March 2, 2021

Animator Yoo Lee Reflects on Project Involve

By Hugh Hart

Late-blooming animation auteur Yoo Lee MFA '22 spent 20 years in the fashion industry before the birth of her daughter Sky motivated a complete shift in priorities.  Inspired by Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas, Lee started making DIY stop motion music videos to entertain her little girl. "They were fun, but I knew I needed to learn the fundamentals," Lee says. Moving from New York to Los Angeles with her child and sound designer husband, she enrolled in 2019 at John C. Hench Division of Animation + Digital Arts. 

The course correction paid off. 

This winter Lee received a $30,000 LAIKA Fellowship from Film Independent's Project Involve program. Teamed with two producers, an editor and a cinematographer, Lee will use her new-found resources over the next nine months to create a new stop motion short film. "The whole point of my journey has been about being able to tell my own stories," says Lee, who joins a roster of previous Project Involve grant recipients that includes Lulu Wang, Dear White People creator Justin Simien and SCA's own Jon M. Chu. She says, "Thanks to this grant, I get to be the writer and the animator and the director. It's scary but also really exciting."

The South Korean-born Lee earned her Project Involve fellowship on the strength of A Poem by Alba, which tells the poignant story of an elderly woman isolated in her apartment whose children don't have time to visit. The idea originated in professor Kathy Smith's Expanded Animation course. "Kathy told us to bring a sound or poem to class that felt important to us," says Lee. Years earlier at a party for baby Sky, she'd recorded her octogenarian neighbor Alba reciting a playful verse. "That recording always stuck with me," Lee explains. "I think elderly people are one of the most interesting groups because they have stories to tell, and they're funny. I realized I could build this whole movie around that poem."

A few months before her Alba epiphany, Lee had arrived at SCA’s John C. Hench Division of Animation + Digital Arts equipped with a fierce work ethic forged in New York, where she designed nine collections a year for the Saja fashion line. She also possessed a strong grasp of color, texture and fabrication techniques. But Lee lacked computer animation skills and returning to school as a forty-something student initially proved to be a rough slog. "I was in over my head," she recalls, "I cried every day, going: 'What am I doing here?' But the professors were so nurturing, they'd tell me 'Just give it a try, you will catch up.'" 

During winter break, Lee obsessed over her computer for eight hours a day learning Maya programming. She then sharpened her story skills in screenwriting classes taught by Paul Foley. But the turning point came when husband and wife teachers Mike Patterson and Candace Reckinger [Animation 555] took Lee under their wing. "A Poem for Alba could not have been made without Mike and Candace," Lee says. "They scrutinized every frame, pointed out everything that was wrong in a very lovely way, loaned me lenses and even gave me branches from their garden so I could fabricate trees. Even during COVID, at no point did I feel like I was alone because Mike and Candace were there encouraging me every step of the way." Lee takes a breath. "That's why we go to USC. When you find the right mentors who believe in you, who nurture you, who show you things? Hold on to that, because it really will change your life."