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Domee Shi and Lindsey Collins Talk ‘Turning Red’

The Oscar-winning ‘Bao’ director and ‘Finding Dory’ producer’s quirky, funny, and vibrant new anime-influenced ode to the dorky, nerdy greatness in all of us premieres today on Disney+.

Turning Red, directed by Domee Shi and produced by Finding Dory’s Lindsey Collins, premieres today, March 11, on Disney+. Back in early January, Disney announced the film would bypass theaters and head straight to streaming. That unfortunate but understandable distribution change, however, couldn’t dampen the excitement surrounding the Oscar-winning Bao director’s feature film debut. Nor the sense of enjoyment Shi felt knowing her film would be seen by a huge global audience on the small screen, where repeated VHS viewings as a kid of Disney’s Aladdin sparked her desire to become an animator in the first place.

Set in Toronto, Canada, the film tells the story of a 13-year-old Chinese girl named Mei (Rosalie Chiang) who’s grown up with a do-what-I-want and say-what-I-want attitude. Desperately trying to balance her own taste in wild fashion and boy bands with a desire to please her very protective and slightly overbearing mother (Sandra Oh), Mei vows that 2002 will be “the best year ever” where nothing is going to get in her way. 

Things are looking great until Mei wakes up one morning to find she has turned into a giant red panda – a family “quirk” we learn that has been passed down for generations. Now, she must navigate middle school, raging hormones, puberty and newfound crushes while trying to control the intense emotions that cause her to “poof” into an enormous, red, room-destroying furry beast. 

Shi and Collins ably led the Pixar team through the pandemic to deliver an honest, funny, and vibrant look at adolescence and how we all learn to find ourselves during that particularly difficult time in our lives. Notably, Shi is the first woman to direct a feature solo at the studio, the first Asian, as well as the first woman of color to do so. One day we’ll no longer need to reference such metrics. But for today, we take notice. And it represents a positive step forward for the animation community. And nerds everywhere.

I recently spoke to Shi and Collins about their wonderful ode to the quirky, dorky greatness in all of us.

Dan Sarto: What are your thoughts about Disney’s decision to release the film directly on Disney+ rather than first in theaters? Your film will be seen potentially by tens of millions more people, even though obviously a great theatrical run is a career highlight. A few weeks back I was asked by the Washington Post if the move showed a lack of faith in the film and I said, "No, no, no, no, no. Just the opposite. It's such a strong and important film that it will drive people to the platform.

Lindsey Collins: I read your quote. I want to thank you for that. It made me feel better. Not because I was worried that it was a lack of faith, but just standing on its own, the comment you made of like, "No, no, I think this is a real opportunity for Disney+ get audiences and for the film to be seen." I was like, "Oh, that made me feel better." But [When we heard about the decision] I think we were mixed, right?

Domee Shi: Yeah.

LC: I mean, obviously you make it to be seen on the big screen. You put so much effort into all the detail. And I'll go ahead and say, as far as the sound and the music, in some ways, that's the most painful because it's like my TV looks great, but my sound system is nowhere near what you get when you go to a theater. In theaters, people will hear all of that detail and nuance we put in. That said, when they made the decision in the middle of January, we were deep in the Omicron variant and the horizon was totally unclear. And so, we were like, "Oh, my God, the worst thing would be putting it into theaters and nobody's ready to go back."

DShi: I developed my love and obsession for animation, not through watching it at theaters, but watching it at home on VHS. The very first VHS I owned was Aladdin, and watching all of my favorite moments in that movie over and over again, rewinding it… pausing it, so I could draw Aladdin's face accurately, doing anatomical studies of it. And the opportunity to have audiences have that immediate access to Turning Red and developing that relationship with the movie immediately, across a wide audience, I think that's amazing. And so invaluable. And at the end of the day, that's all I want as a filmmaker… to have it seen and connect with people.

DSarto: The film gravitates from showing almost childish behavior to more... serious issues such as social awkwardness, bullying, and embarrassment. And you touch on a lot of these things. How did you determine where to draw the line? How direct you could be, how unvarnished versus what edges you needed to smooth? What was your creative compass for what subjects, and to what degree, you could touch on subjects that are really difficult part of kids' lives?

DShi: That's a really good question. Well, the initial idea for the movie was a girl going through magical puberty. What does that look like? And I think that for us, that was our compass. A lot of the creative leaders on the show were 13-year-old girls at one point in their lives. So that really helped. We had a huge library of memories and awkward and embarrassing experiences to draw from to tell this story.

And for me, I felt like if it was something that made the whole room cringe and go “Ah!” people that were never teen girls could still all share in this collective cringe. That told me there was some gold in this idea that we just had to put in the movie. And the whole message of the story is that Mei, the main character, embraces change in all its furry, messy, smelly, unexpected forms. And I think that was the same case for us on the crew. We also learned how to embrace mess in that way.

DSarto: I don't recall many animated films that have a stack of feminine hygiene products in them. We can laugh about it, but dare I say it wasn't that too long ago that wouldn't be something you'd see in a Pixar or Disney film. Were you cautious as to what degree you would show that type of thing or was it pretty much were going forward and someone will let us know… or we'll know ourselves, if we go a little too far?

LC: Definitely that. I'll share an anecdote... in I think our second draft of the script, or maybe it was the first draft, we submitted it for notes from everybody. There was a scene in there that you saw the pads and talking about periods. And then there were other scenes where the girls would just be talking about [boy band] 4*Town and how much they were crushing on them. And there's, "Oh my gosh, I saw nipple. Did you see nipple?" We submitted this script, and we all were kind of taking silent bets of like, “Are we going to get a note on the nipple line?”

And I think we did get some notes. Right? Some of those notes came back like… none of them were definitive. You can't go there. It was just more of “Okay, let's circle that scene.” If we ever got a note like that, it meant it was more on us to figure out how to justify it. How to make it feel natural. Make it not feel like something where we're just trying to be provocative, but to have it feel like, “No, no, no, this is actually how a kid would talk and what the conversation would be.” And so, the challenge for us was just making sure that whatever we were doing always felt real and genuine, and not just gratuitous. And not soft pedaling. We tried to find a sweet spot.

DSarto: Domee, you broke a lot of new ground on this film, stylistically, narratively… you’re also the first women to solo direct at Pixar, the first woman of color to direct… were you ever taken aback by the weight of any of this? Did you ever feel any additional pressure? And if so, what were your thoughts?

DShi: I definitely felt the pressure. But that pressure would've been on me anyway, even if I wasn't the first in so many of these categories. Actually, at some point early on, I almost felt a little liberated by being the first of so many things. Because there's no point of comparison, I felt that freedom to almost set the bar, instead of putting so much pressure on myself to hit it a level, because that level had not been set yet because there wasn't really anyone before me. We were almost creating our own lane that felt so different from other Pixar films. It felt more freeing in that sense.

LC: Also, with that great sense of responsibility, there was a ton of support for all the same reasons. At Pixar, they were so invested in Domee’s success, in the success of this film, because they wanted it to be a first. And so, there was a real collective sense of we're behind it. My job a lot of times was just to remind Domee that the support was there in those moments. These notes, or the difficulty of any one suggestion, those were not coming from a lack of support at all. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

DSarto: There are a lot of 2D elements in this film for some of the character movement, including some minimalist movement that are almost anime like in their composition What were you striving for? Why was it important to push the CG in these stylized ways? What do you think it adds to the story?

DShi: It all just came from wanting to design the world through the lens of our protagonist, this spunky, confident, dorky, excitable, 13-year-old Asian girl. What does the world look like to a character like that and how do we support the story and the emotions that are being depicted on screen with all the visual tools that we have at our disposal? That's kind of the basis for wanting to push the style in this movie. We looked at a lot of anime as reference because I just love how expressive a lot of anime can be and how they push the abstraction of the backgrounds of everything within the frame to reflect how the characters are feeling. And for a movie about a girl going through this intense roller coaster ride of emotion, it felt appropriate to really push the visual style, to try to get the audience to feel what Mei is feeling like when she's really embarrassed… dropping out the background and putting a spotlight on her head and just really making her feel like she's under the gun, or really blurring and softening the world around her when she sees her crush. Any way that we can get the viewer to understand and feel what she's feeling, that was our roadmap for the style of the movie.

DSarto: What made you confident that was a perspective that a global audience would want to share… and would enjoy?

DShi: Oh, that's another good question. I mean, just the fact you haven't seen that very often in movies or TV shows, or a lot in Western media, and it was something that I grew up in and wanted to share with the world, that perspective, that style.

LC: We didn't. I mean, honestly, we knew we liked it, but I think there was definitely... to be totally fair, there were people who were like, "Ugh, this is such a departure. Is it going to make it feel too young, or too simple, or too stylized?" Which is fair. Those are all good questions, which is why we do tests early on and why we have lots of conversations about the why behind it. Because if there's not a why, and it just feels gratuitous, then your argument quickly falls apart.

I feel like our biggest weapon at Pixar is the fact that we screen our movies internally, really early and all the time. And as much as sometimes it's hard to remember what's funny because we feel like, “Oh my gosh, we've seen it so many times. Do we know anymore what's even funny about this movie?” But I do feel we are the best litmus test internally because we're critical.

We know each other way too well. We're like siblings. Meaning if we don't like it, you know. It's not like…

DSarto: You hear about it.

LC: You definitely hear about it. And if you don't hear about it, you hear the lack of hearing about it in the hallway. You're like, "Uh-oh, we just ended that screening and nobody's saying anything."

DSarto: Last question. Directing this movie was a big jump for you. A fast jump. Going from a theatrical short – Bao - to a theatrical feature. Though you did win the Oscar! I don't know if it's unprecedented, but it's certainly unique. What has been the most difficult part of jumping into the director's chair on a big film like this compared to the short? Any trepidations? What were some of your fears and were any of those realized? Or did having the trusted Lindsey Collins next to you to help you get through this all… helping make it all go smoothly?

DShi: Oh! I leaned on Lindsey a lot because like you said, she has so much experience making films at the studio. And I also like leaned a lot on other filmmakers as well. I remember having coffee with Pete Sohn and Enrico [Casarosa] who kind of followed a similar path that I did, where they started in story, directed a theatrical short, and then went into features. I was grateful to hear their experiences and just to dig up as much information as I could about how they transitioned. And then I learned that it's different for everybody. It's odd. It's weird to say, but even though Pixar has been making films for so long, every single film has its own unique set of issues and its own unique set of problems and unexpected things that pop up. And they basically told me, just dive in. You're never going to be ready, so just go for it.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.