Helmed by the Oscar-winning ‘Bao’ director, the studio’s new animated comedy, filled with teenage pop idols, jean skirts, and pastel hues, is a quirky, funny, anime-influenced ode to dorky kids everywhere; film hits Disney+ March 11.
Plastic purple watches, pink Tamagotchis, bubbly “peace” stickers, woven friendship bracelets, teenage pop idol magazines, overalls and jean skirts – Pixar’s upcoming animated comedy, Turning Red, is an early 2000s tween fiesta.
Or, as the film’s director, Oscar-winning Bao director Domee Shi puts it, “an Asian tween fever dream.”
“I love Domee,” says Turning Red production designer Rona Liu. “I loved working with her on Bao and I loved Domee prior to meeting her because I saw these little animations that she did back in college when I was stalking her on Blogspot. So, I knew about Domee’s quirky style and always wanted to work with her. If there's a Domee project, I'm all over it. But when I actually heard the pitch – about this girl being torn between Eastern and Western culture, her growing up as this confident dork, hitting puberty, trying to discover and embrace her awkward self – I was like, ‘That's me.’ And who wouldn’t want to make a film about themselves?”
Turning Red, directed by Shi and produced by Finding Dory’s Lindsey Collins, premieres on Disney+ Friday, March 11. The story follows a 13-year-old Chinese girl named Mei (Rosalie Chiang) who’s grown up in Toronto with a do-what-I-want and say-what-I-want kind of personality. 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.
That is, until Mei wakes up one morning to find herself turned into a giant red panda – a family “quirk” we learn that has been passed down for generations. Now, Mei 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, furry beast.
“I knew this was going to be a special project,” says Liu. “I really related to Mei and her friends and this whole life. And so much of the making of this film was so therapeutic because we, as a team, were going back and discovering our own yearbooks, looking through our old photo albums, talking to our old friends, and just reliving these memories to put this movie together.
Even Mei’s outfit – what kind of sneakers would she wear? What color denim skirt would she wear – all those small details, everything we put into this film, was very true to us.”
While the film is based on Shi’s relationship with her mother, most members of the production team – including Liu and visual effects supervisor Danielle Feinberg – could relate to its premise.
“It's hard not to bring your own experiences to bear on the filmmaking because you're just so living in that world,” explains Feinberg, known for her work on Coco and Cars. “It's pretty easy to summon your inner 13-year-old girl, because that is a very memorable time in life. It's such a relatable movie and time period in people's lives. Poofing into a panda when you're having all these extreme feelings, that felt very real.”
Liu adds, “I remember when everything you saw [in film and TV] was drawing inspiration from the 80s. And now, we're making a film about 2002. We actually had an intern who we were telling to draw inspiration from her teenage years. And she goes, ‘I was three in 2002.’ And I suddenly realized, ‘Oh my gosh, the early 2000s is the new 80s.’”
But Turning Red, despite the punk music videos, glitter accessories, and chunky sneakers, is not just focused on launching audiences – or its production crew – back to their tween years. The film also employs considerable retro aesthetics, anime influences, and 2D tactics to usher in a new style of 3D animation; one with endless possibilities for comedy and visual magic.
“There is a playfulness that Domee wanted in the tone of the film,” explains animation supervisor Patty Kihm. “From day one, she said ‘I want this film to look different.’ And it just blew off the roof of anything we’d done before. The possibilities were endless, which is a little daunting at first. But it was also really exciting.”
According to Kihm, Shi was looking for an East-meets-West, 2D-meets-3D, kind of look, all while making the absolute most of color, special effects, and character facial expressions. The whole film is saturated in pink, purple, yellow, green, and blue pastels, derived from the anime both Shi and Liu grew up watching in their own tween years: Sailor Moon.
“When we look and think back at how it felt to be a teenager, it was wild, it was fresh, it was intense, it was dreamy, it was magical,” says Liu, who also used old photos of her and her mother as reference points for the film’s animation design. “All of those feelings we wanted to put into the film. And that kind of color palette from Sailor Moon really fit because it's energetic. It's also dreamy, it's also innocent, and it's also fun. Color is such a huge statement for every film and having ours be in these dreamy pastels really set the tone for who Mei is and what her world is like.”
Though the team also took inspiration from live-action films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wes Anderson movies and even video games, other nods to anime magic are present in the film, including one fantasy sequence showing Mei up on a mountain top above her favorite boy band members, surrounded by glittery, cotton-candy-colored vapor clouds, bright sunbeams, and rainbow stars. The film’s characters also have classic anime expressions, from sporting shiny stars in their eyes when they’re happy, to their pupils shrinking down to tiny dots in states of shock or terror.
“It’s so much more stylized,” notes Aaron Hartline, animation supervisor alongside Kihm. “We would never have had that freedom on other shows we've been on. Just in the first five minutes of the film, you can tell, ‘Wow, I'm up for something different here,’ and ‘This is going to be a really unique fun ride.’”
“I can't think of another film that I worked on where there was this heavy inspiration on 2D,” adds Feinberg. “It was almost the opposite of what Pixar had been doing in a lot of ways. Pixar movies are usually very dimensional and all about throwing as much detail at the animation as you can. And that's not anime. So, it was clear early on what a challenge that was going to be.”
And a challenge it certainly was. While the magical, anime-like aesthetic and the cute, chunky, “kawaii” character animation was a concept many of the Turning Red animators could get behind rather quickly, there were other challenges that proved less easy to grasp, such as restricted character movement. Instead of having a character’s whole body shift with their actions to make the movement look more natural, Turning Red keeps the rest of the character’s body still while an arm, or a leg or a head moves rapidly on screen.
This produces scenes like panda-form Mei quickly and awkwardly shoving a student back into a school bathroom stall in an effort to keep her panda transformation quiet, which brings a form of slap-stick comedy often seen in 2D anime to Turning Red’s 3D world. However, achieving this look took some un-learning on behalf of the animators.
“I remember, early on in the film, I told Patti, ‘You know, we're going to get some animators that are going to be upset with us,’” says Hartline. “We're so used to doing it a certain way. But once the animators saw it, and they saw people laughing, and it felt like something different and new, they just needed to see it once and get that reaction, then everyone was on board. But it takes a little while to convince them.”
“I've heard from some of the animators, when they started the film, they would just animate it as if it were a show or movie that they've been on before,” recalls Kihm. “And then it was about deleting stuff. It was reduction, reduction, reduction, until you got down to the essence of what that scene was about: What was the emotion? Which body part represents that emotion? And then just move that one thing. It was very uncomfortable for a lot of people. And that's normal. But once we got rolling, they picked it up very quickly and went far beyond what we would have ever expected.”
Feinberg adds, “We didn’t want it to feel like this was some new version of anime. We were trying to get a whole new look that’s very graphic and also very 2D. We have tried that on different levels on different films before. But, somehow, things always seemed to shrink back to what was familiar and what we were used to. So, on Turning Red, it was much more about all of us doing our best to push against the tendency to be shrunk back. We ended up with such a great collaborative atmosphere on this film because I think everybody was very excited to arrive at a new look. It was a key piece to us getting over the hump.”
Feinberg also believes it’s been the unity of the team’s belief in both the movie itself and the powerful leadership of Shi, Collins and Liu that has made creating such a fresh film possible in the middle of a pandemic.
“Having landed on something that does feel like it's a unique look, with a fresh take on filmmaking, has been a big deal,” says Feinberg. “Also, how much the crew banded together under horrible circumstances and working from home and just figuring it out – no one gave up and they still were giving their all to make the best movie possible. I can't imagine a better antidote to the pandemic, sitting at home working on this hilarious movie that looks great.”
Liu adds, “What's so special about this film is the trust and the confidence the team had in me, Domee, and Lindsey. I remember this one time, sitting with Lindsey, and she was just encouraging me because I don't have a lot of confidence and, in some meetings, I wasn’t sure if I should speak up. Lindsey was like, ‘If you are invited to something, then your voice is also invited. The only person stopping you from speaking is yourself.’ So, not only is this a special project in its subject matter, it's also such a special experience where team members felt loved and taken care of.”
The confidence bred in the goofy and fun atmosphere Shi and Collins encouraged for their team is also an effort true to the message of their film.
“The animation style – derived from so many references – and the color and everything, it's just to support the story and the emotion of what we're trying to say, which is, embrace yourself and love yourself,” says Liu. “You're not tied to one version of yourself. You can be that perfect A-plus student, and you can be wild, and you can be free. We're all multifaceted beings. If we can tell the audience, ‘You're wonderful and you're perfect just the way you are,’ I feel like that's the most important.”
This message of it’s OK being multi-faceted is also one Feinberg hopes extends to the creatives in the animation field as well.
“Hopefully, Turning Red is just one more inspiration showing that this is an art form that can go in all kinds of directions,” Feinberg says. “It isn't the goal of computer animation to make something that looks like real life. I don't think any of us got into computer animation for that. We would just go into live-action if that was our goal. It's really about creating worlds that are believable and where you can tell any story.”
She concludes, “I think, now, we're in this almost renaissance of sorts. We've gotten all the tools in this computer animation world so that we can make a lot of things look great. And now we just need to ask ourselves, what are the different ways that we can push that to create something as charming, funny, dorky and unapologetic as Mei?”