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The director of Pixar’s Bao on the challenges of animating a living dumpling

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What do you do when your precious dumpling baby becomes a dumpling man?

Image: Disney / Pixar

This interview originally ran in conjunction with Bao’s premiere at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. It has been updated for the short’s theatrical release ahead of Incredibles 2.

The title of Pixar’s latest short film, Bao, has two meanings in Chinese: “steamed bun” or “precious treasure.” In the short, it could easily mean both. The bao in this film is a cute homemade dumpling that comes to life, turning into a weird little dumpling baby that delights the empty-nesting Chinese mother who made it. From there, the bao-baby starts growing up. That sounds surreal on paper, and the execution is just as jarring. Writer-director Domee Shi has described it as a “magical, modern-day fairy tale, kind of like a Chinese Gingerbread Man.” But there’s more to it than just yet another fable about runaway food.

Bao plays ahead of Pixar’s new feature Incredibles 2. Shi, a Chinese-Canadian storyboard artist, has worked at Pixar on Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Toy Story 4. She started at the company as a story intern in 2011, and is now the first woman to direct a short in the studio’s history. I sat down with Shi and producer Becky Neiman-Cobb to discuss the challenges of animating food and crafting a relatable story, plus how Isao Takahata and Japan’s Studio Ghibli influenced the short film.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

This short made me cry, which surprised me. I wondered, “Why do I empathize with the mom here so much? I’m not the mother of a Chinese bun.” Were you aiming to have viewers relate more with the mother than with the child here?

Domee Shi: Definitely. I’m like you; I’m not a mother either. I am the steamed bun in this story. I thought this would be a really cool exercise for me to put myself into the point of view of this mom, I guess to understand my own mom better. I’m an only child, and I’ve been coddled and protected my whole life, but I wanted to understand “Why did my mom always act this way? Why was she always so protective?”

Becky Neiman-Cobb: I’m a new mom, and I kept being floored by Domee’s total understanding [of motherhood], like, “How do you know that that’s a mom thing?” This was Mom’s story, so everything she talked about, and all of Domee’s direction was about that. Down to our composer, Domee would give notes to him and say, “This needs to feel like how Mom feels right now. Follow her emotions.”

The composer, Toby Chu, is Chinese-American. Was it important to you to not only have a representation of Asians on-screen but also behind the scenes?

DS: For sure. The production designer, Rona Liu, is a Chinese-American artist as well. I specifically went to her, not just because she was Chinese-American, but because I love her style and aesthetic. I knew this short would require an art director who knew those specific details of a Chinese household — Asian parents, the food, and Chinatown — to make the short feel as authentic as possible. We worked really closely together, going on research trips to SF Chinatown and Oakland Chinatown. We’d visit our families’ homes, and we’d take tons of pictures of her grandma, my uncles and aunts, and my parents. We made sure every single detail felt like the household we grew up with.

Accurate down to the Asian mom visor.
Image: Disney / Pixar

Even though Chinese culture plays such a dominant role in the film, it’s still a universal story.

BNC: The thing about the story is that it’s very personal. Because the story is so personal, genuine, and authentic, it becomes relatable. Yes, it’s culturally specific, but those themes of family, food, and love are so universal and relatable. The more specific Domee went with details, it just meant it felt more real.

DS: I never felt like I had to water anything down. There was this one discussion where a non-Asian person asked, “Why is there a toilet-paper roll on the table?” and I was like, “We must keep it there, it’s very important and a staple in all Chinese parents’ homes to have it there.”

I definitely made sure that I showed the early storyboarded versions of the short to different groups of people — Chinese groups, non-Chinese groups at Pixar — just to make sure the story was clear. I wanted the details to be specific, but I wanted people to come away from the film feeling the same way, that food brought this family back together, and that this is a universal story of a mom letting go of her kid. I definitely wanted everyone to get that, but also learn something about a world they weren’t used to.

Image: Disney / Pixar

I understand your mother was a dumpling consultant on the film. What was it like working with her?

DS: It was cool! We invited her to Pixar twice to do dumpling-making classes for the crew because I really wanted the animators and the effects artists to touch the dough and fold it, and watch my mom make it, so we could replicate her technique exactly on-screen. I definitely learned more about dumpling-making watching my mom. Growing up, she’d make dumplings for me all the time, but I didn’t appreciate how much work was involved.

Is food particularly hard to animate?

DS: It’s one of the most difficult things to make look good on-screen because raw pork doesn’t look that good in real life.

BNC: We’re all experts on what food looks like, so if it’s even a little bit off, you can tell. So it was really important that we do it right.

DS: It felt like we had to exaggerate a lot of stuff. We had to make it brighter, more saturated. Kind of like how food photographers have to enhance the food. We had to do that on the big screen as well.

Given that food connection, were there crew members from Ratatouille who also worked on this film?

DS: We consulted with one guy who had worked on it, and his advice for us was, “One thing that makes food look really good is that shiny layer of fat that coats it.” That was a breakthrough for us. There’s a really quick shot of Mom stir-frying the pork in the wok, and we made sure it was glistening and oily because we wanted that nice, shiny fat.

Bao concept art by Domee Shi.
Image: Disney / Pixar

I saw your tribute to Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata on your Instagram. You said he was an influence on the story, and he resembles the father in Bao. Was that intentional?

DS: That was completely unintentional, but maybe his spirit was driving me to design the dad to look like him? [Laughs] But yeah, he was a huge influence. I love My Neighbors the Yamadas. Takahata’s style in general, and how he explores slice-of-life moments for these families. I wanted to incorporate that spirit into Bao. In the opening, I wanted to get every detail of Mom making the dumplings, and I wanted the dining room shot of Dad and Mom eating breakfast together — have it play it out very naturally, as if you were watching your own parents eating breakfast in the morning.

BNC: When our animators first came onto the team, we had a screening of My Neighbors the Yamadas for all of them. Domee refers to it so much, so we wanted to make sure everyone had seen it.

DS: I love the subtlety in the way his characters are animated, how they can be so expressive. Their mouths can go so big, but also they feel so human and real. And I really wanted that in my short as well.

Bao concept art.
Image: Disney / Pixar