Interview with Cinematographer Adam Santelli – “13: The Musical”, “Descendants 3”, “Freaky Friday”, and More!

When Adam Santelli was 13-years-old, he dreamed of making music videos. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with the cinematography and director of photography whose start in music videos led to working on some feel-good musicals including Disney Channel’s Freaky Friday, Descendants 3, and Netflix’s 13: The Musical.

(Adam Santelli, Netflix, Disney)

(Adam Santelli, Netflix, Disney)

Alex: When you were 13, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Adam Santelli:  When I was 13, MTV just came out. And there were two videos on it and then a bunch of stuff with astronauts. And so, I think I was obsessed with MTV. That's all I did was watch MTV. And I just remember my mom freaking out and I was just like, "No, I'm going to make music videos. That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to make music videos." That's where I saw myself at 30. Something with music. I was always into music, and I shot all my friends who had bands. I shot all their album covers back then because we did a lot of making of our own albums and printing out that kind of stuff. I always thought I'd be involved in music. And music videos are just kind of where I saw myself and where I actually ended up.

Alex: How did you first get involved in cinematography?

Adam Santelli: The long story, I was in a Jello commercial. I grew up in Ohio and the movie company came to town and made a commercial. And my mom tried out for it and we all got in it. And I just remember seeing the DP [Director of Photogaphy] and just thinking, "I want to be that guy. That's the guy I want to be." He was the coolest guy. Everybody liked him. Everyone just was like, "Oh, what do you need us to do?" And he had his little light meter. It was a Spectra. And I remember holding his little light meter over the Jello and dipping it into the Cool Whip on purpose. I was a little kid. I was in third grade. And I just thought to myself, "I want to be that guy." And it took a long time, but I finally got around to it, and I did it.

Alex: You lived your dream of working on music videos. Would you say that experience led to you being the right Director of Photography for 13: The Musical?

Adam Santelli: Yeah. I have such a comfort level when it comes to shooting a performance or talking about shooting a performance or knowing the tools that we have to use to shoot it. And so, definitely, in that regard, it did. Dealing with kids, a kids musical compared to some of the Snoop Dog videos I did or some of the other ones, it's a lot different because you only have a short amount of time with the kids, so you really have to be on your game. And so, that makes it a little bit different, but also, just having all those tools to pull out made it a lot easier and a lot smoother. And Tamra [Davis, director of 13: The Musical] is cut from the same cloth. She came out of music videos herself. At the same time I was doing them, she was doing them. And so, we had a really easy way to talk about what we wanted to get done and how to do it.

Alex: Does working on projects with minors limit the hours for adults behind the scenes? Is it easier?

Adam Santelli: No, it's an absolute nightmare. I won't even pull the punches on that. I mean, the problem is that the kids on it and they're all kids. Some of them are young adults, especially on the Descendants and on Freaky Friday, they were a little older, so they could stay on the set a little longer. But when their time stops, they are taken off the set. There is a person standing next to you with a stopwatch. And whether you have the most beautiful shot and the sun is in the perfect position, no one cares. That young adult will be taken away and sent home. And rightly so, their lives should not be predicated to our dreams of making movies. They should be there for a set amount of time and they should go home. They have to go to school too. There's a lot of things that happen. In a sense, the second that kid lands we are told. We will start lighting with the stand-ins. And an assistant director will come over and say, "Number one has landed." And the clock starts and their time starts on the day and it will end in eight hours. It will not go past eight hours. If you do not make your day, you come back tomorrow. I mean, it is really that cut and dry. But in saying that, I've been very fortunate and every kid that I've worked with has been on their marks, knew their dialogue, knew their choreography, knew the song. You were never waiting on them. It was always us.

Alex: 13: The Musical is the second stage musical turned movie musical that you've been DP on, the other being Freaky Friday. Do you look at the original stage productions when you’re determining how you're going to approach these projects? Does that inform your decision-making at all?

Adam Santelli: It's never apples for apples, but there are so many talented people. I've been very fortunate. I've gotten to work on two projects that had extremely talented people attached to them. You want to see where they put their time and their energy into and their research. On both of them, I went back and luckily enough, we have YouTube now and stuff like that. And you can watch the productions and things. And I did my research on both of them. But they are different in a sense. Obviously, the theatrical stuff is a little bit more prosenium style. And we try not to do that, even though I know on 13, that some of the stuff Tamra wanted to do that way. But a lot of research and listening to the songs and stuff. And on 13, they did a lot of high school renditions of it. High schools would go off and do 13 again. And so I watched a lot of that.

Alex: Where was the film shoot for 13: The Musical?

Adam Santelli: We did Toronto and New York. I've spent a lot of time in Canada working. And I've always had a lot of success with the crews up there. They're just fantastic. Toronto and it was an insanely hot boggy Canada, for some reason when we were shooting. And shooting there was like shooting in New Orleans or something like that. It was unbelievably hot. But those kids, they just never stopped. I mean, they'd go outside and start singing and dancing. You'd have to basically say, "Please stop. You have to take a break." No matter what those guys would just never stop. They were very inspirational, for sure.

Alex: I want to talk about Descendants 3 a little bit. You took over as DP on a franchise that already had its visual language established. It already had two films in the canon. On a film like that, are you just trying to model what's come before? Do you have much creative freedom as the DP?

Adam Santelli: That's a tough question. Mark Irwin shot Descendants 2. And he was supposed to shoot Descendants 3 and his schedule, they just went long on his movie before that and he wasn't able to do it. I stepped in. And I am a massive Mark Irwin fan. I don't know if you're familiar with him, but he did Videodrome, which from my generation, is the movie. It was great to be able to talk to him and listen to his ideas and how he saw it. But Kenny Ortega is a very, very passionate filmmaker and he has a vision. And you jump on his train and you ride it. In that sense, he is the driving force in that. And so, I think a lot of the films have a lot of resemblance because of Kenny Ortega. It's more Kenny or the directors usually run the show on how prep goes. And Kenny Ortega, though he's unbelievably busy, because he's choreographing it as well and rewriting it and doing storyboards, it just never stops with him. You're ready to go at a moment's notice. Whenever he has time for you, you take it. And he's such a visionary. In that sense, it was easy shoes to step into. Though those are very complicated movies because of all the special effects and the kids' times. And you are all over the place. I mean we did a lot of sets, but he also has this, "I want to shoot in real locations and I want to do big dance numbers in them." And some of those locations would take three or four days just to get the gear to them. That was a really fun job in the sense that I had this hero of mine that I got to step in for and then to work with Kenny Ortega was fascinating. And just as a side note, I shot Dove Cameron's first music video. I've known Dove since she was a kid. And I shot and directed Sofia Carson's first music video. And so I had such a comfort level with those two. But I knew both their moms because they were both kids when I did it. And so, I knew their family. It was just such a comfort level to come in and step in on that job. It was great.

Alex: That’s interesting that you got to work with both Dove Cameron and Sofia Carson when they were younger and then reunited with them on Descendents 3.

Adam Santelli: I've had this three times now, seeing those kids like Dove doing her first video and Sofia when they're actual children. And then seeing them as young adults. And having that experience of coming back down, must be like ten years, seven years, something like that. And coming back to them and seeing them now, instead of being like, "What should I do?" They're like, "This is what I want you to do for me." It's such a great experience. And I had that same experience with Jason [Maybaum] on Freaky Friday. He was so young when he started the film. And the other kids in that film were adults. He really didn't have anybody to hang out with, except for us. And we were all 50-year-old men in the camera department. He wanted to be a DP. And so, we were like, "Okay, if it's okay with the on-set teacher, when you're not working, you can slate." And that kid, by the end of the show had a walkie-talkie, a slate. He had all those tools. In fact, we had to slow him down and say, "Listen, you're here to act. Sometimes you're going to have to go act. And if you start focusing too much on the camera department, they'll take you away from us. We love that you're helping us, but you really have to focus on your acting too." He was such a great kid. I loved him. And a friend of mine is directing a show that he does. He's a lot older now and he says, "Yeah, he still talks about it. He still talks about the good times we had on that set." We had such a good time on that job. It was so funny. He made that job fun.

Alex: I've always enjoyed watching Jason Maybaum on Raven's Home.

Adam Santelli: Yeah. And when I worked with him, he's probably one of the nicest people, one of the nicest kids. He was just such a nice kid. And yeah, I can't wait till he's a big star and I can go back and see him and say, "Do you remember the time?" It was pretty funny.

Alex: Or an award-winning cinematographer. And you can be like, "I mentored you."

Adam Santelli: Yeah, let's hope.

Alex: Speaking of slating, the end credits of 13: The Musical feature the cast clicking their own slates. Was that something that became routine on that set? Or was it just to get those moments for an end credit reel?

Adam Santelli: I believe that was Tamra's idea. And actually the majority of those were shot on the last day. Obviously, some of them weren't. You can easily tell which ones were and which ones weren't. But a lot of it was shot on the last day of principal photography. And so it was very emotional… I was on the movie the whole time. And so, to watch those kids slate it, it was really fun… That last dance number was supposed to be the credits. And I just remember we shot it. And I remember looking at Tamra and I said, "They'll never put credits over this. This is too good of a number. They'll never do it." And so, it was nice to see that they didn't and that they had the slate stuff at the end. It was really cute. And they were a great bunch of kids. They were such a nice bunch of kids. And it was really a pleasure working with them and following them on Instagram now. Every time we post something about 13, I'll post something about it or they post something about it. All of a sudden, all those kids start liking it and post, "Oh, great job." Or they'll see this and I'll post it on my Instagram. And they'll all comment on it. And it's just, they're just such a nice group of people.

Alex: 13: The Musical doesn't necessarily look like a special effects film, but I'm always surprised nowadays by what is actually a visual effect. How many effects would you say there were in that film or how involved was that?

Adam Santelli: There were some. There weren't supposed to be any. The train at the beginning is visual effects. We couldn't have the kids on the train nor could we have the camera anywhere near the train when it was driving by. That was all visual effects. I don't think we really pulled out any big green screens or anything like that. The majority of the visual effects were removing things. And these kind of numbers, what ends up happening, especially when you have 13 kids, they get so spread out and they're all dancing. And if you can think about the cinema, when everyone's coming up in that dusk time shot, well, there were a lot of lights all over the place and all those shots and the visual. Those kind of visual effects where they had to pull stuff out. The marquee was a visual effect, stuff like that. But not like Descendants 3 where the entire backgrounds were being replaced and things like that. I'm a big fan of doing green screen or usually blue screen outside windows so that I don't have to fight the day exteriors. I do a lot of that stuff. And I do it as much as they'll let me because battling that sun, that sun is always moving. And so, I'll throw a blue screen out the window and I don't have to fight the changing sun outside. It just makes life a lot easier. There's a lot of that kind of stuff too.

Alex: When you were 13, you were looking at music videos and wanting to get into the production side. If you were to visit a middle school classroom, how would you explain what a director of photography does?

Adam Santelli: Oh yeah, that's a tricky one. Basically, we are in charge of doing all the photography. Anything that is laid down onto the film or onto a digital format, that we're responsible for it. And it changes at different levels depending on the director. The director really leads the show on how much input you have. You have a ton of input on lighting and stuff like that. But in a sense, some directors will say, "I want a medium shot this way." And it is your job to figure out how to do an amazing-looking medium shot this way that holds 13 kids, while they're singing and dancing. And then you have to light it. Or you have to take the light away, the sun away so that it's not changing or things like that. That in general is my job. And then if it’s a dance performance, I make decisions on how many cameras we are going to need to cover it. I'll sit down with the AD [assistant director] and say, "How much time do you have?" And he's like, "Those kids can dance for three hours." And I'll say, "We need five cameras or six cameras." And then we bring in the right amount of crew to handle all those cameras. We'll place them around per the conversations I had with the director. Then I'll work with my gaffer and light it all. And then I work with the key grip and remove all the lighting the gaffer put in that we don't like. And then we shoot it for three hours. And it has to be exactly the way we talked about it.

Alex: Do you often find kids who are interested in becoming a cinematographer or director of photography?

Adam Santelli: Here's a funny thing is that I have a lot of nieces and nephews. And those guys are dialed in because of TikTok and because of Instagram and because they make their little videos and all the other social media, they know. Every time I hear a producer say, "Oh, it's a kids' movie. They won't care." I'm like, "Oh no, they will care because we're mimicking them now. They're not mimicking us." A lot of the stuff that we did in 13, I'm a huge TikTok fan, so I'm obsessed with it. But mimicked what I saw in TikTok or what Tamra saw, or Jamal saw. In a sense, we are tastemakers, but we go to the real tastemakers, which are those 13-year-old kids sitting in that classroom. They're the ones who we're making this movie for. We have to understand what they're interested in. And really now. And I think this is why kids' movies are so good right now is that we have all these outlets to watch what they're interested in. Where when I was a kid and you'd go to watch the original Escape to Witch Mountain, there were no adults listening or watching what kids were interested in. Now that's all we do as adults when we're making a kids' show is we are watching what they are referencing. Because one, it's easy, it's available now. And two, because they're doing so many interesting things. I think, and going back to your question, it is easy to explain to them my job. What I think that a lot of people don't understand is that my job changes. Depending on the show, and depending on the director, it's always changing. And some directors will be very controlling and some directors, like Tamra Davis, will want to hear what you have to say, hear your opinions, talk about it, work it out and then make her decision.

Alex: In addition to family-friendly projects, you also work on shows like Fear the Walking Dead and Chop Shop that are aimed at a very different audience. Where do you prefer to live in the types of projects that you take on?

Adam Santelli: I consider myself a traditional cinematographer. And that is if it's a good project, I'm the guy for the job. And I'm going to learn, I'll figure out what makes it look the best. Whether it’s Fear the Walking Dead, or Descendants, or Freaky Friday, or anything like that, a Perfect Circle music video, or a Snoop Dogg music video or whatever it is. That's my job as a cinematographer to figure that out. I truly consider myself a director of photography. I'm not the guy that has a certain style that, "Oh, if you want somebody who shoots car commercials, you got to go to Adam Santelli." I'm the guy that's like, "Oh, you want someone to shoot a musical?" I'm going to go do my research. I'm going to watch it. I'm going to listen to the music and I'm going to come up with ideas and how to make that work. Yeah. I consider myself a traditional cinematographer. And all back in the day, the way that cinematographers were brought up back then.

Alex: Are you able to talk about what's next for you?

Adam Santelli: Yeah. I just finished a job, a Christmas movie. And I can't talk about it, but it's going to be really fun. But yeah, it was an event for sure. Christmas in August, in the hottest city in the country. I just feel bad for the actors. I really do. They're out wearing sweaters and scarves and hats. Heat makes people angry.

Alex: Thank you so much, Adam. I appreciate your time. And thank you for answering all my questions.

Adam Santelli: Absolutely. I'm glad you took the time.

13: The Musical is now streaming on Netflix. You can also check out some of Adam Santelli’s work on Disney+ in the films Upside-Down Magic, Descendents 3, and Freaky Friday.

Sign up for Disney+ or the Disney Streaming Bundle (Disney+, ESPN+, and ad-supported Hulu) now
Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).