Turns out that Pixar director Domee Shi’s Oscar-winning “Bao” short was truly the appetizer before the meal of “Turning Red,” her animated feature debut (premiering March 11 on Disney+). Both rely on bizarre transformations to express identity crises while growing up as a Chinese-Canadian in Toronto. However, “Turning Red” allowed her to fully explore her awkward tween experience through 13-year-old Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang), who turns into a giant red panda whenever she can’t control her emotions about boy bands, pop music, her besties, and breaking free from her overbearing mom, Ming (Sandra Oh).
“Where did this wacky story come from? Back in 2017, as I was promoting [‘Bao’], a lot of people kept asking me: Why is Bao a boy? Because I only had eight minutes to tell the story,” said Shi. “For a mother-daughter story, I needed an entire feature film to unpack that. And, luckily, I was soon given the support when Pixar asked me to pitch three ideas, and this is the one that was selected [and greenlit shortly before Pete Docter took over as Pixar’s chief creative officer].”
“Turning Red,” like “Bao,” was inspired by Shi’s close relationship with her mom. Also, like Shi, Mei’s an only child who emigrated to Toronto from China as a toddler. “But then, as all kids do, I started to grow up, I started changing, I started getting into anime, comics, [hanging] out with my friends more and more and less and less with my mom,” she added. “She didn’t understand why I was obsessed with these fictional characters that I drew over and over again in my sketch book with their huge eyes and colorful, spiky hair. And ‘Turning Red’ was inspired by this universal struggle of growing up and figuring out how to handle honoring your parents but also staying true to yourself. And, for Mei Lee, the red panda is that magical spark that sets off this internal conflict within herself.”
At the same time, the fluffy and lumbering red panda serves as a metaphor for puberty, when, “all of a sudden, we’re covered in body hair, we smell funky, our emotions are all over the place, and we’re hungry like all the time,” Shi continued. Which is why she wanted “Turning Red” to be unique for Pixar: a surreal coming-of-age comedy set in 2002 Toronto with the first tween girl protagonist. “I really wanted the world to reflect her character: colorful, chunky, and cute, bold and in your face….The term I used a lot to the crew was Asian tween fever dream.” This was not only a seminal time of boy bands, pop mania, and growing sexual awareness for Shi, but also “a simpler time of flip phones, CDs, jelly bracelets, and Tamagotchis.”
Aesthetically, Shi turned to the 2D look of anime as the driving stylistic force for “Turning Red.” This meant tweaking the hyper-real norm at Pixar to fit her vision: bending the way they do modeling, shading, and lighting to be more graphic. To accomplish this, Shi — the first solo female director at Pixar — assembled the studio’s first all-female leadership team, consisting of producer Lindsey Collins (who led the experimental SparkShorts program), production designer Rona Liu (“Bao”), and cinematographer-turned VFX supervisor Danielle Feinberg (“Coco”). In addition, animation supervisor Patty Kihm (“Toy Story 4”) split duties with Aaron Hartline (“Lightyear”).
“We were never going to replicate 2D exactly in 3D,” Shi said. “But how do we use these powerful tools that we have today to stylize the look of the movie in 3D space? How do we abstract the world enough to feel unique while also rich enough to feel immersive like you’re in the family temple or you’re inside the thick, smelly panda fur?”
They studied the watercolors and shape language of anime, of course, but additionally referenced live-action films, especially Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” also set in Toronto. “I always loved how that film utilized a lot of comic book stylization when it came to the fight scenes, when it came to cutting, and the camera movements and snap zooms, even the fast-paced humor,” added Shi. “It was really cool to see how he was able to get that energy in live action. We [also] referenced it a lot in terms of the camera being a character in and of itself and following the emotion of the character.”
But translating the graphic anime style into CG involved software retooling and adjustments across the entire pipeline. This included making the Chinatown architecture look chunky with pointed rooftops resembling cat ears, adding color variation and staining to the materials, altering the tone of the pastel backgrounds to make the characters pop, and creating a pink vapor cloud to heighten fantasy sequences. More complex was providing characters with moon eyes and cat mouths, then changing the size and shape of the eyes or adding stars for greater graphic expression.
But, of course, Mei’s alter-ego, Panda Mei, posed the greatest animation challenge. Although fur was conquered at Pixar a long time ago with “Monsters, Inc.,” and refined ever since, this was a new beast. The chunky cute shape was unwieldy at first, and working with big and fluffy was counter-intuitive. Also, expressions and movement required special attention while still remaining true to Mei’s look and personality.
“We needed to solve that metaphor of being big and hairy and uncomfortable in your own body,” Shi said. “And that made it difficult to shoot her in a lot of the sets that we built because she was so big. You don’t notice it when watching the movie, but a lot of times, when she’s in interior spaces, we had to shrink her like 10-15 percent so she can move and act and not intersect with other parts of the set.”
Music, meanwhile, captured the period along with Mei’s personality. For the fictional boy band, 4*Town, Shi and Collins went after Billie Eilish and FINNEAS before they achieved superstardom, with the director assembling a Mei scrapbook to entice them. They wrote three original songs, including “Nobody Like U” (featured in the trailer), and FINNEAS voices one of the 4*Town band members. And the Oscar and Emmy-winning Ludwig Göransson (“Black Panther,” “The Mandalorian”) delivered a score to convey Mei’s dorkiness through a combination of new jack swing and Eastern instrumentation.
Yet, despite her ambitious vision and unconventional ideas, Shi welcomed the mentoring of Pixar’s soft-spoken leader, Docter, to help guide her along the way. “He’s very understated and one of the things he kept reminding me was the importance to show and not tell,” Shi said. “And that’s tricky to do when you have to drop a moment of exposition in order to set up the rest of the movie.”
This was particularly true of the original opening scene of a very young Mei and her mom posing together for a photo shoot, which was cut after being fully animated. Sitting together during a screening, Docter gently recommended that the opening would be stronger if she saved introducing the close mother-daughter dynamic until later. “Pete was really great at coming in and saying all the reasons why he loved the scene and then plussing it,” added Shi. “The story had changed gradually throughout production and we didn’t need this scene. We wanted to get to Mei and her girlfriends from the outset.”
However, after making “Turning Red” such an opulent, unique-looking Pixar film, there will be no theatrical bow as a result of the omicron surge. This marks the third Pixar film in a row bound for Disney+. “These are long-term plans that you have to commit to without a real sense of clarity on the horizon,” said producer Collins. “So we just did the thing that felt the smartest in terms of being able to get the most people to see it…. And that’s a huge relief because the worst thing in the world would be to spend all this effort and time to make this movie and then nobody sees it. In terms of [the future], L.A. will do a short run, I think, for Oscar qualification. And then we’re all hopeful that at some point, maybe once movie theaters open up, we can show ‘Soul,’ ‘Luca,’ and ‘Turning Red’ across the country at a Disney festival or something.”