5Qs with Lyon Liew, Simulation Technical Director, Pixar Animation Studios

Our 5Qs series is a chance for you to get to know more about folks in the Singapore Global Network community, where we pose 5 questions to exciting individuals to find out more about what they do!

By SGN | 12 Jan 2021

Lyon and his family at Pixar’s Halloween.

When the opportunity to work for Pixar knocked on his door four years ago, Lyon packed his bags and moved to California from Singapore without hesitation. Since then, he has worked on many Pixar blockbusters, including CocoToy Story 4, and Incredibles 2, bringing art to life through animation and imagination. Lyon shares insights and advice for aspiring tech + art enthusiasts.


Which came first: your love for programming or art? How did your animation (in simulation) career first begin? What attracted you?

Like many young kids, it’s definitely my love for art. I remember my parents bringing me to watch my first movie, Top Gun, and I instantly fell in love with the medium. My father was also an avid photographer, so I inherited my love of photography from him. Growing up, I always wanted to work in a visual medium, but we were always taught to be practical and learn a more stable skill set. Art was still considered a hobby and not a career. With that, I turned my focus to programming, which was the “it” field at the time. I liked it, but I was never in love with it until my 3rd year of Uni, where I took a class on Graphics Programming, and it clicked for me that I could use my programming skills to create art.

After graduation from university, I returned to Singapore and decided to take a day to cut my reel and prepare my resume. Without any expectations, I contacted 12 different companies that had some relevant roles. I sent my reel and resume, and I made plans to party that same night with my friends. On the bus ride to town, I got a call from a recruiter at Lucasfilm Singapore asking if I could come in for an interview the next day. At the next stop, I got off, called my buddies to cancel, and went back home to prep. Thankfully, I managed to land the role, but I never did get a call back from the other companies though.

Lyon at the old Lucasfilm Animation Studios in Changi where Clone Wars was being produced.

How does your Asian background help you connect with a global audience through the animated characters?

Working on Hollywood movies, there haven’t been many chances to do that, but one of the movies with some Asian influence was The Great Wall. It didn’t do well, but it was the first primary Hollywood-Chinese production, and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) Singapore was instrumental in developing the visual look. It was great to work on a mandarin language Hollywood movie, and despite the lack of Box Office success, I was very proud of the work my team did on the film.

At Pixar, alongside a Malaysian artist, we formed Lakxar, a group that represents South-East Asians, and through this group, we were able to showcase Asian culture to the studio. The studio has been very receptive to expand their horizons and embrace stories from different cultures. We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to help.

I am recently very fortunate to work on Turning Red, one of Pixar’s upcoming films about an Asian girl growing up in North America. It’s the first Pixar feature directed by someone of Asian descent, Domee Shi, and the movie has a lot of Asian influence. I can’t reveal too much, but it’s been fun giving suggestions or providing input on various elements related to growing up Asian. Domee is also a big fan of Japanese manga/anime, and it’s gratifying to be working with a director who shares not only your culture but also your aesthetic sensibilities.

Lyon (far left) with Domee Shi (3rd from right), the director of Turning Red, during a visit to Japanese anime studios.

What’s the best advice you’ve received in the course of your career? Who was it from, and how did it impact you?

When I worked as a photojournalist for my college newspaper, my mentor Gerry Mooney, always told me to take a photo every day. This was back in the days of film, and I remember telling him the cost of film and processing was a bit expensive for a college kid. He said that film should be the cheapest part of my education and growth, and with every photo I take, be it crappy or good, it’s investing in my path as a photographer. It took me a while, but I got what he was trying to say.

So, I also advise many aspiring artists or programmers to do a little bit every day. Don’t stop creating something, and even if it’s taking a photo on your phone or just doodling on a piece of paper. I can’t guarantee that will make you rich or famous, but every day you get to make/create something, it helps on your journey, and let’s face it, any day you get to do a little bit of what you love, it’s a good day.

To celebrate on the final day of production on Coco, the entire crew was given these skeleton onesies to wear.

You have worked on many well-recognized projects. Which do you consider to be your first ‘big break’ and why?

I am lucky that Lucasfilm opened a sister studio in Singapore, and my very first project after graduation was The Clone Wars animated series. Star Wars is such a recognizable brand worldwide, and it was great to have that as my first assignment.

As for my “big break,” I think it was working on the very first Avengers movie. As a nerdy kid, I loved comics, and amongst my fellow nerdy friends, I was the only one who connected with the Avengers comics while X-Men was the more popular series. Working on something that I grew up loving was an extraordinary feeling. It was great seeing all the characters in their movies, but to come together and be part of this team, I really felt like I was 13 again. To be honest, I thought the movie was going to flop, but when it became such a huge success, that was the first time I felt I chose the right career.

The other big moment for me was being asked to be a Lead Simulation Technical Director on Toy Story 4. Toy Story was such a significant influence for me that when I first worked on a shot, I couldn’t believe that I was working on characters like Buzz and Woody, who had such an impact on me when I was a kid.

Lyon with Josh Cooley (left), the director of Toy Story 4. The movie won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in February 2020.

How do you stay connected to family in Singapore and Malaysia?

With social media, it’s harder NOT to stay connected, and it’s effortless to stay up to date with friends and family. Especially for friends/family who post often, I know more about what’s going on in their lives than I do my next-door neighbor!

Of course, there’s such a strong Singaporean/Malaysian community here in the Bay Area that it’s easy to find someone you can count on. People like David Ho and his wife, Michelle, are instrumental in keeping this community strong. Even with the pandemic, the community has been crucial in ensuring everyone returning home is up to date with the latest procedures and requirements.

David Ho is Singapore Global Network’s regional director based in the Bay Area. Get connected with him and the bustling community here.

However, a huge problem in feeling connected to home is the lack of excellent local cuisine here in the Bay Area. There are great stalwarts who are holding down the fort, but we could use more, a lot more…

The Chinese New Year event at Pixar with the highlight when a huge portion of the company came out to watch the Lion Dance.

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