‘Bao’ director and producer discuss their ‘Incredibles 2’ companion piece
Short films are not often screened in theaters for regular moviegoers, but they have become an inseparable and essential part of Pixar’s releases. A sort of cinematic apertiv that welcomes audiences into the vivid, imagination-filled worlds of their longer features, these short films are a way to showcase the talent and personality of creative collaborators who lurk outside the spotlight more frequently aimed at auteurs like Brad Bird, Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton. Accompanying Bird’s “Incredibles 2,” Domee Shi’s “Bao” explores the immigrant experience, as filtered through her journey as a Chinese-American living near San Francisco, and offers a delightfully unusual, emotionally wrenching parent-child relationship between a woman and a pork bun (yeah, you read that correctly) that one day comes unexpectedly to life.
Shi and her collaborator and producer Becky Neiman sat down with Moviebill at a recent media day for “Incredibles 2.” The duo discussed exploring bold story ideas, balancing sensitive references to Chinese and Chinese-American culture, and skillfully utilizing Pixar’s unique technological and creative tool box to design a movie unlike any that mainstream audiences have seen, but that still resonates with universal themes.
How did the success of “Sanjay’s Super Team,” shown before “The Good Dinosaur,” embolden you to explore your own culture in “Bao”?
Domee Shi: When I watched “Sanjay’s Super Team,” it encouraged me to pitch a more culturally specific idea here. I think because both me and [writer/director Sanjay Patel] are immigrant kids, we probably mine from the same themes and stories that we want to explore, but I think there are different ways to tell immigrant kids’ stories — he had his version of it, and I had mine. It was cool.
Becky Neiman: I think, if anything, it was inspiring to us. Nicole Grindle, one of the producers of “The Incredibles,” produced [“Bao”] and she was a great resource for us in terms of how we approach cultural sensitivities, and she recommended people in terms of getting consultants to come and view it.
Domee, this was obviously inspired and driven by you. What sort of conversations were had about accurately representing this world, without inadvertently catering to stereotypes?
Shi: I think for me and Rona Liu, the production designer, we really just wanted to get all of those authentic cultural details right off the bat. I remember going on so many trips with her to SF Chinatown, taking lots of pictures, eating lots of dumplings and buns for research, and just visiting our own homes. I would go back to Toronto and take tons of pictures of my mom’s house; she’d go back to her mom’s house in San Jose. We’d use tons of reference from our real lives and would just chat with our own Asian friends and relatives. I think all of it was in service to the story to make it the most special and unique and real-feeling story it could be.
Neiman: All those additional details just help add to the believability and authenticity. Even though it is a particular culture and we’re being really specific about it, we kept coming back to how universal the story is. So many people, no matter where they’re from, can identify with this, the themes of food and family.
Shi: It was great having Becky [Neiman] in the room. We always turned to her because she was one of the few moms in the room. So when things weren’t feeling quite right in terms of when the mom character was handling the baby or when the little baby dumpling character was coming to life… We originally had an adult voice actor do the voice of the baby, and Becky was like, “my mom senses are not tingling here. I need to speak up because this is not going to fly.”
Neiman: I think a big part of the producer’s role is helping support the creative process, and it was important for me as a producer to make sure Domee’s story is represented on-screen as she imagined it.
Shi: It’s great to have different points of view in the room. It wasn’t just me in the room, it wasn’t just Rona — Kathy Ringle our editor was there too, [along with] Becky. Having men, women, non-Asian people, Asian people in the room, and having these discussions really shaped the story and made this specific story feel universal, so anybody gets it. When we were showing the short, even last night, so many people came up to us and were like, “oh my god, that is so my mom,” or, “that is so me,” and almost none of them were Chinese. So I was like, yes, we did our job.
What, if any, elements about your own heritage did you learn about as a result of making “Bao” that maybe you didn’t know before?
Shi: One thing I took for granted growing up was dumplings. My mom just made them so fast and so regularly for me — and I guess I would help a little bit by wrapping one or two — then I would eat them so fast without knowing how much work was involved in making them. While making the short, we brought her in a couple of times to do classes for the whole crew, and just looking at the work that was involved in making the dumplings really made me appreciate the art. I didn’t know that my mom doesn’t use a meat grinder for the pork; she says that it tastes better if you chop it by hand, so she uses a cleaver. She takes raw pork and just starts mincing it for 10 minutes, and then she’s like, “you try,” and my wrist was so sore after 10 seconds. I thought it was easy. But yeah, that was one thing that I learned that I appreciate now.
In the process of developing the aesthetic of the short, and translating it from 2D to 3D, were there any iterations that were tough to overcome, or especially unusual? You have talked about creating these wonderfully vivid cartoons from hand-drawn images that would then have to be animated and said, for example, that the dumpling cannot reach its own mouth.
Shi: That’s the one I was going to say when you asked the question. I was thinking there were certain shots where we had to cheat or hide his arms.
Neiman: There’s a shot where he opens a soda can, and the animators hid it with the camera angle. His arms literally detach from his body, but it’s hidden behind the can.
Shi: A lot of the stuff we wanted to do with the dumpling’s face, like when he’s laughing on the phone and his mouth gets really wide, we had to work to make sure that when he’s laughing the inside of his mouth doesn’t look gross.
Neiman: It was mostly the dumpling model. But with Mom, how do you design a set for a character whose head is half the size of her body?
Shi: One thing we encountered was that we made the chairs too high. Even though they appear so short, Mom and Dad’s legs were still too short. So we had to cheat them a little bit — stretch her legs out a little more so they didn’t look like two stubs sitting in the chair. They had to have some kind of bend to them. Little things like that hopefully don’t get noticed when you watch it, but it’s a lot of change and molding and sculpting to make it work.
Were there moments in the animation process where you discovered or created little details that gave the film a dimensionality or life that exceeded even your expectations?
Neiman: I think the plastic bag is an amazing example, and the artists that did that were smiling because it was so hard to get that motion on it and it was so important to Domee that it be that certain kind of bag. Our artists were like, “can it be cloth, can it be a stiff bag?” And Domee was like, “no, it’s got to be this kind of bag.”
Shi: Yeah, it’s got to be the bags from Chinatown.
Neiman: But it was technically challenging to get it to respond — to take on the shape of whatever is inside of it and then respond to the motion of the bus or the characters handling it or dropping it. We spent more time on that than we budgeted for or anticipated.
Shi: Yeah, we talked for hours about how the sun reaches into the plastic bag to grab the box, because it is very technically complicated to do on the computer. There were all these solutions that were presented that didn’t work. I was like, “okay, let’s just cut right when the sun’s about to reach into the bag, and we hide that moment of him taking the box out of the bag, so that in the next shot you just see him presenting the pink box on the bed.” And it actually made that scene feel more emotional, because we held the reveal of the pink pastry box until the next shot. But also, we were trying to solve a technical problem that ended up better as a result, which was really cool.
Was directing an aspiration that you strongly harbored, and now that you’ve done this, do you feel ready to move on to “Incredibles 3” or something bigger?
Shi: I feel like shorts are a great testing ground for features because you basically go through every single step, but a condensed, tiny version of it. But man — directing a feature is no joke, so I respect Brad [Bird and his team] so much for this huge project.