Marigold Muppala speaks at USC SIGGRAPH Student Chapter
Marigold Muppala, DreamWorks Animation Studios

Marigold Muppala speaks at USC SIGGRAPH Student Chapter
Liron Topaz speaks at USC SIGGRAPH Student Chapter
Liron Topaz, DreamWorks Animation Studios

Liron Topaz speaks at USC SIGGRAPH Student Chapter
Hank Driskill speaks at USC SIGGRAPH Student Chapter
Hank Driskill, Walt Disney Animation Studios

USC SIGGRAPH industry panel

Hank Driskill speaks at USC SIGGRAPH Student Chapter
Hank Driskill speaks at USC SIGGRAPH Student ChapterUSC SIGGRAPH industry panel


April 23, 2015


Mr. Driskill and Ms. Muppala were in conversation before the panel so, seeing Mr. Topaz free, I talked to him a little while the students waited in line for their food. They were serving Chipotle.

I said I liked the campus and was sorry they were losing it. Media had reported on this, not clarifying that they had signed a long term lease.

“Oh, that’s good. I like the ducklings. . . and the ice cream machine. . . it’s really pretty there.” I’d been to Disney and Pixar and that was nice, but DreamWorks had a crazy college campus feel to it and everyone ate together. Even Mr. Katzenberg and Mr. del Toro could be seen in the sunlit plaza, where people played games on the lawn and a BBQ was going—I can’t tell if this was everyday because that seems crazy. What I mean is no one seemed bored by it. People seemed happy.

I was glad to hear they were staying, but I wondered if it was the same place as I remember. People seem to delight in discussing its imminent demise. And I remember how William Morris used to be and how different it is now as WME as far as a community.

I don’t watch animation if I can avoid it— as a professional, it’s not fun to watch what you’re not working or even auditioning for. But DreamWorks is the exception. I root for them. And that’s as someone who bought Disney stock in the low $20s and at least knows someone who works at Pixar.

Part of it is potential. I could see DreamWorks telling more the kind of stories I could identify with. I remember laughing when I saw the Home trailer. The protagonist was earnest, but a social outsider, and a bit of a spaz. The kind of hero whose worth or status is not a given at the beginning, and in fact the lack of is part of the obstacle.

Okay, having gone on about DreamWorks and their utopia, the Disney folks I’ve been meeting have been nice, too. Including Mr. Driskill. It is clear he loves his work and takes pride in the present and hopeful for the future of the company, one he grew up admiring. He talked about starting out himself with a degree in computer science and volunteering at SIGGRAPH. I can see why he was successful at networking, something I’m not sure I’m good at and asked for advice on. He’s good at one on one, reassuring without being patronizing, prompt with emails, personable but professional. I asked if he knew Mr. Millstein and he said, of course, he’s the president of the studio. I replied, something along the lines of, oh, well, I don’t know, maybe he isn’t that involved. Maybe he works from a terra cotta tower and just cracks a whip once in a while. But he does do stuff which is nice to hear since he seemed like a personable fellow himself. Knowing I would in no way be considered to voice a Disney feature, I had asked Mr. Millstein for general actor advice. He looked at me a little like, that’s kind of a random question. And I said, “I’m sure you went to school with some actors, what did they do that was right?” He went to USC. And he gave good advice. Which I remember and practice.

Ms. Muppala’s presentation was more technical. Which would make sense since she works in the production technology department. Of most interest to me was their proprietary software and how it’s developed to make life easier for their animators. It sounded like it’s about increasing efficiency. Knowing nearly nothing about that stuff, I’ll guess it’s streamlining or triaging commands to maximize processing power. I sense it’s different from RenderMan which seems like a skin or scattering, while what they’re talking about is action or physics. I’m telling myself I’m just making stuff up now so we’ll move on. But good for them. Building a better mousetrap.

Mr. Topaz addressed the storytelling aspect. He told us about his SIGGRAPH experience and relayed John Lasseter’s advice of telling stories you want to hear. It’s a truism, but a good one to be reminded of when too often I hear, you should do this, you should do that, chasing trends and blips and stuff that doesn’t really matter. Mr. Topaz is a lead animator, and a teacher, and came prepared with a progression of scenes, from pre-viz of a gridded cube with flying gray tiles to a fully rendered—visually and aurally—scene of swooping dragons attacking a densely populated viking village. He talked about how when given the assignment, with very little time and a lot of expectation, at first wondering how he was going to accomplish it (nice to hear instead of, oh, yeah had it in the bag), he broke it down to moving simple shapes and built from there.

Okay, I have an audition to record. So I leave you here.