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Interview: Tod Polson (Part 1)

Tod Polson received both his BFA and MFA from The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Between degrees, Tod apprenticed under the Oscar winning team of Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble. He has worked extensively as a director, designer and teacher, helping develop a variety of projects all over the world, including the Oscar-nominated feature The Secret of Kells, and the Golden Globe-nominated The Book Of Life. Tod is one of our AniMissions guest instructors.

Q: You probably get asked this a lot, but when was it that you knew growing up that you wanted to be an artist? And when did you decide to go into animation as a career?

A: Like most kids I was drawing as soon as I could pick up a pencil. Writing stories and making little illustrated books and comics gave the art purpose. My mom kept a lot of the early illustrated books I made all the way back to kindergarten and first grade. It wasn’t until high school that I began experimenting with animation on 8mm film. In my first year of high school I started a comic strip called “Freshman Norman” for the school paper. It explored the life of an average high school student that had bigger than average ambitions.

During my final year of high school I ran a short lived comic strip called “The Sticks” in our local Wyoming newspaper. The strip explored the Mormon idea of ruling your own planet and becoming equal to God after death and how terrifying that was to me. In the strip the world is ruled by a rancher named Chuck who just happened to luck into getting planet earth. The paper got a number of heated letters about the strip and it ended as I went off to college.

I studied a year of design basics at Otis Parsons school of design in Los Angeles. But even then my fine art was sequential. I would project images on walls with a series of painted images that would tell stories. It took awhile for the teachers at Otis to convince me that I was actually doing animation. That’s when a teacher introduced me to the experimental animation department at CalArts. Here was a place where people were painting on glass, or animating chewing gum wrappers. It was all very exciting stuff! I was rejected twice from the experimental department but then finally accepted in the character animation department. In spite of that, Jules Engel, the head of the experimental department took me under his wing. It was then I realized that someone could have a career in the animation world.

At 12 years old I had gone forward on a call to missions during vacation Bible school. I felt God was calling me to do something, but I had no idea what. In the late 1980s early 1990s there weren’t a lot of opportunities for an artist to serve in missions. At least nothing that I knew of. After graduating from animation school I inquired about becoming a missionary with the IMB. At my interview I was told that the best way to use animation for missions was to get a masters degree and try to start something myself. Since then it’s been a struggle balancing my two passions, art and missions.

Q: What was the atmosphere like at CalArts in the 1990’s?

A: There was a lot of energy, excitement, and optimism at CalArts in the early 1990s. There was a sudden resurgence in the animation industry. Lots of animation newbies and a lot of the old pioneers still hanging around sharing gems of wisdom. It was an amazing time!

I graduated from CalArts in 1993, which at the time was very unusual. Most students left to get jobs in their second year of school or even earlier and never got a degree. Disney was just having its Neo-Renaissance and needed artists. DreamWorks was just being formed and was also looking for people. There was demand for animated TV shows by places such as Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon’s Nicktoons both of which had been launched while we were in school. Both the Power Puff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory were short student films from classmates. The Simpsons was just really taking off and needed artists. Pixar was developing a new film called Toy Story and needed people to move up to San Francisco. Honestly this wasn’t a very appealing option for a lot of us. If you look at computer animation from the early 1990’s, it was really, really ugly. I stayed at CalArts, but was helping design and animate a number of commercials after school, weekends and summers. In the autumn of 1993 I was hired by Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble to work on a new series of Looney Tunes. After a few years I went back to CalArts to get my masters degree, which I received in 1999.

“There was a lot of energy, excitement, and optimism at Cal Arts in the early 1990s… Lots of animation newbies and a lot of the old pioneers still hanging around sharing gems of wisdom. It was an amazing time!”

Q: Tell us about your relationship with Maurice Noble, and how you became a “Noble Boy.”

A: Maurice and I hit it off from the very first day we met. It was a strange but familiar connection that I’ve only experienced a few times in my life. We both had a passion for the folk arts and folk tales from all over the world. We traveled to so many places together collecting stories and memories. In the mid 1990’s we started an animation consulting company and we were pitching our folktale series Noble Tales.

Q: When was it that you decided to write your book, “The Noble Approach?”

A: The Noble Approach was a project that Maurice had wanted to put together for many years. He had actually started putting thoughts down in the 1960’s and 70’s. After coming out of retirement in the early 1990’s he saw a real lack of solid animation design education for young people. Because Maurice’s eyesight was failing in his later years, I would write things down for him as he found inspiration. After Maurice passed, I included excerpts from interviews and more personal experiences from myself and others about training under him.

To be continued in next week’s blog post…

- Dave H.

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