Interview with Tod Polson, Animation Film Maker

By AMRITA VALECHA | 11 July, 2011 - 12:48

Tod first studied design at Otis/Parsons, then animation at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal/Arts) under scholarship from the Walt Disney Co. At Cal/Arts, he fell under the mentor-ship of legendary animation designer Jules Engel, eventually garnering the “Student Oscar”, and “Annie award” nomination for his short film, “Al Tudi Tuhak.” After graduation, he worked with the team of Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble. Tod studied under Maurice developing a variety of projects, including the award winning “Noble Tales” short film series. He has worked extensively as a director, designer, and art director, helping develop projects for companies all over the world including: Walt Disney, Warner Bros. and Nickelodeon. In this interview Tod speaks to AnimationXpress Asia Pacific's Amrita Valecha about how he got into direction and his current working experience with Thai companies.
Tell us in something about yourself?
I was born and raised on a cattle ranch in Wyoming. In Wyoming, you have to find creative ways to keep yourself entertained. I believe that's one reason there are so many creative talented people there. Not just artists, but also storytellers, musicians... anything to keep the cold away on those long winter Wyoming nights. My wife and I are currently based in Thailand though we travel for work quite often. I love art, photography, print making, and film... anything interesting and visual.

When and how you decided to be the director?
I just sort of fell into it. As students in the character animation dept at Cal/Arts we all had to make a short film a year. So by the time I graduated from college I already had a few films under my belt. I was lucky that Jules Engel (Disney, UPA, Cal/Arts), head of the experimental dept. was willing to mentor me, even though I wasn't officially in his program. He saw that I was more interested in expressing myself through film, than simply putting together a reel to get a job at Disney's.
Ironically, my big break came my final year of college; Disney was holding a contest to pitch 5 second "bumpers" for a new TV show called "Home Improvement." I submitted, and won! Disney contracted me to direct a number of short pieces for the show. These were experimental pieces, using cut-outs and pencil on paper, whatever worked. From this I got a contract to design and direct some sequences for "Sesame Street" while still in college.
After graduation, I was with a group of guys hired at Chuck Jones Film Productions, and found myself working under Chuck Jones, and Maurice Noble. It was then that I really began to appreciate how well crafted, and how much went into the classic shorts. Timing, design... everything is so well thought out. I studied under Maurice for about 8 years. Maurice and a few of his trainees formed a company called "Noble Tales." We were hoping to create a series of short animated films inspired by stories and cultures from around the world. To support myself I became an overseas supervisor for various TV shows. Usually I would help design a TV show, and then take it overseas, and supervise the production.
I mostly worked in China, Taiwan, and the Philippines. My final overseas TV supervisor position was at Thai Wang films in Bangkok. As I was leaving Thailand, James Wang, head of the studio invited Maurice and me to make a short with his crew... as a sort of training project. After the TV show I left my job, and Maurice and I decided to go to Thailand. Unfortunately, Maurice passed away before everything was ready. My friend, the incredibly talented Mark Oftedal (Toy Story, Monsters Inc.), offered to come help me out for a few months. We have both been based in Thailand ever since. The fruit of our labour was "The Pumpkin of Nyefar".

What made you study animation?
Animation has all the things I love, storytelling, design, music, voice acting and melds it all into one cool art form. But actually my first career choice was fine arts. I had played around a bit with comics, and stop motion animation in High School, but didn't really think of it as a career option. Many of my projects at Otis/ Parsons my first year in
college were based on movement. I would illustrate, or photograph different subjects... almost always a narrative story, then project them on screens and walls in sequence. Someone told me "You are making animation".
To me, animation was Walt Disney, or Warner Bros. I really wasn't interested in going that route. Then I came in contact with Jules Engel at Cal/Arts and discovered "Experimental Animation." I was hooked! I applied to the "experimental
animation" dept. at Cal/Arts and was rejected twice! I applied to the "Character animation" dept and got in. It's ironic that I was hired by Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble after graduation to work on "Looney Tunes". Maurice liked the fact that I was looking to art and not cartoons for inspiration. A word to young animation artists- looking at cartoons is useful. But is honestly such a small part of what should drive your art.
What was the most challenging task in your career? How you tackled it?
There have been many challenges. I suppose the biggest has been staying independent. There have been times when I wasn't sure how I was going to pay the rent or eat! And taking that studio job in the states looked really tempting but it would mean leaving my own project. I'm a Christian, and a fervent believer in prayer and faith. I have asked God
to make a way when I could see no way and he always has!
At the moment I am putting together a book about Maurice Noble's approach to design for Chronicle books. It will go discuss Maurice's process from start to finish. This is a book that Maurice started years ago and based on notes that he made for us throughout the years that we all worked together. He asked me to finish the book if anything should happen to him. It's taken this long for a publisher to take interest. The book is by far the most challenging project I've ever worked on. It's far easier to design a film, than describe
how someone else does it!



Which Thailand companies have you worked with? What was your experience?
I have worked with a few Thai companies, and have had both good and bad experiences but its mostly good. I was the director of Thailand's first CG feature film for over two years. The staff and I poured our hearts into the story and designs. We were about to go into production when the owner of the company decided that he wanted a Thai director to take my place. As it happened a very talented Thai friend of mine reluctantly took over the director's reigns. The company told me that the designs were "too western" though I had worked closely with Thai artists on the project.
As it turned out the company kept most of the designs and much of the story for the final version. The day after I was laid off, the company ran a big ad in a major magazine; it had pictures of the producers standing around with the characters and the caption said "A real Thai film, by an All Thai staff". They took away my directors credit, and many of the staff, including my co-director Aaron Sorensen (currently a director at Laika) and film script writer Ariel Prendergast (currently a writer at Disney), weren't credited at all.
 I loved the staff there, and the film was like a child of mine that had been taken away. It broke my heart. There were also some commercials I directed for Thai companies. So, for the moment I am focusing on international and personal projects as well as teaching.
Currently I am working on a project basis for "The Monk Studios" headed by brothers Juck Somsaman, and To Somsaman. "The Monk" is a pretty special and unique place. The artists are amazing, and the company is focusing on high quality animation. Our short film, "The Escape of the Gingerbread Man!!!” has just started touring the festival circuit and has already won in a number of festivals. It will be exciting to see where it goes. Currently I'm helping a few of the young artists at the studio put together a new
short film, "Nine Lives", it looks amazing.

How was it working with Thai artists?
The quality of talent in Thailand is amazing, so many good artists. I am lucky to call many of these artists, friends. I have learned a lot from them, and hope to complete many
more projects with them in the future.

What are you currently working on?
Apart from the "Maurice Noble Design Book" I'm writing and working to develop a feature script based on the characters developed in my short "Escape of the Gingerbread
Man!!!" I've always envisioned a longer version. I'm also developing a more dramatic short film based on my friend Fred Hoshiyama and his experiences in World War II.