Meet the first Malaysian to work at Pixar Animation Studios

by - 15:11

When you go to watch Cars 3 in cinemas, keep an eye out for the character of Doc Hudson, the legendary mentor of lead character Lightning McQueen. Not only is it a moving tribute to the late Paul Newman – who voiced the character in the first Cars movie in 2006 – Doc Hudson is also one of the characters worked on by Kiki Poh, the first Malaysian to be recruited by Pixar Animation Studios.

On Cars 3, Poh’s function was of a shading artist and grooming technical director, which involved working on the surface texture and colours of the characters.

“I am a shading artist with the character department, and I got to shade a bunch of cars – Doc Hudson, River Scott and Radiator Springs characters like Filmore and Guido, as well as the newer characters like RV, a motorhome,” said the Johor Baru native.

Wait. Back up. What exactly does a shading artist do?

“We help develop the appearance and look of a character. For me, it’s related to the material on the characters. Is it skin? Is it metal? What colour is it, and what is the texture?” she explained.

“For human characters, we deal with things like the skin, the garments and the shoes. But for Cars 3, since the characters are automobiles, we deal with how shiny the car is, what type of paint job it has, is it shiny or dull, is it single-coated paint or metallic, are there metal flakes on it … we have to tweak the material properties of these cars.”

One of Poh’s favourite parts of the job is the research she has to do before working on the animation.

Jackson Storm (voice of Armie Hammer) and Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) in Cars 3. Photo: Walt Disney Studios

For example, one scene she worked on involves a demolition derby in which there are a lot of rusty cars who don’t take care of themselves.

“I did a bunch of research about rusty cars, cars with a lot of oxidation, and cars with primer patches or mismatched panels …” she said, adding that one of the most interesting characters she worked on was Doc Hudson, which is based on a 1951 Hudson Hornet car.

“We knew someone whose father owns that same model, so I got to see the real car for myself. Because it was such an old car, the labels and paint were all done in traditional way,” she recalled. “That’s my favourite part – paying attention to the details of what people did in the past without all this technology we have today. So, I get to create the brush strokes and apply Doc Hudson’s labels, to try and implement all those old techniques as to make it look believable.”

Poh was inspired to take up animation as a career after watching Jurassic Park. “That was really touching for me, especially when I saw the dinosaurs, on the big screen, biting on a leaf. I almost cried!” she recalled, laughing. “At that moment, I knew what I wanted to do. It’s really fascinating what computer animation can bring to life something that no longer exists.”

After studying animation in Taiwan, Poh had an eight-month internship at Pixar in 2010, during which she worked on Toy Story 3. She joined the company full-time after her stint as an intern and has since worked on movies such as Monsters University, Finding Dory and Inside Out. She is currently working on The Incredibles II.

“When I started at Pixar, I did Monsters University. That’s when I really found myself interested in doing grooming, which is working on fur or hair,” she said. “So I asked the grooming lead on Monsters University to let me try and learn how to do just that. Since then, I’ve been working on either grooming or shading. On Finding Dory, my job was mostly grooming, in Cars 3, since there’s no hair, so I did shading!”

Poh was back in Malaysia recently to help promote Cars 3 at a retail event at Sunway Pyramid, Petaling Jaya, unveiling a life-sized Lightning McQueen replica, which is on display at the mall until Sept 3.

She also conducted an animation workshop at The One Academy, where students got a chance to learn from her and gain more insights into character shading and grooming. “My nephews are huge Lightning McQueen fans, and to be able to come back home to share this movie with them is very special to me,” she said. “I also had a baby last year and I can’t wait to show him the movie!”

Cars 3 sees racing veteran Lighting McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) finding himself pushed out of the sport that he loves by faster and younger racers. Hoping to get back in the game, he turns to Cruz Ramirez, an eager young technician who has her own plans of winning. With inspiration from the Fabulous Hudson Hornet and a few unexpected turns, Lightning prepares to compete on Piston Cup Racing’s biggest stage once again.

Cars 3 is currently showing at cinemas nationwide. Head to the GSC website for screening times.

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