Skip to main content

Dave Mullins

Okay, so let me just cut to the chase here. If you were to look at all of my 5 star rated movies on Netflix, the majority would likely be animation. More specifically, those from one of the most creative companies in existence - Pixar. There, I've said it and in doing so, I feel I've fairly pre-qualified myself as a fan of anyone that is a part of Pixar's talented team.

So it is with this, on a beautiful summer day in Virginia, I sit down with one of Pixar's Supervising Animators - Dave Mullins. Aspiring art students, artists, art teachers, parents of the artistic and enthusiastic animation hand clappers like me, I'm here for you!

Dave Mullins with UP charactersMullins is part of the Pixar team I'm referring to when I talk to parents who address me with fears of their creative children starving as artists and I tell them as an example, that animators at Pixar are as creative as you can get and they certainly are not starving. These parents respect and can relate to Pixar's success on a personal level and thus, it brings their creativity-killing rant to an instant halt. Thank you for this, Pixar.

Computer animation is a phrase that sounds simple and confusing at the same time. If moving sketches are the simple version of what animation is, computer animation might just mean the computer is doing all the work. WRONG. It's more like the difference between digging a hole with your bare hands or by using a shovel. It's still you digging that hole! So, while those computers and the software that Pixar has developed in house certainly make the digging a lot easier, the animator still has to very much be an artist and cannot simply rely on good computer skills.

To watch a Pixar creation is literally the best example of visual teamwork you can experience, and thye are so good at their craft that we tend to forget that everything we are seeing is not real. Yet in today's world of making motion pictures, with perfect lighting, CGI (computer generated imagery), big stunts and budgets to build sets anywhere, I actually feel computer animated films are the most authentic motion pictures made today. No one is dressing vanilla ice cream up to be chocolate cake. Pixar makes you chocolate cake right from the get-go. You trust what you see and better yet, because of powerful and/or humorous stories, which are so collaboratively supported by remarkably professional artists, you believe and take an amazing ride. That's why we go to the movies, to be entertained, to be taken on a journey for a few hours. Pixar gets that job done very well.

These are visually stimulating creations, with strong character development. Yes, the sound is important and the voices of stars help, but make no mistake, these films are every bit as important artistically as anything you'll see in your lifetime. For Tom Hanks to make you believe he is a castaway, he needs a fake beard and a lot CGI. But, for you to believe he's a toy cowboy, he needs Pixar. Think about this now: what character do you remember more - Hank's Academy Award winning performance as Chuck Noland or as Woody in Pixar's Toy Story? Need I even ask?

Dave Mullins now has decades of developing his craft as an animator with Disney and since 2000 with Pixar where as a part of their talented artistic team, he's worked on the hits Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Cars. His IMDb (Internet Movie Database) page lists him as Directing Animator for UP and Supervising Animator for Cars 2. There's just not a bad one in the bunch.
The IncrediblesSitting down with the husband and father of two, my goal is focused more on the path Mullins chose to get him to where he is today, than exactly on what he does today. In doing so, my hope is one of guidance for those youthful creative minds of tomorrow and for their parents and teachers who hopefully are supporting their passion. 

Dave's parents live in Virginia. He would want you to know first that his parents were always supportive, believing in Dave's future, whatever that would be. This of course, is not an absolute prerequisite of success, but positive energy sure doesn't hurt and they have loads of it. Dave also shares the acquiring of his father's LOVE for movies. This was a normal part of his upbringing, but Dave's father is also an engineer and one might think that he would twist his son in that direction. Pixar likely appreciates that he did not; I know I do and so does Dave.

So I start by asking Dave if he was destined to be an artist and his response was really fun, as he tells me, "No, I wanted to be an archeologist, I wanted to be Indiana Jones!" This told me right away that Dave enjoys adventure, imagination and stories. He expands by sharing that he certainly also enjoyed drawing and art, computers and programing, but he loved movies and further explains, "It was a like a light going off in my head when I realized that people make a living making movies. I never thought that that was a career. It just seemed like a lark. People are doctors or engineers, they're real things. It just seemed like a distant far-away ... it's like Narnia, off in another land!" This brings joy to his face. He questions that his parents might have known he would become an artist and he certainly had interest, he just didn't know what he was going to do with it. You will find that the "not knowing what he would do with it" comment is a reoccurring theme that time would fix.

Parents, don't crush the dream. Just imagine what might have happened if Dave's parents pushed him another direction. Thankfully, they did not.

I then ask Dave if he was a doodler. My hunch was correct, as he tells me he doodled a lot. "That's the thing, it's that process of ideas, basically that you're always coming up with something, especially when you're a child." He sighs a bit saying, "One of the things I've noticed as I've gotten older, is your imagination ... it takes more effort to kind of unearth ideas and when I was a kid it would just flow out of me totally naturally." I told him it was the burden of the responsible man. We laugh.Dave Mullins interview

At this point Dave starts searching for the right words or phrase for what is a complex but important issue concerning creativity and kids, "It's funny how when I was a kid, how free thinking ... free association... [I was]. There's a lot of creative ideas, because you don't know any better and you kind of [over time] unlearn how to draw, you unlearn how to think creatively, because a lot of those ideas are frowned upon. Or you watch kids when they go from drawing and they're around five, six or seven years old and you see them get into middle school and then they start getting around twelve and start wanting to get really realistic and drawing muscles and everything and that becomes so hard they automatically think they can't draw."

I think Dave was relaying personal experiences with both himself and maybe even watching his own kids grow and go through that time of creative discovery. But his observations are spot on. This is real stuff to sink your teeth into and it is a time where parents really need to water the plant and not let it go dry.

I mentioned to Dave at this point, that I think kids start becoming more critical of themselves than of their art, which sadly ends up taking the blame. He totally agrees, as he says, "The thing is with art, you have to be allowed to make mistakes, it's iterative. You have to try over and over again. It's like Chuck Jones [animator of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc.] always said, there's 10,000 bad drawings in you, the sooner you get them out the better." This Dave points out is the path to finally finding the gem.

So what did Dave spend his youth drawing mostly? Fantasy! He admits to being infatuated with Dungeons and Dragons and having a love for Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and stories with sorcery and magic. The kid in him bubbles up, and remember now, that youthful lust for adventure and imagination. When you're kid who loves to draw, this is like the keys to the car. If you love to read as well, which Dave most certainly does, you are empowering your creativity and putting rocket fuel in that car.

The two of us start talking about watching cartoons as kids. Though Dave is younger than me and I grew up especially loving anything Warner Brothers did, Dave rattles off the names of Chuck Jones again and Friz Freleng saying, "...they knew what they were doing." I enjoy Dave's broad grasp of his life as an animator. It's a fun business, but one which you can tell he takes seriously. He's made it a point to know those who pioneered the road in front of him, especially in the likes of Pixar's John Lasseter, who is more my age.

Staying on the topic, the two of us laugh about the maturity of cartoon dialog and Dave says, "The best animated films or cartoons are not written for children, but children can understand things on a very deep level that adults don't give them credit for. You first make a film for yourself, you make it true, you don't dumb down to children and if you can manage to do that, make an intelligent film that has a core story point that people can really relate to, you're going to make a good film. One that somebody 80 years old can watch, somebody 8 years old can watch and they're both going to be entertained, that's the key to making a great film." Dave Mullins interview2

I asked Dave if he ever wanted to be a fine artist, as opposed to an animator and he says in high school he painted, played guitar in rock bands and he and artist friends even did plein air painting (painting outside). He also started taking art classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art when he was 16 or so years old, preparing for college. In high school he knew then that he wanted to be an artist, admitting he didn't know what that meant and he didn't know exactly what he wanted to do, but he knew he wanted to make art and be creative.

I use the analogy that if you knew you were going to have to cook to eat and at some point you decided you are going make, let's say, soup. You may not know what kind of soup, but you start fumbling about with what ingredients you have or will need. In Dave's case, if being an artist was in a sense, soup, his ingredients were a strong love of adventure, story, art, music and computers. But he also had a passion for not just movies, but admittedly an "aha" moment in early in life that people actually made a living making movies. In college he would find the main ingredient to make his soup!

I asked Dave during this time if he was ever told he was going to starve as an artist.  He humorously admits of a starvation nightmare he apparently had, waking frantically telling his mom he was selling velvet paintings of Elvis on street corner. It seems to be a family joke at this point. But Dave, for his first year and a half of college at the Rhode Island School of Design, was asking himself, "What am I going to do to turn this into a career? I want to make art, but I also want to make a good living."

Take a moment sometime and search the well known grads of Rhone Island School of Design. It's a creative Who's Who list worth reading and some of Dave's RISD contemporaries at Pixar include: Angus MacLane, Scott Clark and Jeremy Lasky.

This is a time in an artist's life where the choices you make need to come as much from the gut as the mind and Dave knew he didn't want to make abstract art and so he moved toward the illustration department and classes that focused on figurative work and painting the things around him, understanding the theories of color, depth, perspective, all the basics. He says, "I wanted to understand how the world was constructed around me and then, like Picasso did or van Gogh or any of the great artists, they would understand what the world was around them and then start bending it to their taste, and I thought that was the best approach."

Not all creative types are like Dave, who was and still very much is multi-expressive with his creativity. He could have randomly chosen fine art, music and likely even writing, but part of growth as an artist is allowing the time to find your true artistic self and honing your skills. What if you worked hard to play guitar your whole life, only to find out the piano would have been a more natural choice? In Dave's case, he was actually doing everything right. He knew he was going to make soup and he had all the ingredients except one and he was about to find it.

Illustration was taking center stage, but Dave vividly remembers the moment where he figured things out and found that main ingredient and describes it " a bolt of lightning!" Remember now, making a living making movies was a youthful light bulb of 100 watts. A bolt of lightning is said to be 1.2 gigawatts!

Now Dave prefaces his lightning bolt with a short trip back in time, by letting me know again that his father was an engineer, but very creative and a master story teller, and his mother is also creative and very funny. He then revives his love of computers and being 8 or 9 years old when his Dad bought a Texas Instruments scientific calculator. He explains, "You could do Pythagorean theorem on there and you could do different sort of math equations and the thing that really got me was the fact that you could type and it would make an image [numbers on the display] from a button you were pressing, which blew me away and from then on I was begging my parents for a computer." This came in the way of a TRS-80 Color Computer from Radio Shack when he was 10 and he instantly started programming it in Basic, leaning towards his previously mentioned love of games. All of this led to a deeper understanding of computers and code, which was as it would turn out, yet another foundation to build art on.

Dave's father eventually purchased an IBM PC and this was a big leap forward, allowing a young Dave to have 8-bit color [a palette of eight colors], a basic programing language, which he says was easy for him to grasp at that age. He smiles, stating he started actually doing computer graphics in 1983. Note: Dave graduated high school in 1989!

He then enthusiastically switches to consuming fantasy books, Tolkien, Terry Brooks and anything by Piers Anthony. And so the first computer animation he did on the computer was of the Sword of Shannara in vector graphics, "... two pixels over, one pixel down" and so forth. I am not a computer programmer, but this sounds a lot like using a complicated Etch-a-Sketch. Dave says, "I did the whole Sword of Shannara logo that way and then put the sword in the middle ... [a burly sound effect then leaves Dave's mouth indicating the powerful animated colors coming from the sword] like a lightsaber!!!"

At this point I feel like I have gotten into a time machine with Dave and gone back in time to see an excited kid having so much fun. I'm feeling like this article could be titled "The Dissection of an Artist," as layer by layer I find that Dave is not only creative, but very smart. To hear the development process of a successful artist is a gift, an open door and lit path for others to follow. It's as if he's been waiting to tell his story and show the way. Trust me now, the lightning bolt he's about to discover is not something you can find in an art supply store or Radio Shack.

Now imagine this. Dave tells me at 14 years old all of this programming interest sort of went away. He still used computers and certainly was knowledgeable, even teaching Photoshop in college, but let's just say he put some of his passion on a shelf, until 1990 while in college when his roommate said, "Oh my God, they have an IBM RISC-6000 down there [at the school's computing center] with Alias 2.0!!!" Dave replied, "What's that!" His roommate replied, "You know James Cameron's The Abyss? The tentacle monster? They made it with that thing!"

Dave exclaims, with his head almost exploding, "WHAT!!!" and says that he was so excited he immediately got on his bike and ran down to the Academic Computing Center.

It's as if he is right back at the moment when his professor gets out the key to the broom closet were the RISC-6000 was being stored, he's excited! At half the size of a refrigerator, this was a monster computer. They fire it up and his professor says, "Watch this", as he brings up Alias 2.0, pulls down the menu to create a sphere, which pops up on the monitor as a wire frame grid and starts [three dimensionally] pivoting around it. Dave is so funny in his description of himself at this point, as if his brain just went into sensory overload. Dave is laughingly muttering and puttering to find the words ..., "I'm like Duh, ... It is like a worm hole is collapsing in my head." I'm laughing with him at the grasp of realization of what he's seeing for the first time.

That lightning bolt finally hits Dave as his professor apparently then hit the quick render button, which Dave's explains, "...went through line by line and rendered the shading on that blue sphere and when I saw that, it felt like my brain blew out the back of my head." He couldn't believe what he was seeing and says, [referencing it by today's standards] "It's like the most rudimentary part of computer graphics." From that moment since, all I've done is computer animation."

Dave Mullins working

This became an obsession, as he studied computer programing courses at Brown and took every opportunity to learn anything and everything he could. Dave talked his professor into letting him do his own course in computer animation and as it turned out, IBM was paying Dave an internship because they wanted artists on the their IBM computers. Dave says he started making these awful, awful animated films which were likely part of those 10,000 bad drawings Chuck Jones was referring to. But he just kept at it until he landed a job at Disney. This took from 1991 to 1995.

Those keeping-at-it years came in the way of several east coast based jobs, one which he laughing says had him actually making those old movie theater PSA announcement jingles like (he sings) "Let's all go to the theater," or to throw your trash away or to buy beverages. I said, hey, at least you had made it to the theater! True, and Dave was learning and paying his dues. His first job at Disney was in 1994 with the Post Group on the Disney lot down in Florida. He did a show called Thunder In Paradise about a transforming boat starring Hulk Hogan. There, he met a good friend who ended up going to Pixar first.

When I asked Dave how much of him is a computer guy and how much an artist, he replies, "100% of each!" Good answer. But Dave simply sees the computer as a tool for making art and I personally think it's interesting when artists get so caught up in the purity of the old masters, as there's plenty of proof that those masters would have used technology if they had it and often did use what they did have.

Creatively Dave knows he's still growing. At least part of his attention has turned to writing, which he finds incredibly rewarding. As a supervising animator at Pixar, he is in management now where he's led teams of up to 90 people. Dave explains at Pixar, management is there to support the artists and he shares an analogy using the sport of curling. "Think of the animator at one end and he's got the stone and they're trying to get the shot all the way to approval. The director is at the other end [acting as the coach] and in the middle are the animation supervisors, we're the guys with the broom scrubbing in front of the thing furiously trying to make sure everything goes smooth. We're trying to clear all the problems out of the way of the artist so the artists can just do their work." He feels Pixar is unique in their approach and support of their artists.

Dave Mullins with staff Shawn

For those of you who might be interested in computer animation as a career path, it's important to know that this is one place that it really takes a village, a team of professionals doing many different jobs to complete a project which takes years, not days or months. Also, as an animator there's even a spectrum of specialties or opportunities. As well, this is an industry of writers, technicians, cinematographers, lighting, set design, directors and more.

In the end Dave says, "Do what you love. If you love art, make art, whatever you love to do, do it." Good advice. He leaves with, "I haven't worked a day in my life, it's a compulsion." I would say Dave is certainly living an artful life and we thank him.

NOTE!!!!! Images courtesy of PIXAR, © All rights reserved and are not to be reproduced in any way without expressed written permission of Pixar Animation Studios Emeryville, CA.