The 20th helmer to take on a Pixar short since the mid-1980s, and the the first woman to do so, Bao‘s Domee Shi is now on the path to making her feature debut, with the backing of one of the most impactful animation studios in the world. “We’re just developing the story for it right now,” Shi says. “It’s super early on, but I’m really excited to play in this new 90-minute film format.” A storyboard artist behind a key sequence in Incredibles 2 and the upcoming Toy Story 4, Shi’s experience with Bao—a learning process, in which she took the reins and offered up her voice—demonstrates just how significant Pixar’s shorts are, as a platform to launch exciting new voices into the animation world.
Screening in front of Incredibles 2, Bao centers on a Chinese-Canadian woman struggling with empty nest syndrome, who gets a new chance at motherhood when one of her handmade dumplings comes to life. Starting out with the short as a side project some years ago—”doodling outside of work”—Shi was given the opportunity to pitch Pixar on three short concepts in 2016, in a studio open call. “I practiced really, really hard, the weeks leading up to it. I drew a ton of boards for it, and then I just presented all three ideas,” the director shares. “I pitched a rough beginning, middle and end for each idea. I had some concept art, some reference images, and slowly, I made it through each round.”
Inspired by a love of food and Asian cinema, it was the personal elements of the story—elements that reflected her own life, added later on—that would really flesh out Bao. And while Shi benefitted from top-notch mentorship from the likes of Pete Docter and Brad Bird, it was ultimately her singular contributions that made the short a story worth telling.
What were you thinking about when you set out to write the short?
Honestly, it was just a combination of things that I wanted to draw, and see in a short, and see on the big screen. I’m a huge fan of Asian food; I love cute, old Asian people; I love weird, dark fairy tales, like The Little Gingerbread Man, or Thumbelina. I wanted to do a modern version of that—my take on that—and I think all of that went into making Bao. It was a personal story, but that personal element came after I decided, “Oh, I want to do my own fairy tale. I want to make a short that has all of these elements.” I incorporated more personal elements into it to flesh out the story, and give the characters more depth.
Was the empty nest conceit one of those aspects that came later on?
No, that was pretty much there from the beginning. But that’s an element that you see in a lot of folk tales in many cultures. The beginning of The Little Gingerbread Man has that old lady who’s super lonely, and one of her cookies comes to life; in Japanese culture, you have Princess Kaguya, where an old bamboo cutter finds a little baby inside a bamboo shoot, or that other story about Momotarō, where this old couple finds a baby boy inside a peach. There’s these themes that you see a lot in these folk tales, and that seemed like a natural element to explore if I were to make my own fairy tale. Then, as I was writing it and exploring it, I thought about the empty nesters in my life, which are my parents, and my mom especially. I tried to flesh out this mom character more by tapping into that feeling that all parents have when their kids leave the nest.
To my understanding, the idea of food-based art is something you had explored before.
Yeah, I had this silly web comic series I used to do with my friends called My Food Fantasies. It was just based off of conversations we’d have—like, “Oh, I’m so hungry. I wish I could wrap myself in pastry dough, and sit in a sauna, and bake myself into a croissant, and eat my way out.” We’d have these funny little scenarios that we’d draw back and forth, and through doing those web comics, I found that I really just enjoyed drawing food. When I was coming up with ideas for short films, I was like, “Well, one of them has to revolve around food in some way.” Because that’s the one thing I could never get tired of drawing.
Was the food we see in Bao inspired by the food you had with your own family growing up?
Yeah. Food is not only something that I love to draw and eat; it’s also been a huge part of my family, and I think a lot of Asian cultures, but also cultures around the world. I think food and family just go hand in hand. It’s kind of a universal language of love. My parents, they didn’t say stuff like, “I love you,” or “I’m proud of you,” out loud in words. They would just cook for me, or ask if I’d eaten yet. Telling a story about family, it only seemed natural that this little food item, this little dumpling, would be the perfect vessel, the perfect allegory to tell that story.
Did any specific films prove influential in developing the film’s visual style?
For Bao, I was really inspired by My Neighbors the Yamadas, this Japanese animated feature film by Isao Takahata, the other half of Studio Ghibli. I’d always been a huge fan of Studio Ghibli’s work. Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is my favorite film ever, and I feel that studio has the best animated food next to Pixar’s Ratatouille—the way they really show the careful preparation of food, and how delicious and glossy it looks. We really wanted to replicate that feeling with Bao, and also just how they’re able to observe everyday life, that Asian filmmaking sensibility. I’m really drawn to that. Then also, I looked at a ton of other Asian filmmakers for reference, as well. Eat Drink Man Woman by Ang Lee was another huge inspiration for me, creatively. The opening sequence, we kind of did an homage to that with Bao—and I really love the work of Yasujiro Ozu, how he’s able to show family drama in such a subtle and heartbreaking way.
How did you approach the design of your central characters?
I worked really closely with the production designer, Rona Liu. We carefully crafted the designs of the characters together. The design of the mom character, and the dumpling and the dad are based on combinations of people in my life, like my own mom, my grandma, and Rona’s mom and grandma, as well. Because she’s Chinese-American. Then, the bean-shaped head was something I really wanted to capture, because that’s kind of how I caricature myself on my little web comics I’d do online. I would draw myself with a little bean-shaped face, with little dots and small eyes, and I really wanted to infuse those elements of myself into the character. I feel like all the characters remind me a bit of myself, but also my mom, and all of the strong women in my life.
Could you talk a bit about the mentorship you received from Pete Docter on the project? Reportedly, he encouraged you to bring a bit of edge to the story.
Yeah, totally. I was lucky enough to work with him on Inside Out, as the storyboard artist on the film, and when I started developing the idea for Bao, one of the things I did was I started pitching the idea to co-workers, just to get their feedback on it. He was one of the initial people that I pitched it to because I was really excited about the idea, and I just wanted advice on it. And he was just really excited about it. I pitched the whole thing to him, including the surprise at the end. The whole story ends up being a fantasy metaphor for [the mother’s] relationship with her real son, and that was there from the very beginning in 2014. I’m really glad I did pitch it to him because his excitement about it, and his shock and reactions, really gave me the confidence to continue developing it, and to eventually pitch it to the studio.
I think he’s always been a huge supporter of unique voices at the studio. You can tell he’s really curious and interested in different types of stories, different types of characters—and he always wants to try new things. With each of his films, he’s always trying something new, so I think he probably saw a little bit of that in that initial pitch I made to him for Bao. I’m so thankful for his mentorship because there were many times where I would doubt myself about the dark tone of the ending, or wonder if people were going to understand, or if I should water it down a little bit for audiences. He was always encouraging me to stick to my original vision, and to not be afraid to be different, or to tell a different kind of story.
How are you feeling about the prospect of Pixar’s future, under his leadership?
I feel super excited. Of course, I’m the biggest fan of Pete Docter’s. I’ve always just admired how creative, but also how humble and down to earth he is, and how he’ll always say hi to you in the hallway, and listen to people’s opinion or ideas. He’ll always take the time to listen to you, and to try stuff, and he’s so good at getting a huge crew behind his vision. Even though he’s made so many films, he’s never lost that sense of spontaneity and play, so I’m always inspired watching him make films, and I’m excited that he’s leading the studio now at Pixar. It’s cool because now that the two studios [including Walt Disney Animation] are run by two different people, you can really see Pixar distinguish itself even more from the other studios, which I think is going to be really exciting.
Looking back on Bao now, what has the project meant for you, as the first woman to bring a Pixar short to life? Obviously, it was given a major platform, screening around the world in front of Incredibles 2.
I still can’t believe that I was able to do this. I’m very humbled and grateful that Pixar got behind such an offbeat little short, and I still can’t believe that we’re attached to one of the biggest animated films ever. I didn’t expect that, going into making this. That was kind of just the extra treat. That scared me a little bit—I’m glad I found out about that when the short was almost done, because it would’ve affected me as I was making it. But I feel like I’ve grown so much. I still don’t quite know what I’m doing most of the time, but I feel like now, I’m confident at least knowing, “Wow, I really enjoy sharing stories with the world.” I want to keep surprising them, and show them stuff they’ve never seen before on the screen, and I’m just really excited.
Do you have any specific feelings with regard to representation in animation, on screen or behind the scenes?
I feel like Bao was a pretty huge example, for me, that Pixar is fully behind supporting diverse storytellers. I think Sanjay’s Super Team and Coco were the two other films at Pixar that really helped pave the way for Bao to be made, and because those two productions were done before Bao, it gave me confidence, knowing that Bao isn’t just going to be a trend, or a blip. Hopefully, there will be more different stories down the road from these big studios because I think they’ve just all realized now that they can’t keep drawing from the same creative well over and over again. If Pixar wants to stay at the forefront of animation and storytelling, they’ll have to look for different sources.