Little Davy Liu was always enchanted by the fluffy white clouds beyond his elementary school window. First, he would spot a nose, then some eyes, and soon a beaming lion would emerge, decorated with a massive ice cream cone growing out of its mane.

What a stark contrast from the textbook Davy was supposed to read, covered with indecipherable black symbols crowding the page like dead worms. But unraveling them and performing well in school were the keys to future prosperity, or so everyone said.

Frustrated and bored, Davy picked up his pencil and started doodling instead.

From a young age, drawing was Davy Liu’s refuge, a gateway to limitless possibilities. His passion for art would ultimately launch this fledgling Taiwanese artist into a blossoming career as an artist and animator, working on blockbuster Disney films like “Mulan,” “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King.”

And a few years after leaving Disney, he would pioneer his own company—a creative animation studio, dedicated to artistic exploration and emboldening children who resemble his disheartened younger self.

Tough Beginnings

For much of his early life, Liu was bombarded with criticism in a society that saw no future for children who liked to draw. Whenever he doodled in class, his teacher in Taiwan would throw chalk at his head and humiliate him in front of his classmates. His parents bemoaned his dismal grades, especially in contrast to those of his five older siblings.

Animator and Illustrator Davy Liu. (Courtesy of Davy Liu)

When he was 13, his parents immigrated with him to the United States, hoping that the American education system might save him. His grades, however, showed no signs of improvement, and he now had to grapple with being the only Asian kid in an alien, English-speaking environment.

In the end, a miracle did come, but not in the way his parents had expected.

On his first day in class, Liu ’s art teacher, Poppy Kincaid, told him he was artistically talented. For the first time in his life, someone validated rather than demoralized him. “You can do it!” she always reminded him. Invigorated by her support, he started drawing for hours every day after school.

After she entered one of his illustrations in the nation’s largest middle school art competition, he won a prestigious award and even received a letter of recognition from then-President Ronald Reagan. This watershed moment transformed Liu’s view of himself and prompted even his parents to see his passion for art in a new light.

Davy Liu and Disney crew when he was young animator. (Courtesy Davy Liu)

Discovering the Essence of Animation at Disney

While in college, he applied to intern at Walt Disney Feature Animation. Again and again, he failed. But he persevered, and on his fourth try, he beat all the other college art students to one of the eight coveted positions.

He was only 19 at the time, and he was also the first ethnically Chinese animator to work for Disney.

He was fascinated by the world of animation—a versatile art form, combining emotional storytelling with moving images, dialogue, and music. “This art goes far beyond just 3-D. It spans multiple dimensions,” he marveled.

Observing the top animators at Disney, Liu was captivated by their meticulous attention to detail. If they made the tiniest mistake, they would promptly discard their work and start again. Voraciously enthusiastic to learn, he sifted through the trash bin after work to find these discarded drafts. To others they were garbage, but to him they were priceless troves of artistic brilliance.

“Heaven’s Lion,” by Davy Liu. Lions are a favorite subject of the animator. (Courtesy of Davy Liu)

Over time, Liu developed from a novice animator to one of the main creative forces behind classic films like “Mulan” and “The Lion King.”

Today, people still often ask him about the Disney animation process. Is there some secret formula to creating that perfect movie?

But Liu says there is only one essential ingredient: “In Disney, all the stories—regardless of whether they were about Westerners, Asians, or even aliens—contain one key element: the ability to move people.”

Of the many films he has worked on, “The Lion King holds” a special place in his heart. The original story pitch was nearly tossed out and forgotten like numerous other ideas. But its creators ultimately saw its potential, transforming and breathing life into the storyline to create the “Circle of Life” classic adored by audiences around the world.

Written by the animator and illustrator Davy Liu, “The Giant Leaf” tells the story of Noah’s Ark from the perspective of the animals that were eyewitnesses to the Bibical events. (Courtesy of Davy Liu)

Forging His Own Path

After three years at Disney, Liu started working at Warner Bros. as an art director. In 1998, he joined Industrial Light & Magic, a visual effects company founded by filmmaker George Lucas, and worked on the production of “Star Wars: Episode I” and “Frankenstein.” His illustrations were also featured in prominent publications like Businessweek, Time magazine, and The Wall Street Journal.

Despite his enormous success, especially as an ethnically Chinese artist in the Hollywood movie business, Liu felt he had a greater purpose. To the surprise of many, he chose to leave his high-paying career and started his own animation studio, Kendu Films, in 2004.

A poster for the children’s book “The Giant Leaf,” part of the “Invisible Tails” series by Davy Liu. (Courtesy of Davy Liu)

The company name was inspired by his art teacher’s words of encouragement, which remain close to his heart. Davy hopes the stories and animations produced by his studio will instill an “I can do it” spirit of confidence and optimism within the next generation of children.

“My mission,” he said, “is to help people, through art, live more beautiful, fulfilling lives.” His animated book series called “Invisible Tails” reinvents classic stories from the Christian canon, retelling them from the perspective of endearing animals at the scenes.

Davy Liu’s drawings for his story “The Green Leaf.” (Courtesy of Davy Liu)

In recent years, as he travels around Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China giving talks, he always tells parents, “Don’t mistake diamonds for marbles.” Like the seemingly dull story of “The Lion King,” every child is a diamond, including Davy the doodler who hated studying, if only given the opportunity to flourish and to dream.


Video Popular

  • Celebrating Arbor Day With Books

    Celebrating Arbor Day With Books

    Trees were once considered sacred and awe-inspiring: Oaks were worshiped by the European Druids, redwoods were a part of American Indian ritual, and baobabs a part of African tribal life. Ancient Chin...

  • Sharks Eat Their Greens, Too—First Omnivorous Species Confirmed

    Sharks Eat Their Greens, Too—First Omnivorous Species Confirmed

    Not all sharks feed only on meat—at least one shark species also feeds on seagrass. Scientists have confirmed that one of the most common sharks in the world is an omnivore. The bonnethead shark, a re...

  • Microsoft Flags Dangers to EU of Plans to Limit Data Use

    Microsoft Flags Dangers to EU of Plans to Limit Data Use

    Microsoft said on Sept. 5, that EU lawmakers’ copyright reforms limiting the use of potentially valuable data to non-profit bodies could damage the European Union’s digital development. Co...

  • How Setting a Schedule Can Make You Less Productive

    How Setting a Schedule Can Make You Less Productive

    It can seem like there’s never enough time—not enough for sleep and not enough for play, not enough for cooking. and not enough for exercise. There’s a relatively new term to describe this feeling: ti...

  • RiNo, Denver: America’s Best Place for a Bar Crawl?

    RiNo, Denver: America’s Best Place for a Bar Crawl?

    “RiNo reminds me of Williamsburg in 2004—just pretentious enough to be good, not yet pretentious enough to be annoying.” Kevin Burke is joking, of course. As the general manager of American Bonded—one...

  • Respecting Teachers and Cherishing Virtue

    Respecting Teachers and Cherishing Virtue

    Respecting teachers and cherishing virtues are part of the traditional ethics practiced by the Chinese people. Teachers, who impart morality, knowledge, and values, teach people the proper ways to int...

  • Home Ownership in Canada Declines, Reversing Long Upward Trend

    Home Ownership in Canada Declines, Reversing Long Upward Trend

    Home ownership in Canada fell for the first time in over 45 years, according to a Point2Homes study released this week. It had reached a record high of 69 percent in 2011, but as of 2016, it fell to 6...

  • Aretha Franklin Dresses, Hats to Go up for Auction

    Aretha Franklin Dresses, Hats to Go up for Auction

    NEW YORK—More than 30 dresses and accessories worn on stage by Aretha Franklin are going up for auction. The Queen of Soul died at age 76 in Detroit on Aug. 16. Julien’s Auctions says the items ...

  • 87 Elephants Found Slaughtered in Botswana, Africa

    87 Elephants Found Slaughtered in Botswana, Africa

    An alarming number of elephant carcasses have been discovered in aerial surveys across Botswana in what has been described as a “poaching frenzy.” Botswana was once known as a sanctuary fo...

  • Yes, Marijuana Can Be Addictive

    Yes, Marijuana Can Be Addictive

    The business world is salivating at the potential $22.6 billion recreational marijuana market in Canada, with more new pot users expected after legalization on Oct. 17. But public-health officials wan...

  • Google Races to Parry the Rise of Facebook in India

    Google Races to Parry the Rise of Facebook in India

    Google retains only a slight lead over Facebook in the competition for digital ad dollars in the crucial India market, sources familiar with the figures say, even though the search giant has been in t...

  • Canada in Brief, Sept. 6-12

    Canada in Brief, Sept. 6-12

    Trudeau says he won’t use ‘tricks’ to ram through pipeline construction Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pouring cold water on Alberta’s suggestion that the federal government use legislation or a cou...