Bao featured

Director Domee Shi on Finding the Right Ingredients for Pixar’s Newest Short Film, ‘Bao’

June 13, 2018Ben MK

Some parents can't wait for their kids to grow up and move out, while others may dread the day when their children no longer need them. In Bao, however, one empty-nester finds herself given a second chance at being a mother, when one of her homemade dumplings suddenly springs to life.

Pixar's newest short, which audiences everywhere will get to enjoy when it plays before the studio's newest feature, Incredibles 2, Bao tells a story with a whimsical tone, full of adorable visual designs. But like the best Pixar shorts, there's something deeper going on here — a poignancy to the proceedings that doesn't hit you're well and properly invested in the characters' emotional journey.

The first woman to ever direct a Pixar short, Toronto-raised Domee Shi makes history as Bao's writer/director, and I sat down with her to find out more about how her creative influences have helped to shape Bao, what the experience of making her first Pixar short was like, and more.

You've cited your influences as anime, manga, Studio Ghibli and Asian cinema like the work of Ang Lee. What titles have inspired you the most, creatively, and how have you been able to incorporate these influences into your work as a story artist on such films as Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 and, of course, Bao?

Shi: Asian cinema, in general, I've always been drawn to, because I feel like they have a different approach to filmmaking and storytelling. They really care about depicting the moment and the mood in film, rather than just focusing on plot so much, especially Ang Lee films.

Yasujiro Ozu is another huge influence on me, especially for the short Bao. We studied a ton of Ozu films, like Tokyo Story, An Autumn Afternoon and Good Morning, because I just love how he just holds the camera super still and just lets the characters live in the frame and in the moment. And we wanted to do that with these characters in the short as well.

Hayao Miyazaki is one of my heroes, and I just love how he blends magic with real feelings and real characters. His stories are so lyrical, and they kind of take you along for a ride, and you don't really know where it's going. And I kind of wanted to do that with Bao as well.

Of course, Bao isn't your first short. When you were a student at Sheridan College, you made a short called Well Being. What was the biggest difference between making a short on your own compared to making one at Pixar?

Shi: Oh man, so much! [laughs] Especially since Well Being was the first short film I've ever made, and I barely knew anything about filmmaking. And I was just super green, just learning everything as I was making that short. But yeah, making a short on your own, you're kind of responsible for everything yourself; it's kind of all up to you. So you get a lot of creative control, but you also have a lot of limitations. You can only do as much as your abilities can allow you to do.

But at Pixar, oh my gosh, you get to work with so many talented people — people way more talented than you that know so many more things about areas that you never even studied, like technology, animation, lighting, shading, painting, everything. And you have so many more tools at your disposal. But your job is different; now your main responsibility is to communicate your idea to a large group of people, and be able to work with everybody's strengths and weaknesses and point everyone towards a singular direction.

And that almost, in a way, is harder than if you're just working on something on your own, cuz you just have to communicate with yourself. But working at Pixar on a short film, you really have to learn how to just be able to get your message across as clearly and concisely as possible to as many people as possible. [You have to be] ok with not doing everything yourself, but realizing that people can add their own spin to things and make it better than if you were just working on it by yourself. So kind of letting go of that ego a bit. [laughs]

So what did you enjoy the most about making Bao, and conversely, what was the most challenging aspect of bringing this cute yet poignant story to the screen?

Shi: The whole process was so amazing, like just being able to direct for the first time was super fun. I started off in the story department as a story artist, so I was only exposed to this one tiny part of the filmmaking process, but as a director, the entire process kind of opens up to you, and you have more tools to play with. Like I'm playing around with the story in edit now. Or in layout, I'm moving the camera around in a 3D space and seeing how different shots can convey a different mood. Or in animation, you're working with the actors and you're really just fleshing out their performance of the characters. That was really fun for me. Just being able to work in different departments and work with people who I've never worked with before, that's been an amazing process.

And for me, the most challenging thing was crafting the story. I pretty much storyboarded the whole thing myself. Early on, it was kind of just me storyboarding it, and I had one editor, and it was just me and her working on it together. And it was just really tricky getting the ending to read for a long time, cuz we played around with different ways to do the reveal, do the reunion and the coming together.

I wanted it to be emotional, but for a while it was confusing, cuz after the mom character eats the dumpling, people were asking a lot of questions. So I was like, "How do I get that emotion to read?" I don't want people to keep guessing and asking questions and being super confused; I want them to feel sad and emotional and in the moment. So that was really tricky, and I re-boarded that section — the ending — the most, actually.

You've mentioned that Bao is based on your own personal experiences growing up. How did your mom and your family first react when they saw the short?

Shi: My mom... I showed her a really early version of the short in storyboard form. She liked it; her one note when she first saw the storyboards was like, "Oh, if you're gonna base this character off of me, make sure she looks beautiful." [laughs] Then I'm like, "Yes, of course." But now that she's seen the final short, I think she's really amazed and really proud that I was able to make something like this at Pixar. Everyone recognizes her in the crowds, and they want to take pictures with her, so she's really happy that she also became kind of famous with the short as well. [laughs]

Bao is in theatres June 15th, alongside Incredibles 2.

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