By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Domee Shi and Disney/Pixar.
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By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Domee Shi and Disney/Pixar.
Matriarchs have a dominant thematic presence for Domee Shi, whether it be her Oscar-winning short Bao or feature directorial debut Turning Red. The former imagines a son as a rebellious Chinese soup dumpling who gets consumed by his mother while the latter has a female tweenager contending with the onset of puberty and a matriarchal family secret. As for what her muse thinks of the cinematic portrayals and whether the experience has been therapeutic for mother and daughter, Shi responds, “It has been therapeutic for me! My mom is flattered and proud, but I remember when we invited her and my dad to the premiere of Turning Red, it took her a day to process the movie. She said, ‘I really like it.’ Then the next morning we were texting and she asked, ‘Was I a good mother?’ I said, ‘Of course you were. I wouldn’t be here without you being you.’ My dad was jealous and asked, ‘When are you going to make something about me and you?’”
Shi’s father was a college professor of fine arts and landscape painter in China. “I fought with my dad more about art because he was my art tutor early on and encouraged me to practice painting and drawing every day. As a teenager, we would go to a drawing class and sketch naked people side by side. Then we would go home and he would make me lay out all of my drawings on the floor and critique them one by one like a firing squad! His motto for me growing up was ‘No pain, no gain.’ Then my mother’s motto for me was, ‘Listen to mother or you will suffer!’ I feel like those two mottos have merged together and created me.” Born in Chongqing, China, her parents left for Canada two years later and settled in Toronto, Ontario, which is proudly on display in Bao and Turning Red. “I went back to China with my mom for half a year when I was six years old,” Shi recalls. “We stayed with my grandma and uncle who lived behind a temple – that was the inspiration for the temple setting in Turning Red. The last time I went back was in 2015 to see my grandma who is still alive and kicking. She just celebrated her 96th birthday.”
Personal memories were relied upon to reconstruct Toronto in 2002 for Turning Red. “It was more about creating the feeling of growing up in Toronto in the 2000s versus photo-accurate details,” Shi explains. “Because of the pandemic, the crew never got to take that research trip. I wanted it to feel like how Mei would see the city growing up, so we amped up all of the colors to make it dreamy, colorful, young and fresh. I have so much nostalgia for that era in Toronto. We had to include the SkyDome.” In reference to the major league baseball team, an actual Blue Jay makes an appearance with the sports stadium in the background. “In the script it was a bird, and we repurposed the Blue Jay from the Up Disney+ series Dug Days.” Meilin Lee in Turning Red is essentially the cinematic personification of her 13-year-old self. “About 70% to 80% of her is me. I was never obsessed with a boy band but all of my classmates and friends were. I was even more nerdy than her! I felt like I had to tone down the nerdiness. My 4*Town [hit ‘00s boy band] was Harry Potter. My friends and I would run to get in line to watch the movie or get the latest book, draw fan art and write fan fiction.”
Disney animated features from the 1990s have left a lasting impression. “Aladdin was the first VHS that my parents and I owned,” remarks Shi. “But The Lion King was the first movie I remember watching in theaters. The opening with the ‘Circle of Life’ and the sun coming up was beautiful – and the singers hitting that note, I was like, ‘This is amazing!’ I love that movie so much. I recall being really traumatized by Mufasa’s death and asking my mom to leave, which we did during ‘Hakuna Matata,’ so I never got to see the ending until a year later when I was finally brave enough to watch it on VHS.”
Art was a way to make friends at school. “I would always carry a sketchbook with me in elementary school, middle school and high school. I realized that if I showed people the drawings in my sketchbook it would get reactions out of them and they would lean in, be curious and ask me questions. That felt like a natural way for me to make friends and meet people. I quickly became the drawer in every class that I was in. I would draw a lot of fan art of TV shows, movies and books that I loved. I created my own characters in those universes. In middle school a female classmate said to me, ‘You draw so well. How much do you want if you draw me with my crush?’ I was like, ‘Oh, a dollar!’ That was when I realized I could maybe make money!”
This epiphany led Shi to graduate with a Bachelor of Animation from Sheridan College in 2011. “I loved that it was this gathering place of like-minded, brilliant, nerdy, talented artists – that was the best part of Sheridan College. There, I met Hyein Park who voices Abby in Turning Red.” Initially, the aspiring animator was turned down for internships, including at Pixar. “One thing that I changed about myself afterwards was, in my third year [of college] I had never reached out, hung out or talked to other classmates or students, but in my fourth year I did that. That actually helped me because I was able to create a stronger portfolio which would get recognized by the studios.”
Shi interned at Pixar as a storyboard artist. “During my internship, Josh Cooley [director of Toy Story 4] was Story Supervisor for Inside Out, and he sat in on one of my pitches. Josh saw something that made him say, ‘We should hire her.’ He has been a great mentor and boss because I worked with him for a while on Inside Out and again on Toy Story 4. The same with Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen who co-directed Inside Out, as they created such an open environment for me to feel comfortable speaking up in the room. I felt that my voice was valued early on in my career, which is rare. I lucked out because I was cast on this show about going inside the mind of a 13-year-old girl, and that was the one thing I was an expert at!”
Being a storyboard artist has had an impact on how Shi approaches directing. “It was a great training ground for me to go into directing because a storyboard artist is a jack of all trades. You have to draw as well as know composition, acting, appeal, comedy and how to cut. You get a little taste of every part of filmmaking. Also, because of the job you are working closely with the director and writer.” Her director’s chair debut was the short Bao followed by the feature Turning Red. “I am grateful that I was able to make Bao first, as it gave me a small taste of what directing a feature would be like. I wasn’t prepared for how much of the job is communicating and speaking to large groups of people and delegating. Just being very clear and also being a cheerleader and motivator for a team of hundreds of people when there is a pandemic going on or riots or wildfires. I took it one day at a time. I felt that if I didn’t get overwhelmed by the big studio machine then I would be okay.”
Much has made of the fact that Shi is the first woman to direct a Pixar feature. “The goal at the end of the day is to get to the point [where people are identified as artists rather by gender and ethnicity], but we are still far away from that. I can see both sides. For those young girls or young Asian kids in the West who can see someone like me on TV or making movies, it gives them hope and encouragement for them to pursue something artistic. It also gives them solid evidence that they can present to their Asian parents who might want them to go to another career. I’m going to be honest. It does get tiring to be answering the same question about, ‘How does it feel to be a woman or Asian?’ My first identity is that I’m a nerd! I just wanted to make something that I could nerd out about with my colleagues and friends, and share with other nerdy people around the world.”
The animation style depends on the project. “For Bao, I wanted to make this modern-day fairy-tale, so I wanted the characters to look soft and appealing. For Turning Red, Mei is 13, and I wanted the world to reflect her personality, which is chunky, cute and colorful, but I also love Aardman, anime and Disney, so it’s all going to be reflected in the things that I make.”
Simple moments make characters believable, such as a mother spoon-feeding filling to her baby dumpling to regain its shape, the surprised facial expressions of son and mother when they discover that the daughter-in-law is very good at making dumplings, a red panda pushing a stunned classmate back into a washroom stall, and a father stepping back into the kitchen while witnessing the pubescent turmoil between mother and daughter unfold in the bathroom. “Most of those were either in the script or found through storyboarding,” Shi explains. “I remember storyboarding the Bao filling gag, thinking it makes sense because he’s a dumpling and his head is stuffed with filling. Panda Mei pushing the girl back into the stall and the dad backing away, those were discovered by the story artists who were assigned with storyboarding those scenes, and the animators take that and plus it. That’s the thing about animation. Every step of the way, at every stage, people can contribute to that one scene and make it better.”
In acknowledgement of her skill as an artist and filmmaker, Shi has been promoted to Vice President of Creative at Pixar, which makes her a member of the revered brain trust that includes Andrew Stanton, Peter Sohn and Dan Scanlon. “I’m still figuring it out because it’s a new gig. The best thing for a filmmaker to do is to put themselves in the project that they’re on. If the film can reflect the filmmaker, that’s great. There are always going to be notes on clarity and appeal. All of that stuff will be figured out. You have a chance to make a Pixar film and you’re going to spend at least four years on this, so you have to make it count.”