Toronto-raised Pixar director bows with Bao

Domee Shi discusses her overprotective Asian mom, animating Toronto and working with Brad Bird on Incredibles 2 (which screens after her own short)


Domee Shi’s Bao, the short film that precedes Incredibles 2 in theatres, might be the weirdest thing yet produced at Pixar Animation Studios. It’s the story of a woman and the dumpling she raises as her son after it comes unexpectedly to life. (See? Weird.)

This being Pixar, there’s a deeper metaphor at work – and one that lands with pleasing power. And Shi, who grew up in Toronto and studied animation at Sheridan before becoming a Pixar storyboard artist, was more than happy to talk about it on a press stop at Rol San on Spadina earlier this week.

Where did Bao come from?

Bao for me started over four years ago. I think I was just really hungry in my office one night. I came up with the idea of wanting to do a short film on my own, just on the side. It was loosely inspired by my life growing up as an only child – you know, my mom was super overprotective of me. She always treated me like a little precious dumpling. So I decided to make a story about this little precious dumpling who wants to break free from his overprotective mom.

And Mom is human, which makes for an interesting contrast.

I’ve always loved classic fairy tales, so I wanted to do a Chinese version of the little gingerbread man. Just taking all of these different elements – I love food, I love Japanese culture, I love cute little old people, I love cute things – I just wanted to put them all together into one film.

How did you figure out your storytelling approach? Did you draw on anything for inspiration?

In terms of design, I was really heavily influenced by Japanese animation. I grew up watching Hayao Miyazaki films as much as Disney Spirited Away has been a huge influence on me. My Neighbors The Yamadas is a great film as well, a huge stylistic inspiration. It’s about this very quirky Japanese family. The movie explores the little moments in their life. I want to do that with Bao, too, just showcase all of these slice-of-life moments in this Chinese mom’s life. Show the little details of her daily life, making breakfast in the morning, going shopping in Chinatown. But all with this little bun that comes to life. [Laughs]

A little bun that comes to life in an undisguised Toronto! I have to admit, I was surprised to see the CN Tower in one shot. So many animated shorts are set in this generic anywhere, but Bao takes place, like, right across the road from where we’re sitting. Was there any resistance to doing that?

Not really. It actually made it easier for our art department to look at stuff for reference because we had real-world examples of the sets. And for me, I just thought it would be like a fun homage to my hometown – but also, adding those specific details are how we ground the story in real life and how we make these characters feel like real people we see on the streets or real family members. Just adding that one specific detail of this city does that. And then I feel like it’s cool to see Toronto animated in a Pixar film.

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Was there anything you had to cut that you wish you’d been able to keep in the film?

I would definitely have more food-porn. I love just watching the preparation of food I think it’s so fascinating. And the enjoyment of people eating food. I think there’s so much emotion in that, and there are definitely moments I would love to milk out in a longer form.

You developed Bao while working as part of Pixar’s feature animation team.

I did. I was a storyboard artist. I worked on Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur – I was working full-time as a story artist on Toy Story 4 when I was storyboarding on Bao. I was always kind of doing two projects at once – it was Bao and something else until about a year and a half ago, when I was able to work on it full-time.

And you worked on Incredibles 2, which your film is now accompanying in theatres.

I was lucky enough to do a stint on Incredibles 2 for about a month. It was an honour to work with Brad Bird – he’s been a huge animation hero of mine since I was in high school. So yeah, it’s just been surreal having my short film in front of his film, but also to be able to work on a Brad Bird film was cool. I learned so much just from watching him.

And of course Bird made Ratatouille, which was Pixar’s first attempt to make a movie about food.

Oh yeah, totally. That movie was a big influence on us as well, just the way that they shot and designed the food. It looks so delicious. So we consulted with a couple of the people that worked on the film, asking them “How did you make the food look so good? What are the tips and tricks that you guys used?”

Did you get to do any practical research yourself?

Yeah, a lot of dumplings were harmed in the making of this short. [Laughs] We did tons of research at Chinese restaurants all over Oakland and San Francisco Chinatown – but also in the short, there’s a moment where the mom character makes a bunch of these Chinese dishes, and all of those dishes are specific to the dishes that my parents would make for me growing up. So they’re, like, Sichuan-specific dishes like mapo tofu and dry-fried green beans, but also there’s steamed fish, which is more Cantonese, and cucumber salad. It was my way of paying homage to all the dishes that I grew up with.

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