Student Presentation: The Work of Domee Shi

The animator I have chosen to research is Domee Shi, director of Pixar’s Bao.

Background:

Domee Shi was born in China and raised in Toronto, where the story of Bao is also based. I felt that her cultural identity particularly resonated with my own and hence this fact steered me towards the choice of Domee Shi for this research project.

Domee Shi currently works for Pixar as a story artist. Her Pixar career began following the completion of an internship with them in the year of graduation from a degree in Animation at Sheridan in 2011.

She is renowned for being the first ever female director of a Pixar short. This is particularly significant given Pixar’s reputation in nurturing a male-dominated work place.

Artwork: Within Pixar [1]

Domee Shi has worked on various feature films within Pixar including Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4; mostly credited as story artist.

Her work in Inside gained her recognition and hence she was nominated for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Storyboarding in an Animated Feature Production’ in the Annie Awards.

Aesthetic Style: Outside of Pixar [1][3]

Domee Shi  ensures that her own artwork is seen by the world, hence she updates her online blog regularly.

If we take a look at her online blog, we can really see her own aesthetic style shine through.

A few that particularly struck my mind was this piece, titled ‘A glimpse into the future’. The reason I noticed this piece was because if we take a close look at the lady in the animation, she strikingly resembles the mom character in the animation, Bao.

In addition, she posted this in the year 2014, the same year that she pitched Bao to Pixar. It seems true that she was clear about the visuals of her characters from the beginning.

Moreover, after observing her own character designs for the short ‘Wellbeing’ that was the product of 4th year thesis, we can see that her artwork features plump, round shapes as well as oversized features; a style that resonates with that of Pixar’s.

Production of Bao

The main ladies behind this short are Domee Shi (writer and director), Becky Neiman-Cobb (producer) and Rona Liu (production artist).

The entire production of Bao spanned over 1 month and 2 months.

As resources of Pixar are directed towards the feature films, the shorts department has fewer animators and a smaller budget, the Bao production team would pull artists in to help on the short as they became available – even over short periods of time.

Hence, the producer Becky Neiman-Cobb shared that if Bao was produced consecutively, it would have taken around 10 months.

Food shots were the hardest and most costly to animate. Domee Shi shared that it was not easy to make food look appealing on screen, as raw pork was not very appealing in real life.

Moreover, the soft dough textures were another challenge. Domee Shi shared that the dumpling making scene was very difficult as there was alot happening – with the dough folding and the meat being squished. It took the effects artists 2 months to perfect that one scene – but they were very happy with the end product.

The Dark Ending

Domee Shi was close to pitching an alternative ending for Bao because she worried that it would be too dark for Pixar’s family friendly audience.

However, her mentor Pete Docter heard her alternative ending and said “No, you have to pitch to them your original ending.”

In the end, Shi believes that this bizarre ending where the mom eats the dumpling was actually the winning ingredient that made her pitch stand out.

Inspiration for Bao [4]

Inspiration for Bao stemmed from both classic fairy tales such as The Ginger Bread Man as well as Shi’s relationship with her own mother. Growing up as an only child, Shi shared that she greatly identifies with the dumpling character.

In particular, the scene where the mother eats the dumpling in attempts to keep the dumpling by her side was actually inspired by Domee Shi’s mother, where she’d say “I wish I could keep you in my belly so I knew where you were at all times.”

For production inspiration, the team took several trips to Chinatown to try out various Chinese food.

The production designer Rona Liu is Chinese-American. Hence, both Domee Shi and Rona Liu gathered inspiration from their own homes and experiences. Each tiny detail ranging from the cutlery to the calendar hanging on the wall were influenced from real life experiences.

Moreover, the setting of Bao was based in Toronto. Bao is the first Pixar short to be set in a real life location. Domee Shi chose this as she believes that it makes it easier for the audience to immerse themselves into this world of Bao.

Conveniently, this choice meant that there were real life references available for the artists to animate from. 

Cultural Context [1][5][6][7]

What made Bao so unique was its cultural specificity. For a culture so specific, it was rare to feel so represented on screen, let alone in a Pixar production! There were no stereotypes present that would have made this artificial.

This is enlightening as DIsney was also criticised in the book Diversity in Disney films : critical essays on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability by Cheu, Johnson. They were criticised for the representation of cultures other than those of the Western world. Their representation of other cultures were deemed stereotypical. This is another reason why I appreciate the authenticity in Bao so much. 

I believe that this short is another stepping stone for Pixar in that they are opening up to embracing diversity within their work.

Domee Shi agrees that feature films like Coco and Sanjay’s Super Team really blazed the way for Bao to be produced.

In the words of her own, “Pixar and a lot of other studios are finally seeing that you can’t keep drawing creativity from the same well over and over again.”

 

Moreover, I think that Bao’s release was very timely. In the same year (2018), we saw the release of Crazy Rich Asians. This movie was celebrated worldwide for being the first ever Holywood Movie with an all-Asian cast.

It is also worth noting that Pixar has an audience of a wide age range and a large proportion of those would be young children.

It is revolutionary that these young minds are now exposed to universal themes in this form of art from a young age.

Socio-Political Context [1][2]

Domee Shi is renowned for being the first ever female director of a Pixar short. This is something that I, as a female who wishes to pursue the animation industry am truly proud of.

It is enlightening to see the animation shift to a more diverse and equal stage. As the animation world, and particularly Pixar has previously been male-dominated, it is great to see that Domee Shi has proven her skills as a female in the animation industry.

This is also timely as we see John Lasseter the former CEO in the press for sexual misconduct towards female employees within the company. In June 2018, Disney announced that John Lasseter will be leaving the company at the end of the year.

In class, Martin did a talk on ‘Feminism’ within the Animation industry. It was very evident from the clips shown that men and women were not equal. The way in that women were portrayed as reliant on men. The most shocking clip was a documentary from the BBC. The video quoted “Men look at women and women look at men watching them. A women’s worth is based on the attention she gets from men.”

Moreover, if we look at the animations from earlier years where women were portrayed as a sex symbol such as Betty Boop, we can see that the industry has steered towards a very different direction today.

Instead, animations show women portrayed as strong super-moms. We see in both Bao and Incredibles 2 – women were portrayed as heroes and this I find, is one step towards the right direction.

In the words of Domee Shi, “It’s really cool, I hope I can start a trend.”. To which she did,  as the following Pixar short Purl that was released in August 2018 was also directed by a female named Kristen Lester.

Conclusion [1][8]

To conclude, I enjoyed Bao but after researching the details, I’ve come to appreciate Domee Shi’s work at another level.

Both stories on screen and off screen are significant, and I feel that her work is an accomplishment are something that I can celebrate with too.

References:

[1]  Pixar Animation Studios. (2018). Pixar. [online] Available at: https://www.pixar.com/ [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].

[2]  IMDb. (2018). Domee Shi. [online] Available at: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm7626019/bio [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].

[3]   Doremimi.tumblr.com. (2018). Tumblr. [online] Available at: http://doremimi.tumblr.com/ [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].

[4]   Goldthread (2018). Insider’s Guide to Pixar’s Bao with Director Domee Shi. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watchv=9plFF5k7FeU [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].

[5]   Soto, K. (2018). The Creator of ‘Bao’ on That Twist: ‘Part of Me Wanted to Shock   Audiences.   [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/27/movies/the-  creator-of-bao-on-that-twist.html [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].

[6]   Cheu, J. (2013). Diversity in Disney films. Jefferson, North Carolina, [etc.]: McFarland.

[7]  Cosmopolitan. (2018). Here’s What the Director of ‘Bao‘ Has to Say to Those Who   Don’t Get It.   [online] Available at: https://www.cosmopolitan.com/  entertainment/movies/a22071868/  domee-shi-bao-interview/ [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].

[8]  OHBOY! Pictures (2018). Disney Pixar’s Bao – Meet the Creators. [image] Available at:   https://vimeo.com/276401126 [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *