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Meet NZ's latest Oscar Winner

NZ's latest Oscar winner David Lee on the set of Tenet. Photo: Supplied.
NZ's latest Oscar winner David Lee on the set of Tenet. Photo: Supplied.
NZ's latest Oscar winner David Lee on the set of Tenet. Photo: Supplied.
NZ's latest Oscar winner David Lee on the set of Tenet. Photo: Supplied.
NZ's latest Oscar winner David Lee on the set of Tenet. Photo: Supplied.
It slipped under the radar for most, but there was another NZ success story at this year's Academy Awards. The Big Idea talks to David Lee about his road to Hollywood.


Our newest Oscar winner almost never happened.

David Lee has cemented his part in an incredible legacy of New Zealanders to get their hands on an Academy Award (well, he will once it arrives in his current base of London next week, thanks COVID). 

Lee was the Digital Effects Supervisor on mind-warping Hollywood blockbuster Tenet - who took out the award for Best Visual Effects on Monday. 

He follows countrymen Sir Richard Taylor, Christian Rivers and Dan Lemmon in winners of the Visual Effects category and marks the 26th occasion overall a New Zealander has been involved in an Oscars victory. 

Screen trumps science

But the product of Springston, a small town in Canterbury - originally had his career focused in a different direction.

Lee tells The Big Idea “I actually went to Canterbury University originally to begin studying Microbiology before realising I could actually turn film into a career, so finished before the end of my second year and went to Film School.”

So in 1999, he became a student of NZ film and Television School - which kicked off a journey that would take him from Canterbury to Hollywood.

The journey begins

David Lee in challenging conditions on the set of Tenet. Photo: Supplied.

Lee recalls upon graduating - he began his hands-on introduction to the industry here in Aotearoa.

“I moved to Wellington the following year to create short films in between working in bars and cafes, and very luckily got a job at Weta Workshop on their children's TV show, Jane and The Dragon

“I then freelanced for about 4 years, working at Huhu Productions in Snells Beach, then Cobolt VFX, and Sauce VFX back in Welly, where i also did the Gaylene Preston film, Home by Christmas

“Finally, I moved up to Auckland for a year to work with Photon VFX, which was one of my first big film shows. Or at least, it was at the time.”

Backing himself for a move to London in 2009 paid off - in a big way.

Blockbuster talent

Lee has worked on some huge movie franchises, including Avengers, Fast & The Furious, Wonder Woman and The Hunger Games. His experience as a digital and video effects compositor led to working as a supervisor - eventually positioning him to work with acclaimed director Christopher Nolan on the challenging project that was Tenet.

NZ's latest Oscar winner David Lee on the set of Tenet. Photo: Supplied.

The rest is now - officially -  history.

When asked what it means to follow in the footsteps of such national icons in being able to put ‘Oscar winner’ on his CV, Lee explains “I guess it's just a wonderful realisation that for us Kiwis, it's important to dream big, and there’s nothing we can't do at least as good as anyone else. 

“It seemed daunting when I first started. You see the success of Peter Jackson and the like but it always feels like it's something that happens to 'other' people. But bit by bit, progress is made before you finally get to look back at where you came from. 

“I truly believe that the upbringing I got in NZ gave me the attributes that helped make this (Oscar) success a reality. The no. 8 wire philosophy that gets drilled into us as kids is really such a useful ideal to have. No matter what the problem, see what you have on hand and make it work for you. On a film set, this is particularly important. 

Lee sharing a laugh with colleagues on the set of Tenet. Photo: Supplied.

“I think being a Kiwi means wanting to create something special but to have fun with everyone while doing it. Take it seriously, but not TOO seriously. And of course, being such small islands in such a big world, you really do feel the support of people back home.” 

It may have slipped under the radar for some, but Lee has helped keep New Zealand among the benchmark for the film world, even from the other side of the world. 


Written by

The Big Idea Editor

29 Apr 2021

The Big Idea Editor