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S’porean Disney animator lives in Los Angeles with wife & triplets, gets free passes to Disneyland

Roger Lee has worked on some of the biggest animated films in the past five years.

Andrew Koay | November 24, 04:06 pm

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If you’re planning to catch “Frozen 2” on the big screen, it might be worth pausing for a moment before you leave the cinema.

At the end of the film as the credits scroll vertically across the screen, look out for one name — Roger Lee.

If you manage to spot it, you might feel a swell of national pride, as Lee is a Singaporean lighting artist whose name appears in the credits of several award-winning films.

These include:

  • “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012)
  • “Frozen” (2013)
  • “Big Hero 6” (2014)
  • “Zootopia” (2016)
  • “Moana” (2016)
  • “Ralph Breaks the Internet” (2018)
  • and now, of course, “Frozen 2”, which is just out in cinemas this week.

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The shoreline where water meets the sand was definitely one of the toughest challenges on "Moana" for the Lighting department. What we rendered right out of Hyperion (in-house renderer) only achieved 50%-60% of the final look in the movie. To get them to look totally breathtaking, the water and shoreline were actually heavily composited. Check out how rich the color of her shadow on the sand looked. . #disney #disneyartist #moana #babymoana #motunui #beach #wave #cute #disneyanimation #disneyfeatures #lighting #compositing #3denvironment #lightingartist #cglighting #cganimation #waltdisneystudios #waltdisneyanimationstudios #waltdisneyanimation #animatedfilm #disneyanimator #RogerLee #SingaporeanInDisney #RogerLeeArtwork #singaporeartist #RogerLeeDisney

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Childhood dreams

Talking to Lee in his usual surroundings at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Los Angeles, I ask if he could explain what exactly he does in these movies.

“As a lighting artist, we use lighting and colours to create the time of the day, or to create a specific mood that helps to tell a story.”

In a gentle manner that belied his Bruce Lee-esque physique, Lee described for me how the lighting in animation films can accentuate and highlight movements, helping to draw us into what is happening on-screen.

It’s a craft that he’s become an expert in, having perfected it over 18 years.

The 41-year-old had initially grown interested in films and animation as a child, when he saw Mickey Mouse and other Disney cartoons on the television.

“That was my very first contact with animation,” he says.

“I loved to draw when I was a kid so my parents sent me to do some art classes. I thought maybe one day I can do it for a living.”

Job prospects

That thought turned into action when Lee decided to study film and sound at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where he majored in computer animation.

“Back then, doing computer animation allowed me to combine art and technology, so I thought okay, that is something cool.”

Lee admits that it was a decision based far more on passion, with less consideration given to future job prospects.

He tells me that back when he graduated from polytechnic, the industry was scant compared to what it is today, as “there wasn’t any big companies (operating in Singapore)”.

“So I started with a post-production house, animating soap bubbles, animating titles, animating flying toothpaste and toothbrush. That was the only bread and butter job available.”

Lucasfilm’s arrival in Singapore allowed Lee a chance to try his hand working on large-scale projects when he joined the company in 2005.

There, he was a lighting artist on the “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” animated series, as well as “Rango”, which clinched the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film in 2012.

Fulfilling lifelong ambitions

However, when he came across an online advertisement for a position at Walt Disney Animation Studios, Lee saw it as a chance to fulfil a lifelong ambition.

Yet, it would mean uprooting his young family and moving across the world to California, something which Lee did not take lightly.

“It was a big decision because then I was still with Lucasfilm and I had a great job over there. And my kids, I have triplets, they were only 13 months old back then. But then to get this chance to work for Disney animation was my childhood dream.”

A “very supportive” wife eventually helped Lee to make the switch, and the family has been living in California since April 2012.

Singaporean in America

Lee says that initially, his biggest struggle in coming over to the U.S. was in communicating with his new colleagues, even though they technically spoke the same language.

“Our English and their English is a bit different,” he says with a laugh.

“I think I understand them more than they understand me (laughs). Sometimes the way I pronounce things, I have to repeat it a few times before they get it.”

Spoken in a Singaporean accent, words like water and butter often draw an American-accented “Huh?” says Lee.

Thankfully, Lee has able tutors in his eight-year-old triplets who — having grown up in the U.S. — speak with American diction.

“My kids will sometimes laugh at my wife or myself and ask, ‘Why do you pronounce it like this?’

They’ll say, ‘You shouldn’t pronounce it this way, you should pronounce it the American way.’ To me it sounds the same, but to them they can tell the difference.”

Lee’s greatest challenge of living abroad thus far, though, marks him out to be a true Singaporean, as he tells me that one of the things he misses the most is a good plate of Hokkien mee.

“There’s a lot of Chinese food over here, but there’s still some difference. So whenever I go back I try to eat as much as I can.”

A rewarding career

Nevertheless, there are real perks to living in the U.S. and working for Disney.

“The best thing has been going to Disneyland for free with my family,” he says playfully.

“For my wife she’s able to bring the kids to Disneyland without me if I’m working. She has a pass, and sometimes when its crunch time and I’m working long hours, at least I know my family is having a good time in Disneyland.”

Lee tells me that these “crunch times” — usually during three to four months before a movie is released — often see the lighting artist working up to 15 hours of overtime a week.

But it seems to have paid off, with many of the films Lee works on going on to win Academy Awards and Golden Globes.

You’d expect someone who’s tightened their grip around many an award trophy to be satisfied.

Not Lee though, who tells me that he still desires to grow in his skills.

“When you get the chance to work with these very talented artists from all around the world, it’s something that keeps me going. Because you just get better, when you work with some of the best.”

Yet, as I watch his features soften into a warm smile, I get the sense that Lee’s biggest motivation comes from back home.

“Do your kids know about your work?” I ask.

“Yeah they do, and I’m glad that they’re quite proud about that, because they do tell their friends that their dad works on Disney movies.”

“Frozen 2”, the latest film Lee worked on, is currently in cinemas.

Top photo by Andrew Koay

About Andrew Koay

Andrew listens to Fall Out Boy's timeless hit song Sugar, We're Goin Down every single day of his life.

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