In “Turning Red,” director Domee Shi turned Pixar upside down in the pursuit of a 2D anime look for dorky 13-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang), who transforms into a giant red panda as part of her sexual awakening. The unconventional coming-of-age comedy set in Toronto streams March 11 on Disney+ and will screen at Hollywood’s El Capitan for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run.
“I grew up watching anime films as much as Disney and Pixar,” said Shi, who makes her directorial feature debut after her Oscar-winning “Bao” animated short. “I really wanted to bring this expressive style into the movie and convey how Mei was feeling at any given moment. She has such big emotions and we had to push the animation in a way, like in anime, where the character’s embarrassed or mad or sad or has stars in their eyes. So it felt like the perfect opportunity to explore and push anime in a 3D medium.”
“It was fun to work with lighting on all the stars in her eyes when she sees a boy she likes,” Shi continued, “or to work with animation when she’s pushing her freaked out expressions [when she gets horny and draws what’s in her overheated imagination], making those eyes round and those pupils tiny, and scrunching up her mouth.”
They first had to define the way Mei moved and expressed herself along with the shape language of her face, including moon eyes and cat mouth. “When we met with Domee, it was clear that she wanted to have these two worlds [2D and 3D] merge,” said co-animation supervisor Patty Kihm, who worked alongside co-animation supervisor Aaron Hartline. Neither of them were exactly anime nerds, so they quickly became experts at what makes the style so special and unique. They initially came up with a shortlist of 2D characteristics that could translate into 3D, forming a middle-ground between cartoony looks and a more detailed, realistic performance.
One test helped them discover how Mei could be simultaneously charming, messy, and funny. “We learned that seeing her fumble made her more relatable,” added Kihm. “Through some of our other tests, we learned to exaggerate Mei’s body poses and added cartoonier eye shapes by shrinking down her pupils to tiny dots…and growing her pupils and adding stars in her eyes. This was a new look for our Pixar characters.” These tests overlapped several departments. The pupils were controlled by animation in the computer, the texturing department made sure the colors read properly, and lighting added the dancing highlights.
Meanwhile, Panda Mei proved the most difficult character to animate. As the uncontrollable beast that emerges during puberty, the cute and chunky shape was unwieldy at first, and working with fat rolls and soft fur 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,” said Shi. “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.”
A crucial success in the rigging of Mei and Panda Mei was the application of a software program called Profile Movers, which had never before been utilized on a Pixar feature. This allowed the animators to push extreme poses for individual silhouette shapes on the fly in a series of short cuts. “It’s kind of like how 2D animators were able to do it,” added Shi, “so that the characters were not rigidly tied to a 3D model.”
In leaning into a more graphic 2D look, Pixar significantly emphasized a side profile with just one eye visible, as well as the cartoony technique of still movement, in which only a hand or a head moves. For the side profile, Pixar had to unlearn some basic animation rules. “As animators, we are trained to study natural, everyday motion,” said co-animation supervisor Hartline. “But we told the animators to forget what they’ve learned. We’re going to keep the character completely still but just pick one place. There was resistance because when you turn your head, your body moves a little bit…everything’s connected. We told them to trust us…this stylization draws you in, it tells the audience that this is a deliberate choice.”
“One of my favorite scenes is the one with Panda Mei in the bathroom where she looks at [classmate] Stacy in a side profile and just pushes her back into the stall,” added Shi. “I just love how it invites so much fun opportunities for pushed silhouettes. And it’s just funnier if you hold as much of the character model as possible and only move what was necessary. It’s like Chuck Jones in 2D.”