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