Meet Megha Davalath: UT computer science alumnus, DreamWorks character technical director and fervent panda enthusiast.
Davalath worked on the set of “Kung Fu Panda 3” where she specialized in rigging, or designing a digital skeleton around characters so animators can bend them into desired poses. Specifically, Davalath focused on the pigs and baby pandas.
“Rigging is like taking a stuffed animal and placing joints inside and programming a computer system that will allow that stuffed animal to move,” Davalath said. “You’re basically breathing life into the character.”
Rigging requires an astute knowledge of programming, animation and anatomy. Since the first Kung Fu Panda movie, technology has changed the way riggers develop the animated characters.
“It was really exciting getting assigned characters I had seen in the previous Kung Fu Panda movies and then converting them to new technology,” Davalath said. “It was different than any other movie I had ever worked on.”
According to Davalath, the opportunity to work on “Kung Fu Panda 3” was special because of her early interest in both pandas and movie animation.
“Growing up, I really enjoyed cartoons, and I always enjoyed computers,” Davalath said. “My dad was a computer scientist, so he would always teach me little things — I always felt like I had a gravitational pull towards computers.”
After attending a magnet high school that prepares students for health care, Davalath enrolled in UT’s Turing Scholars program, an honors computer science curriculum.
However, according to UT computer science professor Calvin Lin, Davalath struggled academically at first.
“I remember that her background was not this traditional computer science background, and so in some ways, she was a bit of a risk,” Lin said. “I knew she was smart, but just at a disadvantage.”
With the support of her fellow classmates and professors, Davalath gradually grew confident in her computer science capabilities.
According to Davalath, part of her academic struggle stemmed from her inability to see how computer science could be used in animation.
“I think I felt like computer science was pulling me away from my dream goal of art, and I was just kind of frustrated,” Davalath said. “And here I am in an honors course with super hard classes and surrounded by extremely smart people and I just felt like a fish out of water.”
However, Davalath took a couple of graphics and RTF courses in junior year that opened her eyes to the extent of graphics in computer science.
“The classes were using the same concepts I had learned the first two years, but actually seeing visual feedback,” Davalath said. “In graphics, writing the program was just as intense, but even just seeing a circle I had programmed — the feedback was really exciting.”After graduating from UT in 2008, Davalath went to Texas A&M to work on her master’s degree in visualization.
While at A&M, she met Terran Boylan, who served as a committee member on Davalath’s thesis and ended up as lead character technical director on “Kung Fu Panda 3.”
According to Boylan, Davalath stood out to him because of her passion for animation and her work ethic.
“It was also great to see her mature both professionally and personally while working on the set of ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’,” Boylan said.
Davalath said students should keep following their dreams, even when they run into difficulties, because all the detours will eventually make sense.
“No matter how tedious or monotonous the job might get, I get to see what I’m contributing to, and I think that’s just the most satisfying feeling,” Davalath said. “Seeing ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ on the big screen was a long time coming — it just felt like different parts of my life were finally coming full circle.”