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‘Turning Red’ | Q&A with Domee Shi

// Interviews

Disney and Pixar are known for picking up Best Animated Feature Oscars like how pollen sticks to bees. In any given year, Disney releases usually swarm the nominations, with one of them usually coming out the other side bathed in the golden glow of the award. 2023’s ceremony promises something different, with the lone Disney competitor being Domee Shi’s Turning Red.

2022 saw critics and audiences underwhelmed by theatrical Disney projects such as Lightyear and Strange World, but it was their straight-to-streaming release that captured the hearts of the public. Domee Shi’s semi-autobiographical tale of Mei Lee, a 13 year old Chinese-Canadian girl who turns into a giant red panda when emotionally overwhelmed, finds universal relatability in the specificity of its protagonist.

Turning Red is as exaggerated, cartoonish and hilarious as Pixar has ever been all while breaking ground in mainstream animation. This is the first time that a Pixar film has been spearheaded by an almost entirely female team and also showcases the studio’s first Asian protagonist. By tackling subjects like periods and puberty, Turning Red has become a landmark of progression from the most celebrated studio in Oscars history. 

On the day of the nomination announcement, Domee took some time to talk to Skwigly about the importance of Turning Red and how it has been embraced by the animation community since its release. Here is that conversation, lightly edited for clarity. 

What was your reaction to the nomination? 

Well, I didn’t want to wake up early to watch it live because I was too nervous. So I slept through the nominations and then I woke up to a bunch of texts congratulating me and people on the crew and I was like, ‘Oh, good. We got it.’ That’s my way of being able to handle it. I can’t handle watching it live, the anticipation and anxiety as they read off the names.

I don’t blame you. Even watching it myself, I was waiting for Turning Red to pop up, and it was the last one they said in the category.

I didn’t know it was the last one, that’s crazy. I’m glad I didn’t watch it, I would have freaked out.

Does this feel different from campaigning in 2019 with Bao?

I mean, it’s the same but it’s different. With Turning Red, it’s a feature film and it’s just so much bigger, and the audience is bigger, and I feel like there’s more eyeballs on and more pressure on the film to be nominated, to be recognised. The studio and the crew put so much work behind it. Whereas for Bao it was a short film, so in some way the pressure was a little bit less. And, that was before COVID. And everything just feels so different now.

Do you feel that some of that pressure comes from the fact that Turning Red is an extremely personal story?

Sort of. It’s a personal story, but also it’s a film that has so many firsts. So that’s why it has a lot of pressure on it. It’s the first [Pixar] film to be helmed by a majority female leadership. It’s the first film from Pixar with an Asian, female lead. I think it’s the first animated feature film to really deal with puberty and all of the ugliness and clinginess and awkwardness that comes with it. And, but then it’s just a relief to just see a film that is so bold, and so different embraced by audiences all over the world and now by members of The Academy and people within the film community. It really shows that if you take chances on these specific films that celebrate different kinds of stories that are universal, you know? That a universal story can look like this and deal with subject matter like this.

What’s something that audiences have taken from the movie that you didn’t expect?

So many things. What I love most is lurking on Twitter, because I don’t account, but looking at all the memes that are created from the movie, and how people resonate and connect with the film in different ways. There was this one meme that was created where it’s that scene where Mei is under her bed, and she’s sketching in her sketchbook and they turn it into a three panel comic where the first panel is her laughing goofily, and then she draws something, and you reveal what she’s drawing and people have added their own embarrassing drawings from middle school, they add something really specific to their fandom, or to what they are embarrassed to it like. We’ve all been underneath our beds, sketching things in our sketchbooks. So that’s one of my favourite things to come out of the movie.

Fan art is so core to your journey as an artist and is baked into Mei’s character too. Has there been a favourite piece of fan art that you’ve come across?

Ah, gosh, there’s so many. There’s really creative ones out there. Like, I saw fan art comics of Mei’s mother and her dad, when they were young and how they met. It’s super specific. I’ve seen interesting, creative fan art where people create their own Panda-sonas like their own version of what their magical red panda would look like. And it’d be a different colour and a different design. And then, of course, all of the super amazing 4Town fan art. Seeing people attach themselves to this fictional boy band and get as into them as Mei and her friends are in the movie is just amazing. It’s just so cool to see how this movie has really touched everyone’s 13 year old nerdy selves in a really fun way.

Was it a big challenge for you to make sure that each character’s panda was distinct? 

Yeah, we worked closely with Rona Liu, our production designer, and the art team in making sure that there were characteristics that we carried through from each of the human designs and put them into the panda designs. We still wanted the pandas to be like pandas. But for Ming’s character, for example, in act three, when she transforms into a Godzilla red panda that design actually went through a couple of iterations. So, the first design that we approved was a much scarier version of panda Ming.

My initial instinct for shooting that whole sequence at the boyband concert was like, ‘Oh man, we just gotta make this feel as scary as possible. Mei is terrified her mom’s gonna wreck everything and kill her favourite boyband.’ And it seemed funnier in my head but then when we watched it, with that really scary panda Ming design, it didn’t read like it. It read way too scary. And I was losing the metaphor of ‘This is just an exaggerated mother-teen daughter fight in the living room on a massive scale.’ We went back to the drawing board, we redesigned panda Ming to give her more characteristics of a human being. 

We gave her that really funny looking hair swoop, we gave her a mole on her eye and then we also worked with the animators on her behaviour. In the first pass, she had more of this animalistic bear kind of animation and she didn’t really feel like a human in there at all. She felt like she was crazy and out of control. But then, in the second pass, the animators took a lot of Ming’s mannerisms. Hands on her hips, a finger wagging, just her overall sassiness, they carried that through. That really helped her read. She’s a giant, angry mom, not a giant, angry monster.

I’ve never visited Toronto, but this film made me nostalgic for a place I’ve never been. Could you talk about developing that nostalgic feel?

So I grew up in Toronto, in the 2000s and I thought it’d be a really cool opportunity to set this movie during that time. Toronto is always in movies, but it’s always disguised as New York or Chicago or another American city. It’s never really celebrated or seen as Toronto. I just really wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate just the diversity and the unique architecture and that small town in a big city kind of feeling that Toronto has that I remember growing up.

And I really just wanted to celebrate the people that I grew up with. I wanted to highlight the Chinatown that me and my parents would shop at every weekend when we first immigrated to Toronto. Even though my parents and I are not Cantonese, that was the closest thing we had to home in the West. And I wanted to celebrate all the diverse classmates that I had growing up. I was lucky that I lived in Toronto where I never felt like an other for being Chinese. I felt othered in that I was a total anime nerd and I was vice president of the anime club, that’s how I was othered. I wasn’t othered for who I was, which was nice.

Mei’s friends are definitely a representation of the types of kids that I hung out with that I befriended. There’s a large Asian population in Toronto, South Asian population, as well. It’s funny because we will always get comments saying ‘wow, you made your movie so diverse. How did you do that? Why did you do that?’ And I’d be like, well, that’s just reality. Right? Like, that’s just what Toronto is. And a lot of people don’t realise that because when they think of Canada, they think of snow, French Canadian lumberjacks and stuff, but the Canada that I know is really multicultural. It’s really cool that this movie is redefining what it means to be Canadian.

WE’VE GOT YOUR (FLUFFY) BACK – In Disney and Pixar’s all-new original feature film “Turning Red,” everything is going great for 13-year-old Mei—until she begins to “poof” into a giant panda when she gets too excited. Fortunately, her tightknit group of friends have her fantastically fluffy red panda back. Featuring the voices of Rosalie Chiang, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Hyein Park as Mei, Miriam, Priya and Abby, “Turning Red” will debut exclusively on Disney+ (where Disney+ is available) on March 11, 2022. © 2022 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

I appreciated seeing some South Asian people in the movie, shout out to Priya. For my final question I have to ask about boba tea. Your go-to order is a Fresh Taro Milk Tea, can you help me understand the appeal of Fresh Taro as a topping?

It’s so great because it’s like a dessert, it’s a solid and a liquid at the same time and it feels like you’re drinking and eating a beverage. Some people don’t like that mealy texture of Fresh Taro in their drink, but I love it. I love the ability to do multiple things when you’re drinking. It feels like a good deal. It’s like a two on one thing. You get a drink and you get a little snack.

THE 95TH ACADEMY AWARDS will take place at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood Sunday, March 12, 2023. Hear more from Domee Shi in episode 12 of our podcast series Animation One-To-Ones:

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