A Reel Dream Come True: Oscar-winning Lighting Artist Roger Lee on His Disney Animation Career

Roger Lee has come a long way from Punggol, Singapore to his current residence in Arcadia, California. However, Roger's animation career wasn’t always smooth sailing. A father of triplets, he shares his experience working on some of Disney's biggest hits such as “Zootopia” and "Frozen", including setbacks, challenges, and sage advice for aspiring animation artists.

By SGN | 5 Feb 2021

Roger holding the Academy Award (Oscar) for Best Animated Feature, Zootopia.

Few Singaporeans can lay claim to lifting one of the most coveted trophies in the filmmaking world — the Oscar. Roger Lee, an award-winning Lighting and Compositing Artist at the Walt Disney Animation Studio, counts himself lucky for belonging to this exclusive club.

Based in Los Angeles, California, with his wife and three kids since 2012, Roger enthuses: “The trophy felt heavy, and I was cautious not to drop it!” The photo opportunity came following his team’s Best Animated Feature win for Zootopia at the 2017 Oscars. “Everyone who worked on the movie got a chance to hold it. It was everyone’s hard work.”

Since then, Roger has worked on several more Disney hits: Big Hero 6Frozen, and Rango, all of which received the Best Animated Feature accolade.

Roger (middle) with Big Hero 6 colleagues.

Humble Beginnings

Since young, Roger has always been fascinated by animation due to his interest in drawing, painting and a steady diet of cartoons. However, at that time, there were not many animation-related courses he could take, even when he was pursuing his Diploma in Film, Sound and Video at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

The closest was a weekly 4-hour-long Computer Graphics (CG) class but even then, the focus was on the technical aspects of the CG software instead of the art of animation. Despite this, Roger chose to major in CG for his third year before starting his career in animation.

Roger at Walt Disney Animation Studios during the production of Frozen.

A Long Road to Success

After graduating, Roger encountered many setbacks while applying for jobs overseas, the worst of which was when a prominent studio in Sydney canned a movie project for which he was hired. 

“I remembered resigning from Lucasfilm on a Friday and getting ready to fly to Sydney for the new job. I was excited and looking forward to a new adventure. The following Monday though, a day before Christmas Eve, I received a call from the studio apologising that the film had been canned indefinitely. As a result, they could not bring me over! I was devastated.”

Despite these setbacks, Roger did not give up on his dream to work overseas and pressed on for the next five years before securing his job at Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2012. To others who are facing similar setbacks in their career, he advises: “Firstly, you need to develop a keen sense in sniffing out opportunities in your industry and workplace. Secondly, once you find the opportunity, never give up.”

Roger also suggests taking on internships to get your foot in the door. “If you are new, it also helps you to understand if this is the industry you want to work in.”

Learning to make sacrifices can also set you up for bigger success later in your career. Even for experienced professionals, Roger urges one to always be humble and be open to opportunities, even those which might not be an immediate career step-up. He feels that these opportunities are a great way to build a strong portfolio and establish relationships with other teams in the company.

Parenthood – The latest Adventure!

After becoming a parent, Roger said his priorities shifted, with a stronger focus on job stability and the importance of having a support network for his family.

Creating cherished family memories: dressing up in matching pyjamas for Christmas (left); playing with snow at the Sequoia National Park in California (right).

“If it wasn’t for my wife, Winnie, who gave me tremendous support to continue pursuing our overseas dream, I don’t think I could have made a move. Flying 13-month-old triplets for 17 hours to a foreign land with absolutely no family support was unimaginable. Not to mention, we had to rebuild our lives from ground zero.”

The family’s move to the U.S. resulted from Roger receiving confirmation to work on a five-month contract for the animated feature, Wreck-It Ralph. “We sold everything in Singapore before we flew because we did not want to look back, and we had no idea what would happen after the project ended.”

“It was such a crazy and, to a certain extent, reckless decision back then, and it still sends shivers down my spine now that I think of it!”

Roger notes that due to animation artists’ intense competition to land projects, he didn’t have the luxury of striking a work-life balance. “If I’m not focused and don’t perform at 100% on a show, that could be my last project at the studio due to the fierce competition.”

However, whenever he is at home, he would pitch in to help with the kids. For example, he shared, with a laugh, that he takes on a disciplinarian role in the family while his wife was generally more forgiving.

Paying It Forward

Looking into the future, Roger shares that his family will likely stay put in LA until his two sons reach the age for National Service in Singapore. When quizzed about what he would do if his kids express an interest in following in his footsteps, Roger reflected that he would support their decision and encourage them to not give up on their dreams.

Roger with Auli’i Cravalho (Moana’s voice) to his left, and Osnat Shurer (Producer) to his right, during the Disney’s “Moana” Promotional Tour to Singapore.

This spirit of support and giving back rings true when Roger shares his thoughts about Singapore’s film and animation industry. If an opportunity arises, he would be happy to return to Singapore to help with strategic planning or spearhead initiatives that give the local talents and their work more international exposure.

“I’m very proud that Singapore has already made a name for herself in the U.S. and Hollywood. Hopefully, I can help more Singaporean talent, films, and animation get their well-deserved global recognition.”

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About Roger

Roger is a Singaporean Oscar-winning Director of Cinematography and Lighting & Compositing Artist at Walt Disney Animation Studios. He is now based in Los Angeles, California with his wife and three children since 2012. Follow his art account on Instagram and watch his showreel here. Connect with Roger here.

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