Ahead of the release of Lightyear, The Ringer is hosting Pixar Week—a celebration of the toys, rats, clown fish, and more that helped define one of the greatest studios of the 21st century. At the heart of the occasion is the Best Pixar Character Bracket, a cutthroat tournament to determine the most iconic figure of them all. Check back throughout the week to vote for your favorite characters and read a selection of stories that spotlight some of Pixar’s finest moments. To infinity … and beyond!
In the span of just seven minutes, Domee Shi can tell a story that can shock audiences. That’s what the Chinese Canadian director accomplished with her debut short film for Pixar, Bao, which premiered alongside 2018’s Incredibles 2. The short follows a Chinese mother whose empty-nest syndrome is alleviated when one of her dumplings springs to life in the kitchen and she begins to care for it as her new child. The story, told without a single spoken word, is heartwarming, hilarious, and just a bit disturbing all at once, as the young dumpling grows up before the mother’s eyes far too quickly, causing her to prevent the handcrafted child from leaving home by shoving him down her throat and swallowing him whole.
Bao went on to win Best Animated Short Film at the Academy Awards in 2019, and during Shi’s acceptance speech, she shared a message targeting the young female viewers watching at home: “To all the nerdy girls out there who hide behind their sketchbooks, don’t be afraid to tell your stories to the world.”
The short was also only a bite-sized taste of what was to come next for the 32-year-old filmmaker. Less than five years after she became the first woman to direct a Pixar short, Shi’s debut feature, Turning Red, made her the first woman in Pixar’s 36-year history to solo-direct a feature-length film. Turning Red, which is now available on digital platforms, centers on a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl named Meilin Lee, whose life comes crashing down when she wakes up one day as a giant red panda. The film is not just a landmark in representation, but also one of the best movies Pixar has made in years, and it became the most-watched global movie premiere on Disney+ to date when it arrived in March.
Shi started at Pixar as a 22-year-old intern in 2011, and 11 years later she’s one of the legendary animation studio’s vice presidents of creative. Last month, I spoke with Domee over Zoom, where we discussed everything from her career at Pixar to creating Turning Red, representation in the animation industry, shattering stereotypes, and this year’s indie sensation, Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Can you tell me a bit about your journey and your experience so far at Pixar?
It’s been pretty crazy. But it’s very much a unique path that I’ve taken in that it does feel very fast. When I first came to Pixar, I did the story internship through the summer. That summer I just graduated from animation school. This was my first time in America, first time living away from my parents. But even back then, there was this motto that I had in the back of my head. I didn’t know if I was going to be guaranteed a job after the internship, so I might as well just go for broke for every assignment that we got. I wanted to make an impression and to try something really bold.
During the internship, how it works is each week we get an assignment, and we have to storyboard a whole story and pitch it to a room full of directors and story supervisors, and it’s very intimidating. And I was like, “Maybe I won’t ever see these people again. I’ll just go back to Canada, it’s fine.” But I jumped into every assignment with that attitude. And that has helped me through every stage of my career. Just jumping in headfirst, and then freaking out while you’re in there—but just do it and then deal with the mess later.
And I think because I was able to really show that I had a voice in the internship, I was hired to be a storyboard artist on Inside Out. And that was a great show to be on because it was about going into the mind of a 13-year-old girl, and I didn’t know shit about anything, but I knew that at least. I felt comfortable in that environment, building my confidence in the room, and pitching weird ideas to [chief creative officer Pete Docter] that he would reject, but that’s OK. Because I put them in Turning Red like 10 years later. And as I was working on Inside Out, I felt almost a little too comfortable in my day-to-day, so I started working on a short film on the side just for fun. That became Bao.
I eventually pitched it to Pixar as an official short, but even as I was making Bao, I was still storyboarding on other feature films at the studio: The Good Dinosaur, Toy Story 4, Incredibles 2. And I was learning as much as I could from these different directors, but still having that principle guiding me in the back of my head, like, “OK, I’m only here for a certain amount of time. I need to make an impression and tell them who I am with the assignments that they give me.” I wanted to make an impact and always give the director something they didn’t expect. And that translates to how I tell stories as well. Just surprise you a little bit.
What was the transition from creating a short film like Bao to your first feature film—both as a writer and a director?
It was gradual, which helped me get used to it. I was scared that I was just going to be dropped in front of a room of 500 people and have to tell them what to do. But luckily, it started with just me in a room and an empty page in front of me, and I had to start coming up with ideas to pitch as a feature film. And then slowly we got more people on the crew. We got a writer, we got a producer, then an editor, and a story team. The biggest thing I had to learn was to delegate, and to trust my crew, and also be able to communicate in a succinct and positive way, which is hard to do when you grow up your whole life as a loner drawing under your bed like a weirdo. [Laughs.] To then have to inspire and get hundreds of people excited about your weird little project—that was the biggest hurdle for me.
There are some people who are more natural with talking in front of a crowd, but that was something that I had to learn, to get comfortable with, or be comfortable being uncomfortable. Like you’re just going to have to be OK with being uncomfortable for your whole life if you want to keep making films and work in animation.
For so long, Pixar was a very male-dominated studio in terms of its creative teams, the animators, and even the protagonists in its films. But it seems as if there’s been a shift in recent years under Pete Docter. Turning Red not only centers on a Chinese Canadian teenage girl, but it was overseen by an all-female leadership team. What’s it been like witnessing that shift and also leading the charge in this groundbreaking film?
It’s been amazing to witness all of the changes that have happened in the last 10 years. A lot of it just comes from more women and people of color getting into animation schools, getting more exposure to animation and animation resources. The internet has opened up doors for so many kids to start learning how to draw, to look up tutorials on YouTube on how to use Photoshop, or Procreate, and all that stuff. All of that was so hard to access unless you had money, or knew somebody who knew somebody in the industry back then. So, that’s why the industry and so many industries were so homogenized, were so Caucasian, or male.
For me, I came up through the internet. I came up through DeviantArt, Blogger, YouTube, and looking up tutorials and finding pencil tests of classic Disney animators that someone bootlegged and uploaded onto YouTube or Dailymotion. If I was growing up in, what, the ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s, I would never have had access to that stuff. That would be locked up in a Disney vault that only relatives of Disney would be able to see. And then you saw that change in enrollment in animation schools. Now it’s over 50 percent girls that are enrolling in animation schools. And you’re finally seeing that reflected in the industry, in leadership.
But all of this probably started years and years ago, even before Pete Docter was promoted. Along with that, you’re just seeing studios finally embrace storytellers from different backgrounds because they’re realizing, “Oh my gosh. We’ve been telling the same stories with the same characters forever and audiences are bored.” Duh. So, they have to start finding something new, something fresh. And a way to do that is by finding new and fresh talent.
I read an interview you did with The New York Times after Bao came out, and in it you mentioned how you didn’t want to shy away from dark elements in children’s stories. While maybe not exactly “dark,” there are so many great coming-of-age elements in Turning Red. The periods, the boy talk—stuff that would’ve maybe been taboo in a children’s movie not too long ago. I wanted to hear your thoughts on all of that as it relates to Turning Red, and how that factored into the way you and your team crafted this story.
From the very beginning, I wanted to make this movie for that 13-year-old me who was locked in the bathroom and freaking out about my period, but also about all of the things that were happening to me. Even though we’re in 2022, there isn’t a lot of media that talks about puberty. Which is so weird, because everybody goes through it and it’s still an awkward and uncomfortable thing to talk about, to go through. And if this movie can have any impact in making that a little bit less awkward—or at least more fun and you can laugh at it, so it doesn’t feel so scary, or just embarrassing. That’s the goal.
You’ve cited anime and even some Nintendo games as sources of inspiration for the look and feel of your characters and the world that you’ve built in Turning Red. Could you tell me more about some of those influences? And also how you were able to blend these styles into a look that was able to feel like a Pixar movie but also be completely new.
Me and Rona Liu, the production designer, are huge anime and Nintendo fans. When we sat down and talked about the look of this movie, we really wanted it to look and feel like our protagonist, like how Mei saw the world. How we, when we were 13, saw the world—and both of us were huge anime fans. I was vice president of the anime club. So of course we had to draw inspiration from anime to craft this unique world. Because anime is just so good at capturing expression, and really playing with the medium of animation. They take so many fun liberties with style to enhance a feeling of a scene or shot. Like if a character is really embarrassed, or shocked, they’ll drop the background out, have a harsh light from above. It made sense for this movie about this girl who feels emotion so much, to borrow from anime in that sense.
But we also wanted it to be accessible; we wanted the style to not distract from the story. We wanted it to support the story and support the characters. So it was always about trying to find a balance of what we borrow from anime and what we leave behind. There’s some stuff from anime that isn’t immediately gettable for western audiences, like a temple throbbing, or those vertical blue lines when the character’s feeling very glum or depressed. That stuff isn’t gettable for people who aren’t familiar with anime language, so we decided to not do that. But anything that just felt an exaggeration of what you already kind of do or know or feel in real life, we totally borrowed.
I feel like there’s been a shift in representation, not only on screen, but in the voice actors who are portraying these people of color. Turning Red has such a great, diverse cast behind the voices. What was it like working with them, both in terms of having this level of authenticity, but also, for you as a first-time director, working with this range of child actors to industry veterans like Sandra Oh and James Hong?
It was amazing, because with Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh—these amazing actors have had that personal experience. They’re able to bring so much more than if they didn’t. For example, for Rosalie, we would often ask her to ad-lib some moments in the movie, like when she’s interacting with the mom character, or when she’s chastising herself, or even in her attitude. It was great because she has had that experience, or she’s going through it. Literally, she came of age while we were making this coming-of-age movie. She was 12 when we met her, and then when the movie finished, she’s 16 turning 17 now. And it’s crazy seeing her change, and asking her like, “Remember the last time you fought with your mom, what was that about? OK. Think about that, and then access it for this line.” It was so great.
And then Sandra, aside from being Asian Canadian, she’s just an incredible actress. She’s so funny, but also she is so deep, and she can access this emotional part of the mom character that rounds her out but doesn’t make her feel like a stereotypical tiger mom. That was huge in casting Sandra, because anybody else could make that character seem very one-dimensional. But she understood the motivation and the reasoning behind why Ming is so overprotective, and where all of that craziness was coming from, and that helped in the performance. That’s really important when you’re looking to cast actors for these very specific, pushed roles featuring ethnic characters, because if you don’t cast it right, it could totally go into stereotype. You need someone who can add that third dimension to the character while still maintaining that character’s edge and fun.
For the Ming character in particular, what were some of these challenges of finding a way to ultimately empathize with her while also avoiding this stereotypical tiger mom?
Yeah, it’s so tricky. Because the thing I loved about Ming from the beginning was her strength, and her sassiness, and her kookiness. She’s just really fun to watch on screen. And a lot of people find that scene where she’s chewing out the convenience store boy hard to watch, but I kind of love it. I’m like, “Yes, rip into him.” [Laughs]. She has that powerful, goddess kind of vibe, which is really fun. And we didn’t want to take that away—but at the same time, you don’t want to have the character veer into stereotypes.
So, me and [coscreenwriter Julia Cho] reminded ourselves in every scene that she’s in, especially the scenes where she’s acting kind of crazy and overprotective, that we have to understand or know why she’s doing it. Like, she’s not just saying, “Go do your homework! Math! Duh, duh, duh.” She’s not saying that on a surface level. We always have to understand that it’s coming from a place of love, and from wanting what’s best for her only daughter. Having that in the back of our minds, and having Sandra think about that as well, really helped ground that character, and made sure that she didn’t veer into stereotype.
And then bringing in the element of her mom, of grandma, and the aunties, and that whole intergenerational theme, also helped add dimension to the character. And just being okay with starting the movie off with Ming strong but knowing that we’re going to unpack that later. Because sometimes filmmakers are really nervous about writing these types of characters, so they water them down from the beginning. But I’m like, “No.” Some of these stereotypes come from a real place. What’s interesting is going deeper and talking about why—like why do our parents have all of these similar traits? Why are they this way?
Yeah, totally. This is going a little bit off topic, but since we’re talking about this intergenerational trauma that’s going through this family … have you had a chance to see Everything Everywhere All at Once?
Yes! Yes I have. It’s so good!
I wanted to ask you about this, because I feel like there are so many amazing parallels with Turning Red.
I know! I remember watching it because they showed it at The Castro in San Francisco, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is almost like the perfect companion piece to our movie.” It’s like, when your daughter is 10 to 15, 16, you can watch our movie. And then when they get older, they can go to Everything Everywhere.
You can level up.
Yeah, yeah. It’s like we’re the Pikachu to their Raichu. [Laughs.] But no, I love those guys. I was in so much awe of how they were able to craft such an amazing, crazy concept, but grounded in such a moving, and, ugh, devastating mother-daughter relationship. I saw Daniel Kwan’s tweet about Turning Red, and it was so sweet. He was like, “I feel like this movie was made by my long-lost twin sister.” And we were texting each other wanting to meet up one day just to compare our childhoods and be like, “Are you me?”
Yeah, just growing up not having any movies like this at all and now having these two come back-to-back—it was so incredible.
I know. I feel like the next Asian generation is set to deal with all of their issues. You’re like, “Here, watch this, and then watch this.”
What’s your favorite Pixar movie that you worked on? Outside of Turning Red, of course. And what was the one that drew you to the studio to work as an intern?
Ooh. I love all of the experiences, but it has to be the very first film I worked on, which is Inside Out. I really feel I lucked out. I was able to work with Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen, and work on a project that I felt such a personal connection to as well. And the movie that got me wanting to work at Pixar … I always come back to Ratatouille. Because it’s not [Pixar’s] most commercially successful or popular movie, but it’s such a brilliant story about this artistic rat going through the motions of being an artist, of trying to be creative in a world that doesn’t want him to. And it was just told so beautifully, and so maturely—I’d never seen that before in western animation. And the food, definitely the food. I saw it, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I really just want to work on something with a lot of food porn.”
I did want to ask you about food in Turning Red, and food in your animation in general, because it’s so important in Bao, too. The introduction to the father in Turning Red is fantastic, the way it just zooms in on all the food as he cooks.
Man, a lot of it just came from watching [Hayao] Miyazaki films in college, and he loves food porn. If you watch any of his movies, he makes the animator spend so much time on a shot of someone stirring stew, or something like that. It’s such a tactile and visceral thing that helps sell the movie experience. It sells that this character is alive, that you’re connecting with them because they’re eating a meal on screen. And especially for Asian culture too, food is so important. Usually in families, food is an expression of love—not language, but food. And that’s what your parents ask you when you come home, like, “Have you eaten yet?” So it just seemed like we had to include food in this movie about this Chinese Canadian girl and her family, like if there wasn’t food there, then it wouldn’t feel authentic. Also, I just love nerding out about food, and the whole experience of making those shots was great, because you spend so many reviews looking at shots of wok, tossing fried pork—it’s very satisfying.
You were recently promoted to a leadership role at Pixar as vice president of creative. Could you tell me about your new role, and what your responsibilities are in this position?
I help out Pete Docter with deciding what projects are going to come down the line, I help other projects in giving feedback. I am a resource for mentorship for up-and-coming directors and filmmakers at the studio. I’m executive producing a project right now in development. Basically, trying to be more helpful outside of just the movie that I’m working on. And really for me, I want to pay forward all of the support that I’ve gotten at the studio, and help the next generation of filmmakers. I still feel like I’m learning, but if there’s any words of wisdom, or any advice that I could give them, I’ll try to pass it along, and I’m trying to look out for them too.
Now that you’re stepping into this leadership role, and you have this debut feature under your belt as well, what do you hope or envision for Pixar in the future as it looks to build on its history and maintain its presence as a leader in the animation world?
I just hope to continue Pixar’s amazing legacy of pushing the boundaries of storytelling and animation, and taking creative risks. Like, the very first Toy Story, when it first came out, no other studio was doing computer animation. Other studios were doing princess musicals, and then here comes Pixar doing something completely different. So I hope to continue that same spirit of just pushing animated films. And if everyone’s getting comfortable with one thing, that we’re the ones who are like, “No, here’s something that you didn’t even think you wanted, but this is going to be so awesome, and it’s going to set the standard for the next decade.”
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.