Dan Lee

After a long battle with cancer that got into his lungs, Dan Lee died this last weekend. He was only 35 years old. I worked with him recently at Pixar where he was one of the main character designers, but we first met at Colossal Pictures back in the mid 1990’s.

I believe that Colossal was the first place he worked at in the USA after leaving Canada. While there, amongst other things, he animated on the Koala Lumpur game that I was working on, and that’s when I got to know him. I remember that he was belting out great animation daily, and seemed highly skeptical of the fact that I loved everything he did and didn’t change anything… Anyone who worked with him back in those days probably remembers his little cubicle drapped in equal proportions with beautiful sketches, lots of pictures of Audrey Hepburn and Dan’s sweaty bike shorts.

Dan was amazingly talented, but not at all difficult about it. I remember that he was the first artist on Finding Nemo to manage a “cute fish” design. I had been wrestling with the challenge of drawing a cute fish for weeks, (it’s harder than you may think!) and Dan managed it immediately. (DOH!) If any of you have the “art of Nemo” book you will be able to see some of his very appealing little sketches of Nemo in there.

Apart from often being inspired by his easy way with a pencil, brush or stylus, I admired the fact that despite his illness Dan continued to work at his job. I suppose it continued to make him happy despite all that he was going through.

I saw Dan as Recently as late October when I was in at Pixar storyboarding on another project he was doing wonderful designs on. (the rest of you will have to wait a year or two to see his work on that film). At that time he was physically frail but was nevertheless cheerful, certainly more so than I would imagine myself being in the same circumstances…

Thanks to Amber Maclean for this recent photo of Dan, taken in December 2004.

An obituary article about Dan was published by the CBC. you can read it online here.

There is also a piece by the TORONTO SUN

UPDATE August 2005: read here about the Dan Lee Commemorative book.

14 thoughts on “Dan Lee”

  1. We at Ghostbot are devastated to hear this news. We met Dan a few times through our mutual friend, Amber and had a couple of fun lunches with him. He was a witty, down-to-earth guy, despite his immense talent. We never let on in front of him, but after our lunches we would go back to work and drool over his drawings in the Pixar art books.

    Our condolences to his family and friends. What a loss to the animation community…

  2. Hi jamie,

    I was surprised and saddened when i found out the news. Stew told me this morning and i was totally shocked. In the past 3 years, I’ve knowned about 2 people in the business that has passed on. People that were close to me. Dan, whom I’ve met before from Colossal and at some of the Maverix parties…makes 3. I’m blowned away by all of these deaths. People that are so young and have not experienced everything. The year 2004 was a terrible year for family and friends. I’ve lost many of them. Dan basically has continued that trend for me. We weren’t close, but the man was a great guy and when we talk, you can tell he shines with kindness and with a great heart. We all know that he has moved on to a better and happier place. We can celebrate his life in this world and know that he’s being taken to the next evolution of spiritual bliss.

    A talented artist taken too soon from out existence. Take care Dan. We will miss you…

    • Hey Steve, I’m so sorry, I thought you were on the email that I sent out yesterday about Dan. (I just checked, and I guess I accidently sent TWO emails to Stew instead of one to each of you..). I will make SURE to keep you posted about the possibility of a memorial for Dan in February.

      Anyway, it IS definately a blow to the Bay Area animation community and more so to you who hadn’t seen him in while and may not have known he was ill.

  3. Dan Lee and I go way back 10 years to the early 90’s Colossal days too. We both started assisting on some insane 2d commercial around the same week. They planted all the new kids next each other so we became lunch buddies. Frankly, he kicked my butt in assisting and design. ..Over the years, Dan has was so generous and honest with his advice, as well as his friendship. Not only that, he let me draw funny pictures of him. He was a very special guy… I miss you very much, Dan!

  4. I am a school friend of Dans back when he was at Sheridan College.
    I say am because I find it hard to believe such a talented, warm person has left us. It had been awhile since I had talked to him and like many of his friends I enjoyed his company when he would make the pilgrimage back to Canada.
    I remember the Audrey Hepburn pics that had followed the Julie Andrews ones, his sense of humour, his love of Animation. Marvelled at the fact he could drive so many miles by himself across the U.S and Canada and still have enough energy to visit Japan. He would do his best to visit everyone he knew with his camera and a smile.
    I will miss you my friend, and will always think of you dearly.

  5. I did’nt know Dan personally. But he touched my life, and my kids life, through his beautiful work at Pixar in so many ways.

    Sincere and heartfelt sympathy to his family and all his friends.

    Signed… a fan from the UK.

  6. What follows is an OTTOWA CITIZEN Article:


    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.

  7. Yesterday (February 13th) There was a memorial service for Dan held at Pixar, and attended by his friends from the Bay Area, including co-workers from Colossal Pictures and Pixar, and also his 3 sisters who had come from Canada.

    Dan’s sister Brenda gave a talk in which she gave his Californian friends an insight into his upbringing and his quirks as a younger brother. Then we got to see a video containing interviews with his Pixar friends, each of who had some perspective on Dan’s art or his character.

    Dan’s sisters were then each presented with a beautiful book Dan had been making for his family. He didn’t manage to finish it himself before he died so some Pixar friends had completed it and seen to it that it was beautifully color printed and hardbound. It contained a reflective narrative of his own life, decade by decade, illustrated beautifully with his own artwork. There were copies for each of his family members.

    Lastly, all in attendance moved out to the Pixar grounds where a Maple tree was dedicated in Dan’s name. The plaque reads “Dan Lee: Friend, Artist Canadian” I think he would have gotten a kick out of that inscription.

  8. I knew Dan at sheridan college,(animation program). I really did not know him that well, but knew that he was a gentleman with alot of talent. I am sorry for his family’s lost.

  9. I just saw Ratatouille the second time, now in english. (yesterday was the first time, in my mother tongue… so much better in english…)
    and in the credits I again read that it was dadicated to a “Dan Lee”… And I thought, “I know that name from somewhere…”… Well…

    My sympathies and deepest condolences.


    p.s.: You don’t know me. I’m just some random guy amongst others who watches your movies, amongst others.

  10. Dan we miss you friend. Your brilliant talent lives on – so too memories of your great sense of humour, generosity, and charm. I will always cherish the memories of grade school, high school, road trip to Montral for ribs with buddies William Cheng et al…

    Scarborough rules Dan!

    Gary Archibald

  11. I just watched Ratatouille in blu-ray and learnt about Dan Lee. I looked up on the Internet and I cried when I read about his story. It is a loss to lose him but I guess his memory will always be there. I pay my respect to him – Jimmie.


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