Domee Shi Tells Sandra Oh How Her ‘Most Hilarious Faces’ Influenced ‘Turning Red’

Awards Spotlight: The pair discuss how the "super expressive" actress impacted the animation process for Oscar nominee "Turning Red."

Domee Shi, Sandra Oh, Rosalie Chang, Lindsay Collins

There’s a universal truth at the center of “Turning Red,” Pixar’s latest Oscar-nominated animated feature: “We’ve all been embarrassed by our moms.”

Filmmaker Domee Shi (who previously won an Oscar for her short film “Bao”) is big on the universality of her stories. She joined voice actor Sandra Oh on Zoom for IndieWire’s Awards Spotlight series to discuss how they — as two Asian-Canadian women — collaborated the beloved coming-of-age story, which follows teen girl Mei (Rosalie Chiang) who can transform into a large, fluffy red panda while learning that her mother, Ming (Oh) had been through the same thing.

“My intention with this movie was to make it for my 13-year-old self who was going through all of the issues that Mei was going through,” Shi said. “Fights with her mom, fights with her body, her emotions, her horniness.” She added that these dramas were especially acute for Asian girls. “There is so much pressure and weight on presenting yourself,” she said. “A lot of that comes from our moms because they had that weight on them as well. And with this movie, I wanted to understand, ‘Where did all of this pressure and craziness come from?’”

Oh said she was also impressed by Shi’s attention to detail. “It’s always exciting for any Canadian, anyone who has spent time in Toronto, to have a lot of the familiar signs, and the familiar [spots] like the Daisy Mart,” she said said.

When it came time to record the dialogue, Oh, in turn, became a foundational part of the animation process. “We love super-expressive acting performances, and we usually record our actors sometimes when they’re recording the lines,” Shi said. “I remember specifically Sandra made the most hilarious faces that our animators actually used as reference for Ming. There’s that scene where Ming is flipping through Mei’s dirty sketchbook and she’s making these reaction sounds, but also expressions, and I remember that day in the recording booth we just had you ad lib the sounds, and the only prompt was ‘Every page just gets worse and worse,’ and you just totally killed it.”


“Turning Red”

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

The director was especially impressed by the booming, funny furor of Ming’s own panda voice at the climax of the film. “We all have it,” said Oh. “All women have it, and all Asian women have it, the demon voice, yes. I’m proud to have it.” Shi revealed, “We had initially planned to treat Sandra’s voice with an effect when she became Mingzilla because, you know, she’s this 200-foot-tall monster. But you literally pulled out some kind of crazy voice that was both horrifying and scary, but also funny.” The director pointed to how the actress said the line, “You are in big trouble young lady” as an example of that.

“There’s too much of a history just with that sentence, and the meaning of hearing it when you’re five, and when you’re 13, and when you’re 50 saying it, right? So if you’re just in the beast mode, and you say that line, you’re gonna get that nice, dramatic and familiar twist, that it’s going to sit in a good place for you as an audience,” said Oh.

Shi laughed as she said that making “Turning Red” was a cathartic experience for her. “It’s like reenacting moments of your childhood through puppets, but the puppets are like $200 million animation rigs,” she said. The reactions to her film that she has gotten from young fans have really moved her. She quoted one letter that read: “I have been struggling a lot because my grades are slipping, and I can feel my mom’s disappointment in me, and this movie really just helped me process that and understand that she still loves me.”

Oh said the film is “what you always want from the canon of Pixar movies. You’re hitting those tears and you’re hitting the humor on two levels at all times, because it’s usually two generations who are watching this movie simultaneously.” Like the studio’s 2015 film “Inside Out,” which won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, “Turning Red” has proven to be a film that cracks up filmgoers of all ages.

But it also provides, as Oh said, “a framework of what you’ve both seen together … It’s probably a good stepping stone to some uncomfortable, really necessary conversations.”

Watch the full video conversation between Shi and Oh above.

“Turning Red” is now streaming on Disney+.

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This Article is related to: Awards Spotlight Winter 2023 and tagged , , ,

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