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First-Time Director Domee Shi Takes a ‘Bao’ in New Pixar Theatrical Short

The first Pixar short directed by a woman explores loneliness, loss and the magic of dumplings.

First time director Domee Shi’s ‘Bao’ arrives in theaters June 15, playing ahead of ‘Incredibles 2.’ © 2018 Disney/Pixar.

An aging Chinese mother suffering from empty-nest syndrome gets another chance at motherhood when one of her dumplings springs to life in Disney-Pixar’s new animated short Bao. The film, directed by Domee Shi, will screen with the company’s Incredibles 2, which launches today in theaters.

Shi, who has worked on such films as Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4, drew inspiration for Bao from her upbringing as an only child in a Chinese-Canadian family in Toronto’s bustling Chinatown. She explained that bao has two meanings in Chinese: said one way, it means “dumpling,” but said another way, it means “treasure” or “something precious.”

Domee Shi

“Ever since I was little, my mother has always treated me like her precious little baby dumpling, always watching over me, making sure I was safe, making sure I had a good education and got into a good college,” says Shi. “Growing up, she’d always make dumplings for me from scratch. Food was how my mom showed her love, and we’ve always had this special connection making dumplings together on weekends and holidays and Chinese New Year.”

Shi is the first female director to tackle a Pixar short. She started working at Pixar right after school and, after two years as a story artist on Inside Out, she got the itch to make something of her own. Originally, she planned to make the film in her spare time, but, after getting an unexpectedly positive response, she decided to bring the idea to Pixar, which has an in-house professional development program that allows employees to pitch ideas for shorts.

“I initially pitched the story to Pete Docter, the director of Inside Out, just to get his feedback,” says Shi. “But his response was so positive -- he encouraged me to pitch it to the studio. With his support and feedback, Bao got green-lit as the next Pixar theatrical short in 2015. I couldn’t believe it got picked. It was amazing.”

Producer Becky Neiman explained that the shorts program at Pixar is a place to try out new technology, as well as give new leadership opportunities, and Bao is no exception. It’s not only Sri’s first time as a director, but Neiman’s debut as a producer, and Rona Liu’s as production designer.

Shi recalls that “after it got green-lit, I really started to dive deep into the story... I always knew I wanted to create a story about a lonely empty-nester mom who goes through this crazy dumpling fantasy in order to process her real son moving away. The core of that story was always the same, but in earlier versions of the story, I had more characters.”

She explained that drawing beat boards -- single images that capture crucial story points -- helped her refine the story and figure out the pacing of the whole film.

Then, as she progressed to storyboards, she would send them to editor Katherine Ringgold. “We would work together in her dark office to cut the storyboards together with temporary sound effects and music to give us a rough version of the short called a story reel. It’s kind of like the blueprint for what the short ends up being.”

According to Shi, these story reels are very useful in seeing the big picture and getting feedback on what’s working and not working.

“So after we have a basic idea of what the short’s going to be, we move on to other departments down the pipeline, the layout and animation,” she adds. “Animation is especially critical in Bao, because it’s really where these characters come to life.”

Shi reported that she was particularly influenced by Japanese animation, like My Neighbors the Yamadas, as she gathered up examples of animation styles as references for animation supervisor Juan Carlos Navarro. “I loved how squishy their character looked, and how pushed their expressions are,” she says. “We drew inspiration mostly from 2D animation, which became a challenge in 3D because of how big the characters’ heads are, and how exaggerated their limbs are.”

But, says Shi, as they were going into animation, they soon realized that some of the expressions that worked well in 2D were not right for 3D at all. “3D is its own medium,” she explains. “Design elements that might look good on paper look really strange when you turn them into 3D shapes. Cartoony eyeballs look like they’re popping out of a character’s head. And so we really had to work closely with the animators and modelers to translate our designs into 3D. But we eventually managed to land on a visual style that was pretty successful in combining 2D graphic design and 3D modeling.”

Shi credited production designer Liu with coming up with “the friggin’ adorable look of Bao.” Liu explained that, as a Chinese immigrant to the U.S., she also had a special connection to the story.

“Dumpling is our main character, and he has a wide range of personality,” says Liu. “He worked so well in 2D and sketch form that we wanted to bring him into sculpting as quickly as possible, to see how that cuteness would translate into a 3D space. And one thing we discovered early on is that his arms actually cannot reach his mouth. And that gave us a lot of information and helped us identify certain problems that we might run into downstream, in animation.”

She added that they also struggled to make sure the mother’s charm comes through in the final film. “We did a lot of research trips to Chinatown and found that we were seeing a lot of bold fashion choices, and that’s when we realized that we can actually use Mom’s outfits -- her colors and patterns -- to support her emotional journey throughout the film.”

“We wanted this short to be fun to watch, but also an accurate portrayal of a Chinese mom’s life,” concludes Shi. “And I think the crew did an amazing job of both.”

This article originally appeared in the Special Annecy 2018 Edition of ANIMATIONWorld Magazine.

Scott Lehane's picture

Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.