By definition, David Wolter is a dreamer. This trait has carried the Augustana alumnus to a successful career as a storyboard artist at DreamWorks. But, even with his success, Wolter never forgot his roots.
Augustana hosted an exhibition to celebrate his work and success as a cartoonist and story artist.
Wolter received the Augustana Horizon Award in 2014 for his outstanding professional performance, an honor given to alumni within 15 years of their graduation.
This year, he was inducted into the Augustana Performing and Visual Arts Hall of Fame and was awarded the Harold Spitznagel Medal for Achievement in Art.
Wolter grew up in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he started developing his passion for art.
“I drew as a kid all the time,” Wolter said. “But I stopped in high school because I cared more about being cool, and basketball kind of took over as my number one interest.”
His interest in basketball led him to attend Augustana for college.
“I came here on a basketball scholarship,” Wolter said. “That’s the only reason I came here.”
After Wolter arrived and experienced what playing college ball was like, he knew that it was not exactly what he had expected.
“It turns out that I was really bad at basketball,” Wolter said. “I was just tall; I wasn’t any good.”
Basketball was not the only thing that David was unprepared to face. His major didn’t turn out to be what he expected either.
“I was a business major when I came here, but I took microeconomics and I almost failed it,” Wolter said. “I couldn’t stay awake in class.”
Following this realization, he started to wonder if business was the right field for him. Around that time, he took an art class and realized he enjoyed it. He took all of the art classes he could get, and ended up changing his major to art.
“It was this process of [noticing] what it was I really loved about art and having professors that encouraged me to explore it,” Wolter said.
One of these professors was Carl Grupp, who first introduced Wolter to the world of cartooning.
“He was a good student and a hard worker,” Grupp said. “I remember looking at his sketchbook. It surprised me when he was starting out because it was full of drawings of shoes. And I thought, ‘Well this is an interesting guy, why is he drawing shoes?’ I talked with him and he said that he wanted to be a shoe designer and that’s when I saw more things [in the sketchbook]. It was cartoons. Because I loved cartoons, I encouraged him with the cartooning.”
Wolter continued with his cartooning hobby, doing independent studies with Grupp where he honed his talent by creating his own comic books. He also started his own comic strip in the Mirror.
“Working for the Mirror was one of the whole highlights of my college experience,” Wolter said. “There was this whole sense of being the voice of a community.”
As an art major, Wolter knew that finding a job would be tough. After graduation he began his art career as a caricature artist at Valley Fair in Shakopee, Minn.
“I’m sure my parents were thrilled that I was using my four-year degree to work at a theme park,” Wolter said.
Knowing that he could do better, he went to California to expand his artistic abilities at graduate school for animation, a step that geared him toward a professional future.
“Before I went to [graduate] school, I was unemployed, broke and I was even considering giving up art altogether,” he said. “Now, I’m glad I didn’t.”
It was during his time at graduate school that Wolter made his favorite work, a short film called Eyrie. David admitted that it was during this film that he finally felt like he had found his voice.
“I love coming of age stories, mythology and animal transformation stories,” Wolter said. “So I wondered ‘How can I put these three things in a pot, stir it around and what kind of film comes out of that?’ and that was what that film became.”
Wolter believes his fixation with seemingly weird objects inspired the idea for the film.
“It’s just like, in what ways am I weird and obsessed with strange things that other people don’t care about,” Wolter said. “That’s your cue to go there and hang out there because that’s where your voice is.”
The film debuted after Wolter’s second year of art school. When he left the theatre, he received a phone call from DreamWorks offering him a job.
“It was kind of like a fairytale,” Wolter said. “It was an amazing moment.”
Wolter has worked at DreamWorks for six years now. An average day consists of him either drawing or thinking.
“On normal days I get into work, get coffee, draw. That’s a good day,” Wolter said. “That’s what the job is and that’s why I love it.”
Wolter also said that his job can normally be separated into two stages: a thinking stage and an execution stage.
“I literally have a desk where I go to think and draw and be away from the computer,” Wolter said. “In my mind, I’m just thinking what this scene is going to look like, how I am going to shoot this, what is the point of the story. And then, when I have some ideas, I draw them out in a rough fashion, kind of like thumbnails.”
During the execution stage, Wolter takes the ideas he got from his time thinking and draws them on a computer so that his coworkers can edit them digitally.
With DreamWorks, Wolter has worked on four major projects: The Penguins of Madagascar, Home, Kung Fu Panda 3 and the upcoming movie, How to Train Your Dragon 3.
Wolter remembers Augustana as the place where it all started. The Eide/Dalrymple Gallery featured him in an exhibition from Sept. 8 through Oct. 14. The exhibit had Wolter’s works displayed as a retrospective.
Lindsay Twa, the director of the gallery, believes that the exhibition is able to give a depiction of Wolter’s career, from his humble beginnings to his more recent pieces.
“He’s an amazing drawer and animator, but he’s a really great storyteller,” Twa said. “Even if it’s just one single frame, you have a sense of a narrative that comes before and that will come after.”
Wolter credits Augustana as the place that allowed him to pursue his dream.
“I always describe Augie as a great place to fail,” he said. “It’s a safe place to try things that maybe don’t work and then to try something else.”