Breaking Into Film

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Nathan Matsuda '03 combines tech skills and creativity in his quest to direct movies
 From the fall 2009 Caller
In the animated film Wall-E, the robot protagonist glides among towers of trash. On those trash towers, scraps of paper flutter in the breeze. These bits of paper were brought to life by Nathan Matsuda ’03, who worked as an intern at Pixar Studios. Although it’s a small detail in a big film, Nathan’s work at Pixar is a huge step toward his lifelong dream of directing feature films.
“Every step of the film process is now digital— sound, editing, and effects. The entire film is made on a computer— and it all works because of an absurdly small set of engineering principles,” says Nathan. His painstaking work at Pixar—and all the other movie work he’s done since—relied heavily on his computer science education, which began at Catlin Gabel with four years of formative classes from Andrew Merrill. Nathan moved that passion along as a computer science major at Northwestern University.
At Northwestern Nathan directed a cast that included celebrity actors and did visual effects for Hangar No. 5, a student short about a metallic monster hidden in a military warehouse. He worked unbelievably long hours—14 hours a day for months—on the film, which went on to win several awards. He’s got the stamina, the drive, and the stubbornness, he says, to bring to life his dream of directing.
Making his dream real meant living in Los Angeles, so Nathan moved last year to Culver City. His talent was recognized immediately. Less than an hour after emailing his visual effects reel to five studios, he received two job offers. He took a visual effects job at Zoic Studios, because they support his goal to direct and will let him take the time he needs to get there.
The path for a young feature film director often leads through commercial and music videos, and a search for work often takes time. “You have to keep many balls in the air hoping you’ll catch one of them. The signal-to-noise ratio is low: there’s lots of chatter, and you have to follow faint little threads of connections,” he says. With the guidance of a manager, Nathan meets weekly with different studios. He’s working with writers on three feature scripts and has landed several jobs already, including directing a web pilot for a potential series.
What will further Nathan’s success is that he understands the roles of both the technical side and the creative side in the art of making movies. “As director, I bring skills in editing, sound, production, camera, and visual effects, which are the bases of filmmaking,” he says. “It’s a collection of highly technical trades that have to be nudged to create a story.” Nathan’s own story will be interesting to watch as it unfolds toward his goal—as it surely will.