In Pixar's First Female-Directed Short, A Dumpling Child Fills An Empty Nest

Jun 15, 2018
Originally published on June 15, 2018 11:19 am

Moviegoers sitting down to see Incredibles 2 are in for a tasty treat in the form of an animated short called Bao. It tells the story of an empty nester who discovers joy — and sorrow — when a steamed bun she makes comes to life.

The story is pulled from the childhood of Domee Shi, who wrote and directed the Pixar film. Shi was born in China and raised in Toronto. She started working at Pixar as an intern in 2011, and now she's the first woman to direct a Pixar short.

Pixar and the larger animation industry have been criticized for shutting female animators out of top jobs, but Shi says that culture is changing.

"You're just seeing this gradual shift in the industry because, before, animation was predominantly white and male, but now in animation schools all over the country enrollment is now over 50 percent female. ... I think just more and more girls are just getting into animation. And I hope that we're going to see those numbers be reflected in the industry and not just in the animation schools."

(NPR interviewed Shi before the announcement that Pixar's co-founder, John Lasseter, would be leaving the company. Lasseter had been absent since November, when allegations of sexual harrassment surfaced.)


Interview Highlights

On going from an intern to a writer-director in just seven years

I feel so honored and humbled to be in this position, for Pixar to have liked this weird idea I pitched to them and to get behind it. Yeah, I just think it was a combination of just timing and really awesome support from really cool people, and embracing my weirdness and not being afraid to show it. Because at first I was kind of hesitant to pitch this idea, but then [Pixar veteran] Pete Docter — who has been kind of my mentor figure this whole time, I worked with him on Inside Out — he was really an early supporter of the short, and he encouraged me to stick to my guns to pitch the original version of the short. And I'm so glad I did because that was the reason why Pixar chose that idea.

On how she came up with the idea for Bao

I think I was probably really hungry one night, and I've always been a huge fan of classic fairy tales. And I wanted to do like a Chinese twist on "The Little Gingerbread Man" with a Chinese dumpling, instead of a little cookie, that comes to life. And I drew a lot of inspiration also from my own personal life. I'm an only child, and I feel like ever since I was little my Chinese mom and dad have always treated me like their precious little dumpling.

On the short's rather extreme ending (which we won't give away)

I feel like any time you look at something really cute — like, even if it's like a baby or a puppy or a kitten — you think it's so cute, and it's almost awakened something violent and animalistic in you. Like, you want to eat it up or you just want to consume it or just squeeze it to death or something. ...

And also, growing up, my mom would often hold me close and be like, "Oh, I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew exactly where you were at all times." And like, "Oh, mom, that's creepy, but sweet." ... I just want to explore that feeling more — like, why does she want to do that to me?

On how her mom helped Pixar animators with their research

We brought her in twice to do dumpling-making classes for the whole crew. Yeah, and it was great. Like, we got the animators and effects artists right in there, and they studied my mom's techniques and they poked the dough and smelled the pork filling. ... It was really important for us to get every single detail right ... so we can put it on screen.

On what her mom thought of Bao

She saw it ... for the first time at the wrap party and she really liked it. I think she got emotional. She's like me, she is very like subtle with her emotions. But I definitely took a peek to my left during the short and I think I saw her eyes getting misty.

Danny Hajek and Melisa Goh produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you're planning on heading to the movie theater this weekend to see "Incredibles 2," you're in for a tasty treat before that show. Playing right before Pixar's latest feature film is an animated short called "Bao." It's about a woman who discovers joy and sorrow when a steamed bun she makes comes to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BAO")

MARTIN: It's a story pulled from the childhood of Domee Shi, who wrote and directed the film. She was born in China, raised in Toronto and now she is the first woman to direct a Pixar short. I caught up with Shi, who told me about how she found inspiration from a Chinese bun.

DOMEE SHI: Well, I think I was probably really hungry one night...

(LAUGHTER)

SHI: ...And I've always been a huge fan of classic fairy tales, and I wanted to do, like, a Chinese twist on the little gingerbread man with the Chinese dumpling instead of a little cookie that comes to life. And I drew a lot of inspiration also from my own personal life. I'm an only child, and I feel like ever since I was little, my Chinese mom and dad have always treated me like their precious little dumpling (laughter).

MARTIN: Is that a diminutive for a little kid, a bao?

SHI: Yeah. Like, bao bao.

MARTIN: Yeah.

SHI: (Speaking Chinese) bao bao, it's like little bun. It's like a nickname, like pumpkin, or like little cupcake, or something. Yeah.

MARTIN: What inspired you to take it to the extreme? We don't want to give too much away, but, this idea of loving someone to death?

SHI: I feel like any time you look at something really cute, like, even if it's, like, a baby, or a puppy or a kitten, you think it's so cute and it's almost awakened something violent and animalistic in you, like you want to - you just want to eat it up, or you just want to, like, consume it or just, like, squeeze it to death or something (laughter).

MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, people say that about newborns. I was like that with my own newborn.

SHI: Yeah.

MARTIN: This thing comes over you, and you're like, I just want to eat you all up.

SHI: Yeah, exactly. And also, growing up, my mom would often, like, she'd hold me close and be like, I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew exactly where you were at all times. I'm like, Mom, that's creepy.

MARTIN: (Laughter) That's creepy. (Laughter).

SHI: But sweet.

MARTIN: Thank you.

SHI: Yeah. And I'm like, I just want to explore that feeling more. Like, why does she want to do that to me? (Laughter).

MARTIN: I understand, though, that you needed an expert to show your animators how Chinese buns are actually made.

SHI: Yes.

MARTIN: So you brought your mom in. Is that true?

SHI: Yes. We brought her in twice to do dumpling-making classes for the whole crew.

MARTIN: Wow.

SHI: Yeah. And it was great. Like, we got the animators and effects artists, like, right in there. And they studied my mom's techniques and they, like, poked the dough and, like, smelled the pork filling. And they really - it was, like, really important for us to, like, get every single detail right of her method so we can put it on screen.

MARTIN: You started at Pixar in just 2011. It's not that many years ago.

SHI: Yeah.

MARTIN: You were an intern at the time. Now you are the writer and director of a Pixar short.

SHI: I know (laughter).

MARTIN: How are you feeling? And how'd you get there so quickly?

SHI: I know. It's crazy. I feel so honored and humbled to be in this position, for Pixar to have liked this weird idea I pitched to them and to get behind it. Yeah. I just think it was just a combination of just timing and just, like, really awesome support from really cool people, and just, like, embracing my weirdness and not being afraid to show it. (Laughter). Because at first, I was kind of hesitant to pitch this idea, but then Pete Docter, who has been kind of my mentor figure this whole time - I worked with him on "Inside Out" - he was really, like, an early supporter of the short, and he encouraged me to, like, stick to my guns, to pitch the original version of the short. And I'm so glad I did 'cause that was the reason why Pixar chose that idea.

MARTIN: So it sounds like you've had great mentoring and support, but that hasn't been the case industrywide. Pixar, its parent company, Disney, and really the animation industry as a whole have been criticized for shutting female animators out of top jobs. I think only 1 out of Pixar's 20 feature films was directed by a woman, which is pretty surprising this day and age. Do you think the company's culture toward women is changing right now?

SHI: I definitely think it is. And I think "Bao" being in existence is definitely, like, a positive example of that. I think change just takes time. You're just seeing this gradual shift in the industry because before, like, animation was predominantly, like, white and male. But now in animation schools, like, all over the country, enrollment is now over 50 percent female in animation schools. I think at Cal Arts, it's, like, now the first-year class is, like, 75 percent female and, like, 25 percent male. And that's just natural. Like, I think just more and more girls are just getting into animation. And I hope that we're going to see those numbers be reflected in the industry, and not just in the animation schools.

MARTIN: Domee Shi and I spoke last week, before Disney announced that Pixar's co-founder John Lasseter would be leaving the company. He had been absent since November when accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced. I did ask Shi if she was aware of a whisper network warning female employees about Lasseter's behavior.

SHI: Oh, my gosh. I'm, like, the most oblivious person (laughter). But, like, I was just, like, heads down. Just, like, working, working, working, working and just, like, drawing. Like, it didn't even hit me until after I finished the whole short that, like, people were coming up to me and saying, you're the first female director of a Pixar short film. How does it feel? And I'm like, oh, my God. I am? I was just concentrating on just finishing this short, and just, like, making sure I fed myself every day (laughter). So yeah, unfortunately, I don't know much about that.

MARTIN: What'd your mom think of the film?

SHI: She saw last Saturday for the first time at the wrap party, and she really liked it. I think she got emotional. (Laughter). She's like me. She is very, like, subtle with her emotions, But I definitely, like, took a peek to my left during the short, and, I think I saw her eyes getting misty? But, yeah.

MARTIN: Domee, thanks so much for talking with us.

SHI: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.