How ‘Bao’ director Domee Shi stayed true to her ‘weird’ idea and created a specifically Asian story
Watch a clip from the short “Bao,” the Pixar short directed by Domee Shi.
Much like a delicious dumpling before a hearty meal, “Bao” is the bite-sized animated film audiences see before “Incredibles 2.” But more than just a Pixar appetizer, the short is a whimsical love letter to mothers as well as food. It just happens to be wrapped in a package so adorable you want to eat it.
Directed by Domee Shi, “Bao” centers on a Chinese mother with a case of empty nest syndrome. She gets a second chance at motherhood when one of the dumplings she made comes to life as a tiny, giggly baby.
The Chinese Canadian filmmaker took inspiration from her own life as a child of immigrants when crafting the short, a story Shi first started working on over four years ago.
“I was digging through my art folder at work and the earliest sketch I found was dated January 2014,” said Shi. “It was just a bunch of different dumpling ideas, different dumpling characters.”
Shi, who joined Pixar as a story intern in 2011 before being hired as a story artist on “Inside Out,” had worked on “Bao” for almost two years on her own before bringing on more people.
“There wasn’t really a script — I kind of wrote with storyboards,” Shi explained. “I worked with my editor on the story reels and we slowly crafted it. Cutting stuff out, putting stuff back in.”
With “Bao,” Shi is the first woman to direct a Pixar short. In addition to “Inside Out,” Shi served as a story artist on “The Good Dinosaur,” “Toy Story 4” and the film her short is now paired with, “Incredibles 2.”
In a phone interview, Shi discussed her inspiration for “Bao,” overcoming her doubts to craft a specifically Chinese story and the memorable scene she almost didn’t include in the short.
[Warning: the interview below, which was slightly edited for clarity, includes some spoilers for “Bao.”]
What was your inspiration for “Bao”?
My inspiration mainly came from my own life. Growing up I was that overprotected little dumpling for my Chinese mom. I was an only child living in Toronto with my parents, and they’ve always kind of watched over me and made sure I was safe — kept me really, really close. And I just wanted to explore that relationship between an overprotective parent and their child with a dumpling as a metaphor, as weird as that sounds.
I’m also like a huge foodie so any excuse to work with food, draw food and eat food for research was great. I definitely wanted to incorporate that into the short as well.
How many dumpling trips did you all go on for research?
Oh so many. So many dumplings were harmed in the making of this short.
We took the crew on multiple trips to San Francisco and Oakland’s Chinatown. We took them to a lot of dim sum restaurants. And also Sichuan food restaurants because there are a lot of dishes in the short that the mom character makes that are actually inspired by my favorite dishes that my parents would make for me growing up.
These were from the Sichuan province in China, so like really spicy mapo tofu and chili boiled fish and cucumber salad and all that stuff.
We also brought my mom in twice to do dumpling-making classes for the whole crew. That was really fun research because we actually filmed her hands kneading the dough and making the wrappers, and that was used as reference for the opening shots of the short.
How deeply had you thought about the dumpling-making process before working on this short?
I took the dumpling-making process for granted growing up because my mom would make them for me all the time: during the holidays, on weekends, for Chinese New Year. I would eat them so quickly, not really paying attention to how difficult they are to make.
At least for me. I would try to make them for the crew and think “oh my gosh it takes so much time to roll out each wrapper, fill each wrapper with filling and then fold it just perfectly.” But my mom does it so quickly and effortlessly.
Now that I’ve observed her so carefully, I appreciate all of the hard work that she did to make that food for me as a kid.
What was it like for you to step away from that ‘dumpling’ role in order to see the mother’s side of the story?
I love using film and stories to step outside of my own point of view and my own perspective so it was really interesting to tell this story from the mother’s point of view because I never knew what it was like on the other side.
I was always so frustrated about being so coddled and overprotected and smothered by my mom. I never really understood why she did it.
So making this short and really taking the opportunity to put myself in this mom character’s shoes — to talk to my mom, to talk to different parents and kids of overprotective parents throughout the process — it was really insightful and really cool to be able to learn that perspective.
Were there any specific Chinese cultural details you knew had to be included in a particular way from the beginning?
All of the little props and things around the Chinese mom’s house I wanted to get into the short. Our production designer Rona Liu is Chinese American so that was really helpful because she was also able to keep track of those little cultural details as well.
We based a lot of the household on her mom’s house and my mom’s house. Like the tinfoil covering the burners on the stove, that was a fun detail we added. And the toilet paper roll on the coffee table. That was another thing that we were really adamant about putting in even though we got a lot of questions from our non-Asian crew members like “why is there toilet paper on the coffee table? Is that a glitch or a mistake?”
We were like “No, this is important because in a lot of Chinese immigrant families it’s just more practical to buy tons of toilet paper so you don’t have to buy two types of tissue paper: Kleenex and toilet paper. It’s just more practical to have toilet paper on the coffee table.”
Also the little tchotchkes on the TV, or the rice cooker in the background. The little details like the soy sauce bottles and the hot sauce jars and stuff on the table. Those little details that made this setting in the short feel like a real Chinese mom’s home. We wanted to capture those details as accurately as possible.
They say that it’s hard to animate food. How true is that?
It’s very true. Some of our most complicated and expensive shots were the opening shots of the dough kneading and the wrapper folding. The dumpling-making shot with the raw pork filling, that shot took two effects artists two months to make.
Food is tricky on the computer because food is organic and squishy. It’s got irregular textures and shapes. Computers are good at rendering hard, symmetrical objects but not so much [things] like dough. It took a lot of back and forth between our art department and our effects department in order to get those food shots to look right.
Everyone in the world is an expert in what good food looks like. If you show food to a person and they’re not getting hungry then it’s just not working. That’s just an automatic reaction. So we had to just work really hard to get that raw pork to look good, to get that dough to look soft and kneadable. I think the final results look pretty awesome.
There’s a lot communicated in the film without there being anything spoken out loud. How does working on a project with no dialogue compare to working on something with words?
It’s a really fun challenge, especially in animation which is such a visual medium. We decided early on not to have dialogue in the short because we really wanted to push ourselves to tell this story in a purely visual way.
I also thought it was important because we wanted this story to be as universally understood as possible. By taking dialogue out you’re really pushing and challenging yourself to tell the story with all the acting and emotion and actions of the characters. You’re stripping away language as a barrier so your story could be understood by people of all ages and all backgrounds and all cultures.
I think it’s true to the Chinese culture as well. At least that’s my experience; they always showed their love and communicated it through their actions. So we thought, “Why not do the same for this short and communicate the story through more actions and emotion than with actual spoken words?”
Can we talk about the mom eventually eating the dumpling child? How did that moment come to be a part of your story?
That was like one of the first things I thought of when I was creating the story for this short. I just thought it was such an inevitable end. It just made sense, you know. She wanted him so bad that she wasn’t going to let anyone else take him away so she had to eat him and keep him all to herself.
It also came from my own life. My mom would often hold me close and say “oh I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew exactly where you were at all times.”
I was like “mom, that’s sweet. But creepy.” And I wanted to explore that.
The mom character immediately regrets it, as I think we all would if we did that.
But I wanted to tap into that feeling. That primal feeling of just wanting to love something so much that you’re willing to destroy it so it won’t go away.
There are still not a lot of stories about Asians, Asian American and immigrant experiences that come out of Hollywood. How cognizant were you of stats like that when you were creating this story?
That was one of my reasons for wanting to do a story like this. Because I rarely get to see these types of stories on the big screen in North America.
I grew up watching a lot of anime, a lot of movies by Studio Ghibli. [Ghibli co-founder] Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite animated film directors ever. I was always exposed to Asian cinema, Asian animation, so that was one of my biggest influences too. If given the opportunity to create my own short film I’m definitely going to draw from those Asian influences because that’s just a part of who I am creatively as a filmmaker.
I think it’s super cool that Pixar’s gotten behind this story. This Asian-Canadian and Asian-American specific story. It really goes to show that even though this story is so culturally specific, an overprotective parent learning to let go of their child and food bringing families together are universal themes. It’s really awesome to see how universally accepted this short is becoming.
Did you ever doubt about how specific you were going? Was there ever any pushback or was the feedback more encouraging?
I had a little bit of doubts at first. I was worried that the ending would be too dark or too shocking for a Pixar film. There was even a point where I almost chickened out and I changed the ending so it wouldn’t be as shocking.
But then luckily I pitched it to Pete Doctor, the director of “Inside Out” and “Up” and “Monsters Inc.” He’s been my mentor figure for many years and he’s the executive producer for “Bao.” He heard my more watered down ending and said, “Pitch the original one! Pitch the original dark one!”
He was awesome in really encouraging me to stay true to my weird, original idea. I think through his support, saying “Don’t be afraid to push it, be as culturally specific as you want it to be,” it really gave me the confidence to push the style and push the storytelling in the way that I really wanted it to be.
For the most part the short turned out exactly how I would’ve created it if I did it on my own outside of Pixar.
The only thing that I would run into trouble with was the time because, man, that seven to eight minute time frame for short films is really challenging. But in a good way. It really forces you to be as economic as possible with your shots and your story. If it was up to me, [“Bao”] would be like a 30 minute, food porn short, but I can’t do that.
How important do you think it is for these different types of stories to be told especially in a medium like animation?
I think it’s super important. Because we’re filmmakers and we’re artists and we want to keep pushing ourselves creatively to tell different stories. And if we keep drawing from the same wells we’re going to keep telling the same stories over and over again.
So I think a lot of studios, especially Pixar and Disney, they’ve recently come to realize and to value drawing from different sources of storytellers. They know that by utilizing their super talented, super diverse employees and filmmakers that they’re going to be keeping themselves ahead of the game and continuing to tell unique stories that will set themselves apart from other studios.
When you pitch the shorts at Pixar do you know they’re going to be attached to feature films? Or is the process independent?
They’re pretty independent. We didn’t find out that we were going to be attached to “Incredibles 2” until about a year ago.
Even though I was greenlit in 2015, I knew it was going to be a long, uncertain trip. I didn’t know when we were going to finish, or if we were going to finish, or which film we were going to be attached to.
The short films are like the scrappier, indie wing of Pixar. We’re kind of on the side, grabbing people who become free for a couple weeks before we have to give them back to the feature films. So we kind of have to work slowly and more creatively and more flexibly than other shows.
We had no idea but now it seems like a match made in heaven because both “Bao” and “Incredibles 2” are kind of similar thematically. They’re both celebrating moms — like super moms — in different ways. I thought that was pretty cool.
Speaking of moms, what was your mom’s review of the film?
She’s now seen [“Bao”] probably like eight times. She likes it. She says she enjoys something new every time she watches it.
The first time she saw it I bent over and asked, “Did you cry?”
She was like, “No, but I got emotional on the inside.”
She’s been having a lot of fun because I’ve been taking her to the premiere and the red carpet and to interviews and stuff. Everyone always claps for her and she’s excited to be the center of attention. The creator of the creator of “Bao.”
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