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Dan Lee, 35; Designed Characters for Pixar’s ‘Finding Nemo’

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Times Staff Writer

Dan Lee, a character designer at Pixar Animation Studios who made significant contributions to “Finding Nemo” and other hit animated films over the last decade, has died. He was 35.

Lee died Jan. 15 at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley after a 17-month battle with lung cancer. An Oakland resident, he was a nonsmoker and lived a healthy and active lifestyle that included bicycling to and from the Pixar studios in nearby Emeryville, said his colleagues.

Lee joined Pixar in 1996 as a sketch artist, character designer and animator for “A Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story 2.” He later designed characters for “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo,” and he was working on one of the studio’s upcoming animated films.

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“His major contribution was character design,” Andrew Stanton, director of “Finding Nemo” and co-director of “A Bug’s Life,” told The Times on Wednesday.

Among the characters Lee designed were Rosie, Princess Atta, Dot, Hopper and Tuck & Roll in “A Bug’s Life”; Waternoose in “Monsters, Inc.”; and Nemo, Marlin, Bloat, Nemo’s friends and the barracuda in “Finding Nemo.”

“One of the most important aspects of character design in animation is making appealing characters,” Stanton said. “That doesn’t always mean they’re cute or pretty; it means that there’s something pleasing to the eye for staring at them a long period of time on the screen, and Dan was very good at finding the appeal in the designs of his characters.”

As for designing the young clown-fish that winds up in a dentist’s office aquarium in the Oscar-winning “Finding Nemo,” Stanton said Lee “really nailed Nemo right off the bat.”

“Some designs need a lot of working and reworking to get them right, but with Nemo, he kind of discovered him quickly, and we never changed it,” said Stanton. “He had to make a cute little boy fish that wasn’t annoyingly cute. I think he just captured what was appealing about fish, [and] at the same time what’s endearing about little boys.”

Lee also was known for his ability to design charming and appealing female and child characters.

“Dan was always taking in everything around him, and it would show up later in his drawings in some form or another,” Pete Docter, director of “Monsters, Inc.” said in a statement. “He would do these incredible sketches of people from life -- really well-observed, great drawings. Dan was a rare talent -- one of our top character designers here at Pixar -- and we’ll miss him.”

Lee was born in Montreal, the youngest of four children of Chinese immigrants, and grew up primarily in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, Ontario.

He became interested in animation in high school, and graduated from the classical animation program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, where he received the Board of Governors Silver Medal for Academic Excellence.

Before joining Pixar, Lee worked on television cartoons and commercials for studios such as Kennedy Cartoons in Toronto and Colossal Pictures in San Francisco.

He is survived by his mother and father, Kam Sau and Hung Yau Lee of Toronto, and his three sisters.

The family suggests that donations in Lee’s memory be made to the Alta Bates Summit Foundation, 2450 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, CA 94705.

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