Column: Meet the UC San Diego grad who made Pixar’s “Turning Red” so cute and fluffy

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Mei Lee, 13, is a gifted teenager who hides an oversized secret. When Mei becomes anxious, exasperated, or angry, she transforms into a giant red panda. And yes, the panda-monium ensues.

But for UC San Diego graduate Lyon Liew, Mei’s giant red panda problem was nothing short of a huge opportunity.

Mei stars in “Turning Red,” a new animated film from Pixar Studios that debuts tomorrow on the Disney+ streaming platform. Liew is the film’s lead technical director for the simulation, which means he and his team were tasked with making the giant red panda’s clothing, hair, props and fur move with realistic grace.

Talking about this challenge turned 41-year-old Liew into a very spirited guy.

“One of the things with simulation is that if we’re doing our job right, no one will really notice. But if we do it wrong, everybody notices,” Bay Area-based Liew said from a hotel room in Anaheim, where he was taking a break from a family trip to Disneyland for discuss a movie made by Pixar, owned by Disney.

“It was so awesome to work on such a big, furry character. Not just because of the fur, but because of the way Mei moves. If you watch the movie, her friends always hug her. Every time that happens, there’s a lot of work to do to make sure the fur looks good, and it was really fun to work on this character.

Now in his fifth year at Pixar, which followed stints at the Singaporean branches of Industrial Light & Magic and George Lucas’ Lucasfilm Animation, Liew seems to specialize in career fun. Before racking up credits in films as high-profile as “Luca,” “Incredibles 2,” “Ready Player One,” and “Coco,” however, Liew was a UC San Diego student who specialized in taking movies seriously. computers.

In Pixar’s new “Turning Red,” the teenage heroine turns into a giant red panda when stressed. The film debuts on Disney+ on March 11.

(Disney/Pixar)

Born in Malaysia and raised in Singapore, Liew came to the United States in 2000 to attend UC San Diego. The plan was to get his bachelor’s degree in computer science and then pursue a career in computer security. Computer work would be his salary and his first love – photography – would be his passion.

He got the degree, but he didn’t follow the plan.

“At UCSD, I took my first computer graphics course and loved it. That’s what got me started. It was the course that put me on the path,” Liew said of the course he took with Mike Bailey, who is now a professor at Oregon State University.

“I remember our first assignment was to create a CG (computer graphics) model of a sword using just coding. I’m looking at it now, and it looks like something a 2-year-old might do. “I was so proud of it. In this course, it was amazing to see something I learned that was practical combined with something I loved that was visual. Being able to merge that was mind-blowing for me. I just loved it.

And there were more tech adventures to come.

Prior to graduating, Liew secured an internship at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, a research and innovation center located on the UCSD campus. At the suggestion of his boss and mentor, Steve Cutchin (now at Boise State University), Liew went to Vancouver Film School, where he earned his degree in 3D animation and special visual effects.

A few months after graduating in 2005, he was working as a technical director at Lucasfilm. Seventeen years and many credits later, Liew is now part of Pixar’s “Turning Red” revolution.

The film was directed by Oscar-winning Canadian-Chinese animator Domee Shi, who is the first woman to earn a solo directing credit on a Pixar film. The script, which Shi co-wrote with Korean-American playwright and screenwriter Julia Cho, gives us a smart and confident heroine while being totally obsessed with a super cute boy band called 4*Town.

Mei (voiced by newcomer Rosalie Chiang) is also the devoted only daughter of stressed-out Ming Lee (voiced by Sandra Oh), the kind of helicopter parent who reminds us that “mother” rhymes with “suffocate.”

With its honest references to bodily functions, teenage hormones, and the pressures of being an overachieving Asian kid, “Turning Red” is very female-centric and Asian. It’s a pioneering film that’s also sweet, funny and wise. And while Liew hopes audiences enjoy the film’s stunning animation (not to mention the way the panda’s fur puffs and ripples), he’s even more excited about what this bold, groundbreaking film has to say about the importance universal to grow in the person. you really want to be.

“What I really hope people see is Mei’s eventual love for herself. At the start of the movie, you see Mei torn apart in so many ways. She has her family, her friends, and her school. , but she never took time for herself. It’s really important to understand yourself, think about what you need and make sure you give yourself space and love.

“Once you trust yourself and find yourself, everything will fall into place.”

“Turning Red” debuts tomorrow on Disney+.

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