At the Tribeca Film Festival, Domee Shi discussed the process of creating Bao, the new Pixar short about a dumpling that comes to life.
Pixar's short films have long been a staple of the studio's output. This year, writer/director Domee Shi continues the tradition with Bao, the story of a lonely mother who discovers a kitchen creation that comes to life in the form of a dumpling baby that she raises as her own (in Chinese, bao can alternately mean "steamed bun" or "sacred treasure.") Shi, the first female director of a Pixar short, and her producer, Becky Neiman, spoke at Tribeca during an animation masterclass, covering the development process and what went into creating the story of a little dumpling and the mother who loved him.
1. Use weekends to work on what interests you the most
When she came up with the concept for Bao, Shi was working at Pixar as a story artist on Inside Out. "We take a script and draw out all the acting and camera moves, and pitch it to the directors,” Shi reflected. Wanting to do something a little "more me, a little weird," she began working on a food-centric web comic that she posted on a sketch blog. It was there that the idea for Bao arrived. "I’d discovered that I really loved making these food-related stories and sharing them with everyone...it's a very universal pleasure that everyone can relate to." As Shi was working late in the office one night, she decided that she would make an animated short, "on my own, outside of Pixar. It was purely going to be my weekend gig, my side project."
Citing examples like The Gingerbread Man, she said that she'd always loved the way food played a role in folklore and was inspired to attempt "a Chinese version of that." While the first ingredient came from what she loved, the second ingredient came from what she knew, which was growing up as an only child. She revealed that as a kid in Toronto, she had very much been her mother's daughter; the two spent a great deal of time together, and that “when I started to grow up, it was very hard for her to let me go. That was the spark that became the heart of the short," and Shi settled on the story, that of a "lonely empty nester" who conjures up a fantasy of a "dumpling child" in order to process the feelings of loneliness she experiences upon her son moving way.
Fittingly then, it was Shi's first time as a director—she would be the first female director of a Pixar short—as well as Neiman's first outing as a producer.
2. Your writing should be equally strange and specific
While Bao started "as a personal side project I started outside of work," as she was pitching it to various people around Pixar, it came to the attention of Pete Docter, who had acted as a mentor figure to Shi (and who later came on board Bao as an executive producer). When she was asked to pitch the short to Pixar, Domee confessed that she wasn't sure whether something so “strange and specific” would work, though, in the end, “that was why they picked it...After that, things moved very quickly."
At this point in the talk, Shi introduced her producer, Becky Neiman. The two had previously worked together, and at the time she began on Bao, Neiman was finishing work as a production manager on Finding Dory. Neiman said that a large part of the Pixar shorts program revolved around the idea of it being an "opportunity to try out new technology, as well as give new leadership opportunities.” Fittingly then, it was Shi's first time as a director—she would be the first female director of a Pixar short—as well as Neiman's first outing as a producer.
Neiman listed the tasks of the producer, which included the usual production tasks of overseeing crew and budget, but also, on a Pixar short, "often strategizing on how to staff and schedule a crew to work within the windows of the feature productions going on at the studio." While they were producing Bao, the studio was also in production on, among other films, Incredibles 2 (Bao will have its theatrical debut playing before the film this summer.) Though Shi had been working on the short for almost two years, when Pixar came on board, she suddenly found herself with the resources of a giant studio backing her. After receiving the greenlight, Shi took a "deep dive into development" and spent time "drawing any and all ideas that came into my head."
3. The simpler the story is, the better
Shi remembered that "I always knew I wanted to do a story about a lonely empty nester fantasy in order to process her real son moving away. That core always stayed the same." As Bao developed, the story went through various permutations, and over time, she simplified the story "for clarity and time restraints...we were aiming for a six-to-seven minute short, so [the] less characters, and the simpler the story, the better."
She made the dumpling baby the only "magical food character" in order to preserve the relationship between the mother and son, and she cut down on extraneous threads in the story. “I got rid of any ideas that showed bystanders reacting to Dumpling or any ideas that didn’t focus enough on mom and Dumpling’s relationship." For similar reasons, any iPhone or modern technology gags got nixed.
Shi based the short's setting around Toronto's Chinatown, and made several trips there (and to other Chinatowns across the country) with her crew in order to observe the landscape and its characters, especially looking for inspiration for the mother character. She also had her own mother come and conduct classes on dumpling-making—which she deemed vital to the short's success—and an immersion in all things Chinese, for the crew honored Shi's mother with the title of "Cultural Consultant" on the finished film.
4. Know your characters
Research served as a big part of the film. Shi told of how the field trips yielded inspiration for almost everything visual in the film, from the signs on the bus to to the clothes the mother wears. “It’s really important to know your characters early on," she said, "so they could inform the story taking place around them. Style-wise, we were looking at a lot of classic Chinese folk art and folk figurines. We were drawn to these simple and graphic characters and took a round and simple approach." When the filmmakers moved into 3D sculpting software, they were able to work out the problems of the characters as they moved in space. It was very useful, Shi said, because "we discovered a lot of things in the process, like, 'oh, Dumpling's arms aren’t long enough'."
Shi worked on "day-in-the-life" sketches related to the mother character, “making sure her charm and personality came through." She spoke of how colors and patterns (in the mother's floral shirts, as well as the background) were used "to support the mother's growing emotions throughout the film. We chose muted colors when she was feeling low, and colorful and auspicious colors when she was feeling happy.”
"The things that were really hard to do in 2D were really easy to do in 3D."
5. Let the story guide the visual design
Everything "was in service of the story," and that even including the lighting. As an example, when the two main characters were feeling close, they might be lit by the same source. When there was tension, one would fall in shadow and the other would be directly illuminated. Shi had originally planned to animate the short by hand, but when they started to move into 3D, she realized that not only did the food "look delicious" and the patterns on the mother's shirt look great, but that "the things that were really hard to do in 2D were really easy to do in 3D."
By focusing so relentlessly on story, Doree Shi has written and directed a winning and winsome piece with Bao. It's a piece of narrative that follows the directives of its own story so rigorously that it manages to communicate and reach the audience in the simplest way possible.
Of course, making something look simple is often the most complicated process of all. Telling a simple story well can be much harder than telling a complicated story badly. Domee Shi's Bao is not only an eye-catching Pixar short that's sure to find success this summer, but also an example of a simple story, expertly told.