Stephen F. Austin State University

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How to Train An Animator: SFA degree launches grad's career in feature films

July 16, 2014 - Daniel P. Smith, contributing writer
Polk, a native of Lufkin, has been working at the 3D animation giant DreamWorks since 2012, contributing to several films, including "How to Train Your Dragon," "Turbo" and "Kung Fu Panda."
Whether sitting in a movie theater with his professional colleagues, his family or complete strangers, SFA graduate David Polk is relishing the response of audiences to "How to Train Your Dragon 2," the DreamWorks Animation feature film that dropped onto the big screen this summer.

A background character and cycles animator with DreamWorks, Polk helped construct the "Dragon" sequel's excitement and emotional beat with an array of visual effects. Polk calls the opportunity to see theatergoers' responses firsthand "the real thrill" of his professional work.

"It's amazing to think that the stuff I've touched goes on the screen and then travels around the world," the 36-year-old says.

Of course, Polk's journey from the laid-back vibe of East Texas to the glitz and glam of Hollywood did not happen by accident. Landing at DreamWorks, the award-winning creative force behind animated blockbusters like "Shrek" and "Madagascar," stands testament to Polk's curious mind, consistent self-discovery and commitment to his craft.

A native of Lufkin, Polk arrived at SFA in 1997 as a skilled young artist eager to explore professional opportunities where he could make the most of his artistic talents.

Rather than choosing pastels and paintbrushes, Polk made the strategic decision to study computer graphics, believing that websites, films and other computer-driven works would offer the best employment opportunities in an increasingly digital world.

As an SFA undergrad in 1999, Polk began an intense, four-semester course with veteran art professor Dr. Michael Roach, an experience that allowed Polk to focus on illustrative and interactive media. At the time, the new "Star Wars" film and Disney's "Toy Story" had pioneered the still-evolving field of 3D animation, sparking the interest of hopeful animators across the country, including Polk.

"It was pretty mind-blowing stuff," Polk says. "There was a lot of excitement about the fact that all of a film's characters would be visual characters with voice actors."

Though SFA had 3D animation software packages and Polk recalls one classmate "diving in and beginning modeling work," the school had no structured format for teaching the novel field at the time. Even so, that modest introduction piqued Polk's interest and allowed him to see the blossoming merger of animation and computers.

"Dr. Roach introduced us to a professional world out there I wanted to know more about, and that was the springboard for me wanting to pursue 3D animation," Polk said.
Following his graduation from SFA in 2001, Polk picked up computer graphics gigs around Lufkin before discovering Animation Mentor, the world's premier online academy for animators. For 18 months with Animation Mentor, Polk developed his knowledge of 3D animation and sharpened his craft.

Then, he earned his first big break: an apprenticeship opportunity with Rhythm & Hues in Los Angeles, an Oscar-winning character animation and visual effects studio for feature films, commercials and theme parks. He left Lufkin and headed for Hollywood.

During an intense one-month run with Rhythm & Hues, Polk worked alongside the firm's animation director and quickly learned that his performance was a trial run capable of driving or derailing his professional ambitions - and he was determined to seize the opportunity.

"This was a real-world situation with no do-overs. You had to perform under pressure and take advantage of the shot you were given," Polk said. "If (Rhythm & Hues) liked you, they hired you."

Polk impressed and, in 2007, Rhythm & Hues tabbed him to work on the "Alvin and the Chipmunks" movie franchise. He returned to Texas for one month before packing his things and heading back to L.A., a process as exciting as it was overwhelming, Polk remembers.

"Everything seemed to be happening so fast, but here I was getting a chance to work on something I knew and recognized from my childhood," says Polk, who remembers listening to Chipmunks' albums in his grandparents' home as a child. "I knew I wanted to make the most of this new opportunity."

The deeper Polk ventured into the world of 3D animation, the more intrigued and invested he became in the form's possibilities. Long admiring the artistic side of character animation, he began to appreciate how other performance-enhancing details, such as motion and sound, cultivate a more dynamic on-screen performance.

"I learned how rewarding it was to pull out the nuances to create more emotional energy, and that motivated me to do more," Polk said.

Following his work on "Chipmunks," Polk lent his animation talents to a range of projects, such as the popular "Resident Evil 5" video game, as well as additional films, including "G-Force," "Arthur Christmas" and "Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas."

In 2012, buoyed by the fateful mixture of timing and talent, Polk received a career-altering call. From hundreds of candidates, he had landed a position with DreamWorks, a giant force in the animation world.

"Once you get inside and see what goes on, how many people are jockeying for an open position, you see it's a big deal to get through that door and find a spot (with DreamWorks)," Polk says. "Everything came together at the same time for me, and I'm grateful for that."

Polk joined DreamWorks' crowd animation department, a unit charged with creating the motions and actions that fill a scene. He began working on the film "Turbo." After a few months, he gained his next assignment: the sequel of "How to Train Your Dragon," the wildly popular film that follows a Viking teen's quest to become a dragon slayer.

For Polk, it was the next step on his professional journey - and easily the largest.

"There's no denying ("Dragon") was the biggest project I had been fortunate enough to work on," he says. "When you fight for so long in this industry, it's fun when you get to work on the big projects you know will be seen by millions of people. That's energizing stuff."

With "How to Train Your Dragon 2" now complete, Polk turns his attention to another heralded DreamWorks hit, "Kung Fu Panda." The third installment of that celebrated film franchise is set to hit theaters in late 2015.

Thereafter, Polk does not know what his future holds in a competitive industry as filled with the glamour of red-carpet events as it is with the grit of grueling 60-hour workweeks. Unlike other professional fields with defined advancement tracks, Polk says animation has no set path. While some animators hope to work on large commercial projects at major studios, others aspire to be directors or production supervisors. Some, meanwhile, have visions of establishing their own studio.

"My journey here certainly hasn't been a straight line. It's been a consistent process of discovery, and each experience has served as a springboard to the next," he says. "Ultimately, I just want to continue to make great films, whether it be as an animator, a supervising animator or even a director."

And that's a mission that will continually return Polk to theaters, where he can sit alongside audiences and know he's touched work that entertains.

"To see people laughing and enjoying something that you helped create is exactly why you do this in the first place."