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Embrace your inner weirdo: Pixar’s Domee Shi on “Turning Red”

Embrace your inner weirdo: Pixar’s Domee Shi on “Turning Red”

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When Pixar asked Domee Shi to create a feature film, she ran to her friend’s office and rolled on the floor with joy. It was a dream come true. But Domee had to learn how to own her unique creative voice with all eyes on her, which meant embracing her inner weirdo. As Domee shares the story of directing Turning Red, you’ll hear how she commits to seeing her outlandish ideas through and surrounds herself with people who can recognize a great, weird idea when they see one. When Turning Red released on Disney+ in 2022, it immediately broke viewership records on the platform, showing Domee that her specific quirks were more universal than she thought.

Transcript and images

Domee Shi's film "Turning Red” introduces 13-year-old Mei Lee, a teenager who “poofs” into a giant red panda at decidedly inconvenient times. Image © 2022 Disney/Pixar
Domee Shi's film "Turning Red” introduces 13-year-old Mei Lee, a teenager who “poofs” into a giant red panda at decidedly inconvenient times. Image © 2022 Disney/Pixar

Chapter 1: She eats the dumpling. 

DOMEE SHI: I remembered this line that my mom would always say to me: “Oh, Domee, I wish I could put you back in my stomach, so I knew where you were at all times.” And I’m like, “Aw, that’s sweet, but creepy.” And I wanted to explore that sweet, creepy relationship that moms have with their kids.

So I decided I’m going to try to make my own short film. The first thing that came to mind was food. I started drawing this little dumpling being smothered by this old lady. And I was like, “Oh, maybe there’s a story there.”

At Pixar, Domee and her mom, Ningsha Zhong, make dumplings. A comment from Ningsha inspired Domee's Oscar-winning short film
At Pixar, Domee and her mom, Ningsha Zhong, make dumplings. A comment from Ningsha inspired Domee’s Oscar-winning short film “Bao.” Photo: Deborah Coleman / Pixar

Bao is about this lonely old Chinese lady who gets a second chance at motherhood when one of her dumplings comes to life as a giggly little dumpling boy. And she nurses it, she raises it, she feeds it, and she has to learn to eventually let it go. And I always had this image in my head of the mom eating the dumpling.

I pitched it to Pete Docter. He was so intrigued by the ending that he really encouraged me to pitch it to Pixar.

One or two co-workers questioned if the ending where she eats the dumpling would be too dark, and I was like, “Oh no, maybe this is too weird and edgy for Pixar.” So then I quickly changed the ending.

The ending that I ended up pitching was the mom ends up making dumplings all night long. And in the morning she wakes up, and they’ve all come to life, and then she just lives happily ever after with a house full of dumplings.

Dumpling sketches by Domee Shi, the maker of the Pixar short film
Dumpling sketches by Domee Shi. See more concept art on Domee’s Instagram.

Pete stood up, and he was like, “That’s not the version that you pitched me. Her original ending was so cool and weird. You should come back a week later and pitch the original ending because that was the thing that made it.”

His excitement in that weird idea gave me a lot of confidence. There’s an audience for my weirdness

A lot of people would always ask me, “Oh, why didn’t you make the dumpling a girl since it’s based off of your experience with your mom?” And then I was like, “Huh, well it’s a short film, and I feel like eight minutes is not enough to unpack a Chinese mother-daughter relationship.” I need a whole feature to dive into that.

JUNE COHEN: That’s Pixar director Domee Shi. She was just telling us the story of creating her Oscar-winning short film, called Bao. And she’s about to tell us the story of writing and directing the animated feature film Turning Red.

It’s a specific story about a filmmaker who brings her entire self to her dream project of directing an animated feature film. But the takeaway is universal: to hone your unique creative voice, embrace your inner weirdo. Your specific quirks may be more universal than you think.

As Domee takes us on the journey of creating Turning Red, you’ll hear how she incorporates her own personal experiences into the story — including the weird ones. Especially the weird ones.

You’ll also hear how she commits to seeing her outlandish ideas through — even when they take her down some blind alleys. And how she surrounds herself with people who can recognize a great, weird idea when they see one.

And here’s what else you should know about Domee and Turning Red. Turning Red released on Disney+ in 2022, and immediately broke viewership records on the platform. Turning Red was also created in record time — it was the fastest movie Pixar ever made. And Domee herself also made history. She’s the first woman to direct a feature film at Pixar on her own (Brenda Chapman was one of the two lead directors of BRAVE in 2012), and the youngest person ever invited to join Pixar’s famous “Brain Trust.” Domee also worked as a storyboard artist on films like Inside Out, Incredibles 2, and Toy Story 4. She’s currently Vice President of Creative at Pixar.

I’m your host June Cohen, and on this episode, you’ll hear original music composed for piano. 

Chapter 2: I draw my way out. 

What if you get stuck before you start? Let your inner weirdo guide the way.

SHI: The president of Pixar, Jim Morris, invited me into his office. First, he said, “Congrats on the short. It’s amazing and weird and cool, and we want to see more from you. Would you want to pitch some ideas for a feature film?” And I said, “Yes.” I was like, “Thank you, thank you. Thank you for the opportunity.” And then I calmly walked out, and then I speed-walked to Rosie Sullivan’s office, who’s my good friend, closed the door. And then I freaked out in front of her, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, they just asked me to pitch an idea for a feature. Ahhh.” And I rolled on the ground freaking out, and she freaked out with me. And she also got on the ground like, “Oh my God.” And both of us are just like, “Ahhh!!!!”

I didn’t even have any feature film ideas. Sometimes I just try to draw my way out of getting stuck. And it’s better for me than just sitting and thinking. I’ll just start drawing who I think the main character could look like. I’m figuring it out as my hand is moving. I have something tangible to work with.

So I was sitting on my busted Ikea couch with wobbly legs drawing in my sketchbook. My boyfriend, Darren, was sitting next to me, and I was, like, sketching. I would show him. I was like, “What do you think of this?”

A grab from Domee Shi's sketchbook, where she experiments with styles and moods. See the whole page on Domee's Instagram
A grab from Domee Shi’s sketchbook, where she experiments with styles and moods. See the whole page on Domee’s Instagram.

It was a drawing of a girl. And she had this giant backpack on, that was crammed full of textbooks and school supplies. And she had her flute case under one arm and a tennis racket under the other. And then I would sketch this red panda that came from this magical amulet that her mom gave her for her birthday, and that was weighing down on her neck as well. And she looked really, really stressed out, like the weight of the world was on her shoulders. And maybe I was feeling that too a little bit at the time, or always, I don’t know.

And I turned into the story about a tween girl named Mei-lin Lee, who thinks she has her life completely under control when suddenly, boom, magical puberty hits one day, and she turns into a giant red panda anytime she gets emotional, angry, and worked up. And her mom wants to quickly get rid of this red panda so that her daughter can stay her perfect little girl.

COHEN: Did you hear the smile in Domee’s voice as she described her first drawing of Mei and the red panda? Domee’s ideas often start this way, with just a sketch — as she draws her way out of being stuck. Then she follows her inner weirdo until the idea takes shape.

Chapter 3: Preparing the pitch

How do you give yourself the best chance at success? Grab coffees with everyone you can, then pitch the most interesting idea in the world.

SHI: The Pixar process is like, you pitch three ideas to the panel of creative execs. I had worked for months practicing the three pitches, getting the timing right. I tried to get them all under 15 minutes. I made sure to grab coffees with as many directors in and out of development as possible, just to pick their brains on their whole experience with the development. And I learned so much from those coffee dates. It really made me realize: Oh, there’s no one way to pitch a film, but you have to pitch it in your way. You have to put yourself into your pitch.

I thought about, “Oh, what’s my superpower? What skills can I lean on?” And I was like: Of course I have to storyboard it. So I leaned a lot on my boarding skills. I made sure that I had a rough beginning, middle, and end for every idea I pitched in storyboard form. It could help them visualize what the ideas could be.

One bit of advice that I thought was really helpful was: pitch with all of the excitement and energy and passion that you can muster. Pitch these ideas as if they are the coolest, funnest, most interesting ideas in the world. Okay, I just have to put on the show of my life.

A storyboard for the
An action-packed storyboard for the “Red Peony” sequence in “Turning Red.” Digital storyboard by Vlad Kooperman and Domee Shi. This image comes from the gorgeous book The Art of Turning Red, Chronicle Books 2022.

Chapter 4: The pitch

SHI: It was literally Halloween 2017. I woke up early because I couldn’t sleep that well, and then I was debating if I should put on a costume because it was Halloween. And Pixar is playful, and they lean into their goofiness and weirdness. But then I decided not to, last minute, because I didn’t want to be a distraction from the stories. So I just wore a normal outfit.

At lunch on Halloween, they have this fun costume contest. Everyone was kind of hustling and bustling in the atrium. Everyone was just like, “Oh, it’s Halloween; it’s time to have fun.” But I was just feeling so much dread and stress. So I drank my coffee, and I just got myself really pumped up and excited.

And it’s like a workout. I was talking for 45 minutes, doing voices, sound effects, and everything.

Everyone asks you questions about each of the ideas. It was kind of 50/50 between Turning Red and this other idea I had. And then they have you leave the room, so they can discuss more behind closed doors. Waiting in the hallway, I was awkwardly trying to make myself a tea. But I was like: Where’s the hot water? I was just trying to keep busy and not freak out. And then eventually, they’re like, “They’re ready for you,” and they call you back in.

They’ve asked me: “Which idea do you want to do?” I was immediately put in the spotlight, and I was like, “Oh, frick.” I liked both ideas. I really wanted to see a cute red panda on screen. So I just said, Turning Red. And they’re like, “Great. We thought so too.” And I was like, “Was that a trick question? What if I said the other one? What would’ve happened then?”

Early concept art for
Early concept art for “Turning Red” released by Pixar in June 2021. Domee calls this “one of her fav pieces” by artist Bill Cone.

Chapter 5: What we knew from the start

SHI: In the ’90s, I just remember obsessing over this anime TV show called Sailor Moon, which is about these middle school, high school girls who by day went to school like everyone else, but then, by night, they donned super cute costumes, and they would fight monsters and bad guys. The show was about the power of friendship, which I thought was so awesome. The five girls on the show really loved each other, and I wanted to celebrate that female friendship.

We decided to give Mei this gaggle of girlfriends, who were kind of her squad. In anime, it’s all about feeling. Anime is just so expressive. They just play so fast and loose with cartooniness, with motion, with facial expressions. When characters feel the particular emotion or reaction, the drawings are so exaggerated and funny. If they see a boy they like, or a girl, suddenly the screen gets all fuzzy, and there’s sparkles and boca lighting, and everything’s all soft and fuzzy because that’s how the characters feel. And we really wanted to do that to make the audience feel what Mei was feeling. It just felt like the perfect style to reference from, for this story about this adolescent girl who feels so much at all times.

Meet Mei Lee's tightknit group of friends: Priya, Mei herself, Miriam, and Abby. © 2022 Disney/Pixar.
Meet Mei Lee’s tightknit group of friends: Priya, Mei herself, Miriam, and Abby. © 2022 Disney/Pixar.

Chapter 6: That “Awooga!” feeling

SHI: There’s a chase sequence through Toronto. Mei has first poofed into a panda at school, and she’s so distressed. She’s like, “I got to get home and hide.” And she’s running through the city. There’s this gag where she stops in her tracks, and she sees Devin, the cute convenience store boy. And then she just stares at him and then just taps her foot Bugs Bunny-style and goes, “Awooga!” That’s so silly.

So that “Awooga!” moment, I had pitched it initially because I was tickled by that — that this 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl would just utter that. It’s such an old-timey reaction that you’d see from cartoons from the 40s or 50s. But it made sense because she’s a red panda now. She’s feeling all of these emotions; her hormones are roiling inside of her.

But then I was hesitant all throughout the process. We would be scrutinizing the whole sequence. And our editor, Nick Smith is like, “What? Are you sure?” And then I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know.” And then Rosie Sullivan, she became my head of story, and she was the one that was like, “It’s so funny. It’s so weird. Just stick to it,” and would help defend it. She understood that “Awooga!” feeling, and she was like, “Come on, we’ve all felt that.” And I’m like, “You’re right, you’re right. Let’s just put it in and see what happens. If it’s inappropriate, then we can always cut it.” But we kept it in. Thanks, Rosie.

COHEN: “Thanks Rosie.” And thanks, Pete Docter and Jim Morris. From the ending in Bao to the “Awooga!” moment in Turning Red, Domee surrounds herself with people who embrace her inner weirdo.

Panda chaos in the middle of the city. Image © 2022 Disney/Pixar.
Panda chaos in the middle of the city. Image © 2022 Disney/Pixar.

Chapter 7: Ripped from my life. 

SHI: Mei and her mom are super, super tight in the beginning of the movie. They’re two peas in a pod. They make dinner together. They, like, fold dumplings and watch Chinese soap operas on TV.

Mei is an only child, and so am I, and I think that makes our moms more overprotective than your average mom. A lot of beats in the movie were literally ripped from my own life.

There’s a scene in Turning Red where Mei discovers, to her horror, that her mom has followed her to school and is spying on her from behind a tree with sunglasses on.

On the first day of middle school, I was walking out with my new friends that were like, “Who’s that lady?” And I was like, “Huh?” And I look up to see what they’re pointing at. I see my mom watching me hiding behind a tree with sunglasses on, thinking I wouldn’t recognize her. Maybe it was a Clark Kent thing, but I definitely did. And I was like, “Whoa. Yep. Mom, I can see you. You’re right there.” And she was like, “Oh, Domee. I was just worried about you. Go play with your new friends. I’ll just follow you from behind.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay.”

It is a very universal feeling. That’s how a lot of parents feel when their kid is leaving the nest. You want to cling to them as much as you can. I’m just exploring that idea in, like, a very weird way.

In a scene inspired by a moment from Domee Shi's own childhood, Mei-lee's mother spies on her from behind a tree. Image from Turning Red © 2022 Disney/Pixar.
In a scene inspired by a moment from Domee Shi’s own childhood, Mei-lee’s mother spies on her from behind a tree. Image from Turning Red © 2022 Disney/Pixar.

Chapter 8: Try, try again.

What if you know your idea isn’t working? Commit to it anyway, and mine the gold you find along the way. 

SHI: Mei needs a clear, solid goal. She needs a drive. She needs to be working hard towards something that the red panda disrupts.

There were at least 8 screenings that we did. After the first screening, her goal was: She wanted to get into a special private school that was all the way in California. That felt very big, and we kind of liked the idea of a small goal feeling really big. Because that puts us in the perspective of a teenager, where everything feels like it’s the end of the world, even though when you zoom back out, it’s not.

She could be running for class president. Her campaign is disrupted by the red panda arriving. As we were working on it, maybe the plot didn’t hold any water. We’re like, “Oh, wouldn’t that make her chances even better? Wouldn’t anybody want to vote for a red panda as a class president?” It got messy.

Artist Bill Presing shares storyboards from an alternate version of Turning Red where Mei runs for class president.
On his Instagram, artist Bill Presing shares storyboards from an alternate version of Turning Red where Mei runs for class president.

We knew that, okay, we’re going to have screening 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. We just took advantage of that. We just got to commit to it. We just got to get it up there and do the best version of this story we can because we’re going to learn so much. What gold can we mine if we just follow through until the bitter end?

We boarded that whole version of the movie. And then, of course, after we put it up we’re like, “Oh yeah, yeah, this doesn’t make any sense.” So we dropped it.

For each screening, we always found something that we could add to the end — some humor, some character moments. We’re picking this path and rallying everyone behind it, and then we crash and burn. But then we pick up the pieces, and we’re like, “Okay, okay, okay, this is what we learned. This is what we won’t do next time.” And then pick another path, and let’s go that way.

Chapter 9: It had to work

How do you convince others that a weird idea will work? Prove it. 

SHI: This is a story about an adolescent girl. There has to be some mention of a boy band, and let’s create our own.

4★Town started off as just almost like a joke. The whole, why are they called 4★Town if there’s five of them? It was just going to be a one-off thing where you see Mei and her friends singing karaoke to 4★Town. It was always so fun putting them in the movie that we just decided just to put them in more and more and more. We decided that a very specific goal for Mei to have that feels very 13 was to get to a 4★Town concert. That just felt perfect.

The five guys of 4*Town, from
The five guys of 4*Town. Image courtesy Disney/Pixar

And the idea of combining Taoist chanting with ’90s boy band music and making that feel like an emotional, exciting climax for a movie.

I was like, “Uh, I think this is going to work, but I don’t know.”

This is screening 8.

We couldn’t look for temp music that had that at all. We did our best trying to layer those two over each other ourselves, but it never quite hit the emotional mark.

We got Ludwig Göransson as our composer, and we’re like, “Look, we’re going to have a big screening soon, and we need this as a proof of concept. Could you just mess with the Taoist chanting track and the 4★Town music, and then do your magic, and give us something temporary that we can just put in there and prove to everyone that this can work?” And he’s like, “Let me work on it.”

It sounded amazing. And he had orchestra in there too, and it had all the emotion and passion and excitement that I always imagined this scene to be. We’re like, “Oh my God, thank you. Thank you.” It was like, if it didn’t work out, then I don’t … It had to work. It had to work.

Chapter 10: We figure out how the movie ends

How do you set the right emotional tone if you’re not an emotional person? Find yourself a story therapist.

SHI: What is a satisfying ending for this movie? I remember some notes for some of the screenings being like, “Oh, why doesn’t Ming say I love you to Mei?” Emotion is not something that I’m that intuitively good at. I’m not the most touchy-feely, emotional person. I can do humor. I can do weird, shocking, surprising plot twists. But when it comes to intimate mother-daughter conversation, that was just so difficult to do.

Julia Cho is our writer. She has no fear in reaching into your heart and pulling out your guts. So Julia had to really get it out of me. She was my story therapist, and she found the heart of the story.

She’s Korean-American, so she has experience growing up with an immigrant Asian mom as well. So a lot of the times would be us in the story room trading stories from the battlefield of Asian girl adolescents.

We were adamant about Ming not saying it in words, because Asian parents don’t say it with words. They say it with action. And you feel it more than hear it. We want to stay authentic to our experience as immigrant kids.

How does Ming convey the message of, “I love you?” How do you do that? How do we make the audience feel that? We were just workshopping all these other lines that Ming could say to her: “I support you. Go and be yourself.”

We really wanted it to feel like Ming was letting go of this image of her perfect little daughter and accepting her messier adolescent western side.

Julia landed on a really powerful line: “The further you go, the prouder I’ll be.” That was the perfect line. It encompasses that bittersweetness in a lot of parents where, if they are successful in their parenting, their kid is going to be further away from them and thrive.

Chapter 11: The wrap party

SHI: We rented out the Concord Pavilion, this outdoor amphitheater. It was early 2000s-themed, so everyone was wearing their best early-2000s outfits. Juicy Couture tracksuit, sweatpants, Backstreet Boys and NSYNC T-shirts. They were playing ’90s hits.

Some people dressed up as the characters, as Mei, or Priya, or Abby. For every wrap party, the filmmakers have to come up there, and they give a speech. And it can get very emotional and touching because it’s four years of your life. But I know, for us, we wanted it to feel like a celebration. We wanted it to have the spirit of the movie as well. We just got up there in front of the crowd of like 1,000 people, and we were all in our early-2000s outfits, and we just thanked everybody.

After we thanked all the crew and our loved ones, we did this bit: We would thank our partners and end it with like, “And then thank Danielle’s partner, Paige, she’s smokin’ hot.”

“We would just thank all of our smoking hot partners.” Men and women alike, so that felt very appropriate.

And then everyone filed in, and we watched it all together for the first time. Just hearing everybody laugh and scream when Mei’s sexy drawings of Devon as a mermaid are revealed, that just felt so good. All the screams are like, it’s from embarrassment, but also from, “Oh my God. If anyone ever knew the weird shit that I drew as a teenager, I would die.”

I’m pointing to people in the audience and being, like, “You guys are weird, too. You do this as well. It’s not just me. I know it’s not just me.” And that just made me feel better about my weirdness. “We all had secret sketchbooks, come on.”

Chapter 12: What Turning Red means to me now

SHI: It means so much to the 13-year-old me. I don’t think I would’ve ever imagined watching a movie that has characters that deal with the very issues that I’m dealing with, issues of being an immigrant kid. Also, Asian girls can now just point to this movie when they pitch to their parents, “Hey, I want to go to animation school.” And they’ll be like, “There’s no future there.” And then they can be, “Look at the people that made this movie.” Because I didn’t have that.

It taught me to go big. There is an audience for these types of stories, and there’s space for people like me in this industry. I can just put my ideas out there and see what the reaction is, and then I can always reel it back later. Shoot for the sun, and then you can land on the moon.

COHEN: I want to thank Domee Shi for sharing the story of this creative journey with us. I hope you found things you can bring into your own creative work.

Maybe it’s all the ways Domee listens to her inner weirdo — from drawing her way into a character to keeping Mei’s “Awooga!” moment.

Or it might be how Domee finds collaborators who champion her oddball impulses and will roll around on the floor with her when she wins big. Or maybe it’s the trust Domee has that if she creates something deeply personal — including the dark and weird stuff — she’ll discover there’s other weirdos out there.

Pixar's Domee Shi, creator of Turning Red, on the Spark & Fire podcast

About Domee Shi

Domee Shi is a director, animator, and storyboard artist. She worked at Pixar as a storyboard artist on films like Inside Out, Incredibles 2, and Toy Story 4, then made the award-winning short film Bao. Her film Turning Red, released on Disney+ in 2022,  immediately broke viewership records on the platform. Now a Vice President of Creative at Pixar, she is the first woman to direct a feature film at Pixar, and the youngest person ever invited to join Pixar’s famous Brain Trust.