Hyun-Min Lee, an animator from Seoul, South Korea, came to the United States in 2000, earning a degree in painting from Wesleyan University and a Masters degree in animation from the California Institute of the Arts. Although she enjoys working in all areas of animation, her work mainly focuses on traditional hand drawn techniques and she cites the early Disney films as an influence on her work. Following time spent training with animators Eric Goldberg and Bert Klein, Hyun-min embarked on her own traditionally animated short film, The Chestnut Tree, in memory of her. The film uses a traditionally hand-drawn technique, preserving a rough line style with a watercolor wash for color, animated in sync to a classical piece by Chopin, centering around a little girl and her mother as they revisit memories under a chestnut tree.
As a Cal-Arts student, Lee spent a year in the Experimental Animation program. Her work is incredible! Hyun is the head animator for Disney’s award winning films Big Hero 6 and Frozen. Watch for her talent in Disney’s highly anticipated 2016 animated film, Zootopia. Hyun graciously interviewed with Asiance! Check out this powerful Asian American woman!
ASIANCE: What did your traditional Asian parents think of you not pursuing the ‘traditional’ career? Any pushback?
Hyun:I was very lucky to have parents who were happy to let me do whatever I wanted to do. From very early on in my life I loved animation, and I loved drawing, and my parents always encouraged me to pursue a career that supported those two things that I loved most. My mom always did strongly emphasize the fact that I shouldn’t waste my time with anything. So whatever I was doing, even when I was having fun watching cartoons, drawing comics, or reading comic books, she taught me to make sure it was all for a productive reason. I think that definitely had a big influence in making everything a learning experience, which helped propel me to where I am now.
A collection of some of the CG animation Hyun Lee has done at Disney. Shots from “Wreck-it Ralph”, “Frozen”, “Feast”, and “Big Hero 6”.
ASIANCE: Do you think being Asian American helped or hindered you along the way in the entertainment industry?
Hyun:Being Asian has definitely not hindered me in my path to get to where I am in any way. I think the entertainment industry for me has been a very open environment that supported a huge variety of backgrounds. Everyone I worked with has been interested to learn more about different cultures, so it has been fun to be able to find opportunities to tell more people about my background. Being Korean, I always had an upbringing that emphasized being very respectful to my elders and people I work for, and I think that is also something that many people appreciate in my attitude. One pitfall might have been that I’ve been told I was too reserved, so I’ve been told to be more outspoken – but that could just be my personality coming into play!
ASIANCE: Has diversity among the creators of hollywood films increased enough? What else needs to be done!
Hyun:I think the diversity has increased quite a bit in recent years. I especially used to remember a lot of Asians on screen being played by actors and actresses of the wrong nationality, and being depicted incorrectly in many instances. Nowadays, it seems that there are more people who know and represent each country and culture more accurately, so it’s nice to see that change come about. I think it will only get better from here on out, since more and more people from different backgrounds have roles in all parts of the film making process, and more people are interested in stories that involve new settings and characters.
ASIANCE: What bit of advice would you give to someone who wants to be an animator for Disney?
Hyun:Being an animator at Disney is a huge responsibility. We have to provide a large part of the acting – each little expression and gesture needs to be worked on to the last detail in order to make the characters feel alive and believable for the audience watching the films we make. I think it’s of course very important to study everything required for the art of animation, like life drawing, the basic principles and techniques, and the physics of movement. But to be able to depict many situations, emotions and different types of characters convincingly, I think it is very important to not restrict yourself to studying animation and movies and instead, remember to observe life and people around you to constantly get new inspiration and ideas that are more genuine and fresh.
A collection of some of the hand drawn animation Hyun-min Lee has done at Disney. Shots from “The Princess and The Frog”, and “Winnie the Pooh”
ASIANCE: What is the hardest part about being an animator? What is hardest part about making an animated film?
Hyun:I think the most difficult thing about being an animator is trying to make the characters feel alive in an effortless way. Animation takes a lot of time, and sometimes we have to work a whole month just to perfect a few seconds of animation. It’s really challenging to make something that took so many hours and days to make feel natural and spontaneous. Also, the more we put into it, and the better the result gets, the more invisible our role becomes, because the characters start to appear to think on their own rather than having had an extra hand controlling them from behind. Sometimes, when I’m tired from the amount of work, and my animation isn’t working as well as I’d like it to, it can almost start to feel like a thankless job. But once I see the audience reacting to the shots I animated, and believing and rooting for the characters I brought to life, I’m reminded of what made me want to be an animator in the first place. There’s nothing more rewarding!
ASIANCE: What do you enjoy the most- working for Disney/ in the animation industry?
Hyun:Working for Disney has always been my dream. I remember watching the films when I was a child, and I remember how much I loved those stories and characters, and how much they shaped my childhood. It’s amazing to be able to have a part in the making of those films now. I know for sure that many people will be watching these films, and that they will be watching them for generations to come, and I feel a huge pride in the fact that I was able to contribute to something that makes so many people around the world happier!
ASIANCE: Did you get a chance to check out the BluRay? If yes- are there any deleted scenes that you were surprised they shared?
Hyun:I just got the BluRay! It was fun to see that they included some of the alternate openings for the film. The film has gone through many iterations to get to its final version, so it had many openings that we got to watch in test screenings within the studio. While I think the opening in the final film turned out to be a really good one, it was nice to see the version with the baby Hiro in it, since you get a glimpse of Hiro and Tadashi’s past.
ASIANCE: Did you work on any of the Easter Eggs? If yes- which one(s) were they?
Hyun:No, I didn’t work on any of the Easter Eggs.
ASIANCE: What are some of the behind the scenes features on BluRay that interest you?
Hyun:It’s not exactly a behinds the scenes feature, but I liked that they had included Feast, which was the theatrical short from Disney that was shown in front of Big Hero 6. I feel very fortunate to have worked on Feast. I got to participate in the character design work and animation, before I started working on Big Hero 6. It’s a very different story from Big Hero 6, but I think it shares many of the same values regarding friendship and family, so it’s great to see the two films paired together. It was also very fun to see the little feature with all the animation supervisors talking about our process, since we are often working behind the curtains to make everything happen. The supervisors on Big Hero 6 worked so well together and with the rest of the animation crew to bring up the level of animation for the film, so it’s nice to see their roles get recognized on the special feature!