

[20:54] Allan: That’s cool! It’s so interesting to hear people be hesitant to be artist and wanting to find a “stable” career. It’s a reoccurring theme on this Podcast. You were hesitant to apply at Pixar. I had those moments in my career where I sent my reel as a gimmick, just to see if I could get a rejection letter. It turned about to be about taking these big hurdles. It’s good for you that you took that risk!

Gini: I think about that a lot! There was an aspect where I thought, “Screw it!” I wanted to break into the advertising industry and then I was sidetracked by this thing. My hesitation with applying at Pixar was about the unknown drawing me in — but there was a part of me that wasn’t sure I could give them what they needed. If they needed ads, I could do that. But I wasn’t sure what it meant to be an artist on a computer. But Toy Story blew everyone away and I thought, “Can I do that?!” At the same time, there was the excitement of the unknown. But internally I was always moving forward. And I realize now that back then, it really gave me the energy to move forward. Now, I’m set in my ways and have more fears to move forward. Back then, I was carried by a wave. Now, I’m a bit behind it because the technology is changing so quickly.

[25:07] Allan: I do think that’s interesting! I recently fell into that too. I look how it was in the early 90s. At 14, I was obsessed with this new technology. If a movie had CG in it, I had to see it! When Toy Story came out, I would point it out to my friends to explain what I wanted to do. Whereas now, I don’t know if the industry has grown so much or we became so oversaturated it, the fascination has gone away. Now, it’s a job. I’m hoping it’s not a generational thing. It’s just about getting comfortable later in your career because you’ve put in the hard time in the beginning. Having set the bar so high, what was it like to finally go to work at your Dream Job on day one?

Gini: Well, back then, I couldn’t define it as my Dream Job. I guess you could say it was an amazing job; but at the same time, I didn’t know what it was. The only thing that was going to carry was that I was an artist and I was creative. I was going to apply the computer in the same way when I was sketching.

When I started at Pixar, they were just starting to work on Bug’s Life. There were two teams: The original from Toy Story and a new one that they hired; the A and the B Team. I was just excited to be there and to learn! It was amazing to watch! Our little animation department back then had maybe 200 people. It consisted of animators from all walks of life. The computer was a new medium so it attracted people who wanted to learn. [There was] this new thing that was being defined. I look back at that time: We were figuring it out as we went. We still had traditional animation to guide us. Back then, there were no schools. There were no courses on computer animation, per se. I remember when we had to do reference videos, we had to videotape ourselves because there was nothing else. Now, there is YouTube. There is reference on anything! There are computer animation classes online. Where I am now, it makes me appreciate where I started. It was so high tech, it allowed us to be creative. We were doing our best and it looked great! 

As the company grew and technology got better, art and technology crossed over. We’re hiring technical people who are artistic and artistic people who are great at technical stuff. The tools have gotten better. The world is your oyster now. Sometimes it feels like there are too many choices now. Back then, there was an excitement about applying my art. Now, there are so many ways to do something, it comes down to “is the story good?” I’m trying to find my creativity again. When we were limited, we were always trying to make it about the art. Now, the limitation are no longer there. I’m at a place where I appreciate all the amazing stuff at Pixar, and I’m trying to find the simplicity of my art again.

[33:55] Allan: It’s pretty overwhelming nowadays! I used to tell people I didn’t keep up with hardware. Computer art has so much new technology, it’s hard to keep up with it. There is this constantly growing industry: VR, MR, feature films, tv! That shows the peak that it’s at. It’s no longer a specialized industry. I had IKEA reach out to me because they wanted to streamline their product. The industry has flourished in so many ways!

Gini: I remember when we were using computers in [advertising] and things were going to be done in-house. The things we were doing by hand, it’s all done on the computer now. It’s kind of crazy! I know I still love the creativity of design. I had a friend who introduced me to a couple that needed a logo. I agreed to do it because it was such an old-school thing. I loved designing that logo! Graphic design is also so different now. You have to know all these color terms on the computer. I would have to go back to school to learn all those new tools.

[37:35] Allan: Just to save these file formats: “Use a PNG, or a TIFF.” I’ve started feeling this a lot later: In the beginning, you start out as a generalist. Bit by bit, you get put into one category. And at a certain point, you have to relearn everything again. I’m finding myself going back to the basics and having fun and being an artist again. You have this arc where you end up where you started — but with more experience behind you. What to date is your most favorite project to work on?

Gini: I’ve been fortunate enough to have a hand in a lot of Pixar films. But as we grew and the frequency of our films coming out increased, we started to leap frog. Before we would finish a film together and move onto to the next one together. Now that I’m in a Lead role, I have to start on a project in its early stages.

Usually, you’re working on something for 3-5 years. I believe, Ratatouille went on for 10 years because of all the story changes. I was doing a lot of leadership pre-production stuff. It was exciting. Coco was my biggest project as a Lead. After that, I realized I really missed animating.

What I enjoy the most is the character animation, the character aspect of it. Finding Nemo was my favorite project as an animator. I’m drawn to character-driven stories. Dory was one of our most amazing character designs. She can’t remember anything after 5 minutes! That kind of character quirk was so interesting to me. Dory was the epitome of the most interesting character. Now that I’ve been in the industry for 20 years, I’m more drawn to that; not even the beauty of animation. Sometimes, I won’t even care about where a story takes me. I remember Dory being near and dear to my heart.

[43:00] Allan: This has been so great to get your insight into your career! Thank you for taking the time to chat!

Gini: Thank you for inviting me! I’m honored to share my story. I appreciate it.

[43:27] Allan: I look forward to catching up at the IAMAG in Paris, in March! If anyone wanted to find out more about you, where would they go?

Gini: Thanks for taking the time to chat!

[43:33] Allan: Absolutely!


I want to thank Gini for taking the time to chat. I will be back next week with some solo Episodes on the mindset of entrepreneur. There will be a lot of great content in that last Episode of 2018. (I might do some bonus Episodes reflecting on this year because it’s definitely been an interesting year.)

Until then, please share this Episode. I love doing this Podcast because of the impact that it makes on your careers. It would mean the world to me. This is a non-profit Podcast but I find it so rewarding.

I will back next year. Until then —

Rock on!


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