David Wolter is one of the kindest people I have had the pleasure to speak with. From the short gallery talk he gave in the morning through the interview I had with him later that afternoon, his genuine pleasure and passion for storytelling through art was obvious. Throughout the interview, Wolter not only answered all of my questions thoughtfully, he asked some intriguing questions of his own. This Q&A is a little longer, since all his responses were so astute I had trouble condensing the interview.
Rachel: Can you tell me a little about yourself as an artist?
David: That’s a very difficult question to answer, I think. I access art through my identity as a craftsman. So, I see myself in the grand tradition of cartoonists and storyboard artists. There’s this great kind of American tradition – of unfortunately all white males – in the 50s wearing a collared shirt and a tie, and an apron and a little visors and sitting at a desk and drawing cartoons. I see myself as an extension of that tradition. The word cartooning for me, as I define it – it’s misleading for a lot of people but whatever – for me it means you write and you draw both. It’s drawing as a form of writing. So, being a story artist in animation is to me a natural extension of that kind of mentality of ‘I do both of these things.’ I’m not just an illustrator, I’m not just a writer. I love both things. One of the few places where those things are combined is what I do, which I love.
What made you start drawing and how have you developed over time?
I think newspaper comics were my first. They were so accessible, there’s the paper, and oh, there’s drawings in the back. From there it was the library, which in my mind is the crowning achievement of Western civilization, the fact that libraries exist. I love them. All of my first exposures to cartoons and comic books were through the local library. You know, the “Garfield” collections, and like “Mad Magazine” when I was way too young to understand it. The planets aligned when I was 12, and someone started a cartooning school in Colorado Springs where I grew up, which is not an artistic place at all. I was able to take classes on comic books and cartooning and it was super formative at that age to see adults be like, “Hey you can do this for a living, why don’t you come learn how.”
How have your desires and goals changed? Or, how have you gotten from where you started to where you are now?
I think that every human being has a responsibility to be the person they’re made to be. Do you know what I mean? Luckily we live in the first world so we have the opportunity to pursue those things. I think it was Plato – don’t quote me, but I guess I’m on the record now – that said “If everybody would do what they loved, there would be no illness in the world.” I’m not that naive but I do think that. How many people do you know who hate what they do and it’s awful to be around them? I have a wife and two kids now, and I want to give them life, and part of that process for me is being as true as I can to the person I want to be. And directing, frankly, doesn’t feel compatible with a life in which I’m there for my family.
I guess my secondary identity – so cartooning is one, but that’s the foundation – the other identity is a storyteller. I just want to tell stories, and I want to make up my own stories, and I want to create characters that people connect with. So, going away to the woods and writing a book is just the cheap version – cheaper version, more affordable version – of having a team of artists creating a movie for years. Not that it’s cheap, but it’s just the more affordable version.
You talked about this a little already. But, do you feel like you have a responsibility as an artist, whatever you might define ‘responsibility’ to mean?
Yes. I think it’s the flipside of the privilege. A lot of people are like “Oh, it’s so cool that you do that,” because it’s kind of a “sexy” job. When I say I work in animation, I draw cartoons, people are like “Oh, I love cartoons!” It’s fun, and it really is fun a lot of times. And a lot of people want to do it, I think. So, if you’re one of the people who is fortunate enough to work in entertainment or work in a creative field, I think you have a responsibility, and this is probably I would imagine true of journalism as well; you have a responsibility to mean it. To bring your best self to the work as much as you can. In a sense, I think in journalism and storytelling, you’re providing a service to an audience right?
Animated films are, in America…I mean animation in America is a genre, and it shouldn’t be. You know what I mean? You expect a certain kind of film when you see an animated film. And really, what our responsibility is, as America sees it, is to provide things that a family can go to together. They won’t be offended, they might laugh a few times, there’s going to be a couple poop jokes maybe, and there’s going to be talking animals, and that’s what animation is. That’s a drop in the bucket of what it could be, obviously. So, the responsibility we have is we want to tell stories that people can connect with. I feel like storytelling is so much more powerful than the genre of animation as America practices it.
This morning you talked a little bit about “Eyrie.” I must have missed the first part of that conversation, so can you tell me about that project?
It’s just a fancy word that means “Eagle’s Nest.” I grew up next to a castle called Glen Eyrie in Colorado, so that’s where I knew that word from. It’s a short film I did. It was my second, my student film at Cal Arts. I went there for two years. What I loved about Cal Arts is every year it was one filmmaker, one film, so every student makes a film every year. So, I made a film my first year. It was okay. And I made “Eyrie” the second year, and that’s how I got the job at Dreamworks. I also got a Student Academy Award for that, and I also got a Horizon Award from Augie. That’s probably why I’m here talking to you today.
The Horizon Award is an Augustana University award given to alumni who are standouts in their field within 15 years of graduation. It aims to recognize those people for their work.
How has Sioux Falls (or South Dakota) influenced your work?
I think the fact that my formative years happened here…and also I lived in the Twin Cities for a few years after graduation…I think grounded me. I saw working artists at Augie, I saw professors, guys like Jerry Punt who were committed to it, and sort of get into it, and it wasn’t “sexy” but you could tell they were passionate and invested and serious and committed. I mean if you live in the Midwest, it’s really cold a lot of the year, so it creates a…not everyone can do it. I don’t know that I could do it anymore. I think that living here in my formative years kind of steeled me in a way, kind of built in my work ethic and emphasized authenticity to a degree, so that when I got to Burbank all the glitzy Hollywood stuff I kind of don’t care about. Maybe that’s cliché, but it’s kind of my best answer.
You’ve done some amazing work on films (Kung Fu Panda 3 for example). What’s it like to work as an animation artist for Dreamworks?
There are days where I pinch myself, like, “This is my life, this is what I do for a living? This is incredible!” and there are days where I want to quit so bad. Sometimes it’s like I don’t feel like doing this today, I don’t feel like doing what my director wants me to do for the next four days. And that’s the job. That’s the give and take of it.
What can you tell me about your “Mascot Zodiac” project?
I’ve always loved comic books, and decided I wanted to make some. “Mascot Zodiac” is a graphic memoir. Which is, as you know, stories from my life told in a comic book form. They’re specifically focused on my obsession with animals and animal mascots. For whatever reason, that’s dented me in my head, and I’m obsessed with it. I figured out I have like 12 really compelling stories to tell about that phenomenon as it impacts my life, beginning when I was like four years old. I have 12 chapters, and chapter 10 or 11 is about being a Viking. I hope I get to that someday. Right now I only have the first four chapters finished.
David lives with his wife Amanda, two-year-old daughter Emmy and 3-month-old son Zeke near Los Angeles, California. His current personal project is about Emmy and trying to understand her despite how different she is to him. David’s first priority is family, and making sure he stays in touch with his children is a major part of that. Follow his work on Mascot Zodiac on his website. You can also find David on Facebook and Twitter.