Malaysian-born Lyon Liew lends his expertise to Pixar, working on Coco and the upcoming The Incredibles 2.
THEY say that Pixar movies are where dreams come true. Okay, they don’t really say that but if you ask Lyon Liew, he would probably agree wholeheartedly.
Growing up, Liew had a dream; to work for Pixar Animation Studios, regarded as one of the best in the animation industry. So when the opportunity came knocking in March last year, Liew packed up life as he knew it and moved to California, United States, to start work as simulation technical director for the studio.
“I’ve always wanted to work at Pixar. Pixar movies were the reason I wanted to get into computer graphics. So when Pixar offered me a position, I couldn’t say no,” said Liew in an e-mail interview.
Born in Melaka, Liew moved to Singapore when he was seven and had previously worked at Industrial Light & Magic animation studio there, where he had the opportunity to be part of amazing projects such as The Avengers, Jurassic World, The Great Wall and several Transformers movies.
Liew’s first project at Pixar was Coco, which went on to earn US$806mil (RM3.2bil) worldwide, garnering several top accolades including Best Animated Feature Film at the Oscars this year.
“Coco has been a fantastic experience. I came in the middle of production as a newbie at Pixar and everyone from my supervisor to the newest hire were extremely supportive and helpful during my time on the film.
“As a new guy on the show, I thought I would be given just smaller or easier shots, but my supervisor and leads were very fair and they gave me a few key shots in some major sequences. My favourites are when Hector was first introduced and the scene where they showed Coco as a young girl,” said Liew, 37.
Things are on the up and up for Liew – his next project with the studio is the highly anticipated The Incredibles 2, opening nationwide on June 14.
“The environment at Pixar is really amazing and inspirational. Every day you get to work with people who are on top of their game and it drives me to always do better.
“Just seeing the progress of the movie is enough motivation to get excited,” he said.
As a simulation technical director, Liew is in charge of bringing clothing and other props to life.
“We work closely with modellers, riggers and animators to keep our characters both modest and dynamic. We also work with developers to design and test the tools required to keep our workflow efficient and quality high under tight deadlines. Essentially, we make the hair and clothing on characters look good in motion,” he added.
Funnily enough, Liew admits that he cannot draw or paint but stresses that while having these skills help, there are many other roles in making an animation movie that don’t involve art.
“What I usually encourage non-artistic people to do is to get into programming. Everything we do involves computers and if you know how to program, it’s a good way to enter the industry without having a traditional art background,” he said.
Liew understands that some parents may be hesitant to let their children enter this field, and being born into (in his words) “a typical Asian family”, he too had difficulty convincing his parents of his passion.
“They wanted me to pursue something ‘normal’, so I went into Computer Science, and it wasn’t until my third year in university that I took Computer Graphics classes and realised that I can use what I have learned to work in films.”
As his parents were sceptical because it sounded “outlandish and foreign” to work in movies, Liew shares that he had cut out newspaper articles and research papers to put into a presentation to convince his parents to let him get a Diploma in Computer Graphics after he completed his tertiary education.
While an education qualification does help one get into the field, Liew believes that it is not a necessity.
“This industry tends to thrive on creativity and hard work, so if you have a strong enough art portfolio or programming prowess, no recruiter or hiring manager will turn you down just because you don’t have the paper qualifications.
“In the beginning, it was fairly difficult because the industry wasn’t very big in Asia and I had to compete with a lot of talented artists to get my reel and resume into the hands of bigger companies.
“It was tough, but I just kept forging ahead and kept learning and updating my reel to a point where Lucasfilm saw it and took a chance on me,” he said.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“There are many misconceptions about people working in this industry. A lot of people think because we’re making movies, we earn tons of money, but that couldn’t be further away from the truth!
“The other one is that I get to hang out with a lot of movie stars and party which ... yeah, that doesn’t happen either,” he said.
Liew has a piece of advice for those wanting to enter this scene.
“Find something you’re passionate about in this field, be it character design or programming, and keep at it. Keep making art every day. I can’t guarantee that it’ll get you into the industry, but it’ll help, and anyday you get to create something ... it’s a good day.”