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Movie CGI artist Megha Davalath has been obsessed with pandas since she was a child in San Antonio, collecting everything from stuffed animals to trashcans to wind chimes in celebration of her favorite cuddly creature.

So, it must have been kismet that her first motion picture credit for DreamWorks Animation is “Kung Fu Panda 3,” which boasts an all-star cast including Jack Black, Angelina Jolie and Bryan Cranston. It opens in theaters Friday.

“How really awesome is it that my first movie is about pandas?” Davalath, who spent most of her childhood and teens in the Alamo City, where her parents still live, said in a phone chat. “My desk at work is covered with them, and practically every gift I’ve gotten has been panda-oriented.”

Davalath, 29, a character technical director on the animated feature, was responsible for what she called rigging — “placing joints into stuffed animals or static puppets.” She also programs a control system that allows them to move around, she said, before handing her work to the animators who complete the magic.

For “Panda 3,” she worked on the bodies of the village pigs and the small pandas, she said, making sure the elbows and knees were soft and rounded, reflecting lots of baby fat. “So, every time you see tiny pandas walking around, it was me who helped put them there,” she said.

Her DreamWorks supervisor Kevin Rogers praised her skills. “We were fortunate to have Megha working on the baby pandas,” he wrote in an email. “Over the life of the show, the use of baby pandas grew, in part because of how cute they were in animation.

“This would not have been so without the solid rigs built by her,” Rogers added, “proving that Megha’s contributions to ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ were invaluable.”

She also worked on lots of hair in the movie, she said, giving that movement too. For instance, Davalath was responsible for the long mustache and prominent eyebrows of teacher Shifu, voiced by Dustin Hoffman.

Davalath said she wanted to study movie animation since she was a child, even writing a paper about it at Hobby Middle School.

Her path, however, took a couple of detours. She attended a high school that had little to do with the arts, Health Careers High, a magnet school in the Northside Independent School District that prepares students for occupations in health care. “I basically wanted to go there to be with my friends,” she said.

Her dad, Nataraj Davalath, a longtime software developer at USAA, influenced her choice for college major, she said. “He said he would let me go into art school as long as I got a degree in computer science first. That way, I’d have a good foundation,” she said.

That’s what she studied at the University of Texas at Austin. “I took classes in art, so it was the perfect blend of the technical and the creative.” After graduating in 2008, she attended graduate school at Texas A&M University, where she began specializing. She earned a degree in visualization, which encompassed rigging.

A&M also was the place she made invaluable contacts, as it hosted experts from DreamWorks and other big studios. “It was a really good networking school,” she said. The year of her graduation in 2011, she was hired by DreamWorks.

Although “Panda” wasn’t the first movie she worked on, it is the first one to be released. Her next project is “Trolls,” which is due out in late 2016. “I’m part of the hair team,“ she said, “responsible for the look, style and movement of the hair.

“We worked on characters voiced by Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake and Russell Brand.”

Meanwhile, her excited parents will be watching for her name on the big screen. “We already got tickets,” her father said.

He’s also happy his guidance helped Megha get the well-rounded education that figured into her success. “I remember when Megha was in high school, she wanted to go into a special effects or animation program right away,” he said. “But I encouraged her to get a basic technical degree before getting into the entertainment industry.”

Megha remains grateful to this day that she listened to her dad. “I’ve utilized everything I’ve learned.”

Source: San Antonio Express-News

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