I watched a lot of cartoons and movies. I draw incessantly and carry a sketchbook everywhere. I work in animation and self-publish my books. There are monsters in the streets, don't wear red. Mad bulls and monsters hate that color. I still watch cartoons.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Dan Lee remembered in the Ottawa Citizen

Article on Dan in the Ottawa Citizen. Copy below thanks to Craig Good of Pixar:


Latest News

The genius behind Nemo

You may not have known Dan Lee, but you probably know his animated characters, who were as full of life as their Canadian creator, writes Christopher Shulgan.

Christopher Shulgan The Ottawa Citizen

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Dan Lee led a healthy life. He didn't smoke or drink. He liked hiking on nature trails, and the Toronto-born California cartoonist often rode his bicycle to his job at Pixar Animation Studios, where he designed some of the entertainment industry's best-loved characters.

Nemo and Marlin, his best-known creations, were the lovable father-son duo at the heart of Finding Nemo, whose $865-million U.S. worldwide gross makes it the second-biggest animated movie of all-time, behind Shrek 2.

Despite his lifestyle and easygoing sensibility, Mr. Lee died Jan. 15 after a 17-month battle with cancer. He was 35.

"Dan was a longtime member of our Pixar family," says Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton. "He single-handedly designed Nemo and has been a major influence at Pixar. Dan was a wonderful, irreplaceable, talented human being, and we miss him terribly."

Character creation was Mr. Lee's gift, Mr. Stanton says.

That's an early part of the animation process that entails designing the look of each character. It typically happens after the movie's story has been roughed out, but before the screenplay is drafted.

With Nemo, the challenge was to draw a fish character who nevertheless gave the impression of an endearing human youth.

"It's really tough to create these animated characters. You have to make the character look appealing and likable, but not so cute they make you want to throw up," says Mr. Stanton. "Dan was exceptional at it. He never needed much direction. In fact, much of our collaborating involved me just getting out of his way. With Nemo, he hit the bull's-eye with his first sketches."

Mr. Lee was raised in Scarborough. His parents are first-generation Chinese immigrants, and he has three older sisters.

As a child, his drawing ability grew out of his love for cartoons and Japanese animation, particularly the Robotech series.

William Cheng met Mr. Lee in their Grade 10 science class.

"Instead of listening to the teacher, we doodled," says Mr. Cheng, who is now a Toronto set designer.

The pair competed to improve their drawing abilities, buying art books and making weekly pilgrimages to Toronto's Silver Snail comic book shop.

Mr. Lee loved to peoplewatch in cafes, where he created cartoon characters of his fellow coffee drinkers, then dreamed up fictional histories for his doodles.

When he graduated high school, Mr. Lee enrolled in Sheridan College's animation program and graduated in 1991 at the top of his class.

In 1996, after several years working in Toronto and California for animation companies that did a lot of advertising work, he sent his portfolio to Pixar, which had a lot of buzz thanks to the unexpected success of their 1995 movie, Toy Story, which grossed $362 million U.S. worldwide.

Shortly after Mr. Lee applied, Pixar asked him to visit the company. Psyched up for an interview, Mr. Lee arrived to find the company wasn't interested in just talking with him: Purely on the strength of his portfolio, they wanted to give him a job.

At Pixar, Mr. Lee's favourite work entailed doing exactly what he did for fun as a high school student in coffee shops: He created characters. His first success was on the 1998 hit, A Bug's Life, where he drafted Rosie, the black widow spider voiced by Bonnie Hunt. Rosie's movements mimic Audrey Hepburn, who Mr. Lee particularly revered.

"Once my parents were cleaning his house in Richmond and he made sure they didn't hurt the spider living outside his front door," says his sister, Sunny Lee-Fay. "Because he studied the spider in order to get Rosie to move realistically."

Ms. Lee-Fay recalls how thrilled she was when she saw a theatre full of children laughing at her brother's work on the movie's opening day in 1998.

"It was so neat to see something he had created giving so many people so much joy," she says.

Mr. Lee would go on to work on Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story 2 as a sketch artist, character designer and animator.

Other characters he designed include Princess Atta, Dot, Hopper and Tuck & Roll in A Bug's Life; Henry J. Waternoose in Monsters, Inc.; and Bloat, the barracuda in Finding Nemo. A perfectionist, he worked long hours to get his characters just right, often kept company in his workspace with his pet rat -- whose name, Zippity, also graced the licence plate of his Honda Civic.

When he wasn't working or sketching, Mr. Lee enjoyed hiking, cooking and cycling, frequently making the commute to and from Pixar's Emeryville, California, studios on two wheels.

Fine dining was a particular pleasure. His friend Onny Carr recalls the pot-luck dinners Mr. Lee hosted at his apartment.

Along with Mr. Cheng, Mr. Lee also made annual pilgrimages to Montreal to the Bar B Barn restaurant, where he enjoyed slow-roasted spareribs for lunch, dinner and the following day's lunch, then drove back to Toronto. "That was our rib intake for the year," says Mr. Cheng.

In August 2003, Mr. Lee was about to fly from California to Toronto when he had a coughing fit that wouldn't stop. As that was the time of SARS, he visited the hospital, where doctors discovered he had fluid in both lungs. Tests showed he had cancer in both lungs and in the bones of his spine.

"When he first got the diagnosis, we were all in denial," says Mr. Carr. "The statistics for lung cancer are pretty dire -- something like 85 per cent don't make it past five years. But I thought, Dan's healthy and young. Maybe he'll be in that 15 per cent."

Two types of radiation and chemotherapy were among the treatments Mr. Lee tried. When he felt able, he continued to work at Pixar.

"He could have travelled, or taken time off, but he didn't," says Ms. Lee-Fay. "That showed how much he liked what he did."

With his options for treatment diminishing, Mr. Lee's doctor suggested in the fall of 2004 that the animator should make an effort to see everyone he wanted before he died. He prepared himself for his death by reading about different religious conceptions of the afterlife. Buddhism and Eastern spirituality particularly interested him.

"I don't know whether you can ever be ready for something like this, but he had come to terms with it," Mr. Carr says, "One day we were watching Winged Migration and he kind of muttered to himself, 'Maybe in the next life I'll be an eagle'."

Mr. Lee was hospitalized at Berkeley, California's Alta Bates Summit Hospital on Jan. 10 for complications due to a lung infection. Surrounded by family and friends, he slipped away after five days in intensive care. He was cremated after a private service in California.

"He followed his dream and ended up at the top of his profession, doing exactly what he wanted," says Ms. Lee-Fay. "How many people are able to say anything like that?"

Pixar is planning a private tribute party to honour Mr. Lee's life on Feb. 13. "It's going to be a tribute," says Ms. Lee-Fay. "We're going to celebrate his life."

Mr. Lee is survived by his mother and father, Kam-Sau and Hung-Yau Lee of Toronto; and sisters Sunny Lee-Fay of Vancouver, Mei Okurmura of Tustin (Orange County) and Brenda Lee Truong of Toronto.

The family asks that donations in memory of Mr. Lee go to the Alta Bates Summit Foundation, 2450 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, CA 94705.


Blogger Patrick Gray said...

Thanks so much Ronnie, for putting this article up. I had read your post on the drawing board and was saddened, but this is just heartbreaking. Sometimes, we lose someone and it makes no sense whatsoever...this is definitely one of those times. I feel for all of his family and friends, he really seems like a genuine guy who loved what he did, and those around him. Luckily, he'll still live on if only in reputation, and in his work.


8:55 AM

Blogger Ronnie said...

Thanks, Patrick. I'd like to think that none of us will leave this earth without being remembered. As much as it seems unfair that Dan leaves us so soon I'm glad to see that he is remembered by so many and even by those who never met him and enjoyed his work.


1:43 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ronnie,
I didnt know Dan made on the cover of the Ottawa Paper? WOW!
I didnt know Dan..and I just found out a week ago about him. I know a few people that did go to Sheridan with him in the early 90's.
I love his artwork in the Pixar books.
There is an article in the Toronto Sun about Dan.

9:22 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ronnie:

While flipping channels, I caught a Chinese language newscast (San Francisco's channel 26) on Dan Lee. They showed his picture, then footage of Finding Nemo.

The SF Chronicle also ran a story on Dan which may be a reprint of the Ottawa article. Seemed to have all the same information, but, from memory, written up slightly differently.



10:43 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ronnie,
I am very sad about Dan Lee dying. I read your article and it was very good. I am doing a project on Finding Nemo and I am glad I found out about the great person who designed Nemo and Marlin.


9:42 PM


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