Onstage at the 2019 Oscars, the writer, director and animator Domee Shi issued a call to action for "all of the nerdy girls out there who hide behind their sketchbooks:" "Don't be afraid to tell your stories to the world," she beseeched. "You're gonna freak people out, but you'll probably connect with them too — and that's an amazing feeling to have."
"I remember John Mulaney and Awkwafina were announcing the category, and when they said our names, I was just on autopilot. My feet moved, but my soul was floating 10 feet above me watching," Shi says now. "And Awkwafina was like, 'Congratulations. I love the short,' in her raspy, cool voice, and I was like, 'Oh my God, I love you.'"
Shi, who served as a storyboard artist on Oscar-winning movies like Inside Out and Toy Story 4 before becoming the first woman to direct a short for Pixar, won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film with Bao, her winsome, deeply personal short about dumplings and the all-consuming love of a mother. Backstage after her Oscar win, Shi found herself in the wings exchanging pleasantries with Michelle Yeoh, an actress she had loved since 1992's Supercop. "I was like, 'What are you working on?' She's like, 'Something very exciting." And I think it was probably Everything Everywhere, but I had no idea."
Shi was working on an exciting project of her own: her feature debut, Turning Red. Born in China before moving to Canada as a toddler, the filmmaker took inspiration from her teenage years as the daughter of immigrants and devoted member of her school's anime club to tell the story of Meilin Lee, a dorky 13-year-old living in Toronto in the early 2000s. Mei is torn between honoring her loving but overbearing mother, Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh), and the pandemonium of going through puberty as a teenage girl, while navigating friendships, boys, and her changing body. Oh, and whenever she gets too excited, she turns into a giant red panda. At the 95th Oscars, Turning Red is nominated for Best Animated Feature.
"It feels different than last time," Shi says. "At least for myself, there's a lot more pressure and responsibility because there are so many firsts in this film: This is the first feature film to be led by predominantly female leadership. It was the first film from Pixar with an Asian female lead. The first film, at least coming from the West, to really talk about and celebrate the awkwardness and cringiness of puberty and pads and all that stuff. So, to have the film be so commercially successful and so embraced by the film community, it's huge. And hopefully it shows studios moving forward that these types of stories and these storytellers deserve to be invested in, and you will get a good return if you invest in diverse stories and storytellers."
As if somehow mystically connected, Turning Red is nominated alongside Everything Everywhere All at Once in a historic year for Asian nominees. "I like to think if you were to raise your daughter, you would start with our movie when they're a tween, and then move on to Everything Everywhere when they're an adult," Shi grins. "It's like a double feature in raising girls and women."
In conversation with A.frame, Shi (who also serves as Pixar's vice president of creative) reflects on the journey from first pitch to the Oscars and how she learned to embrace the messiness of making art.
A.frame: To go back to the beginning, was Turning Red an idea you'd had in your pocket for a long time? When you had the opportunity to make a feature, did you know this would be it?
Well, Pixar asked me to pitch three ideas for a feature, and I sat down with my sketchbook and I just started drawing. Because that's where a lot of my ideas come from. I have to figure out the character through drawing. And I remember the first thing I drew was just this girl, this Chinese girl, who had a huge backpack on stuffed with textbooks. She had a flute case and a tennis racket under one arm, and she had a bunch of bags of scrolls and stuff under her other arm, and she had this giant jade pendant hanging from her neck. This was from an early version of the movie, where the magical transformation came from a pendant. And she was being weighed down by it — literally this Asian girl being weighed down by all the pressure that she's under. And I was like, 'This is it. This is my hero.'
I really wanted to make a movie around her and how she deals with all of this stuff that she is literally being weighed down by. It was the most personal and I think the most uncomfortable idea that I pitched out of all three. But that's probably where that story gold is — it's in those uncomfortable truths. And I think any meaningful story or film, there has to be something in there that the filmmaker is a little uncomfortable to tackle.
Do you still have that drawing?
I do. It's one of the drawings that we feature in the art book. But it might be in one of my random notebooks or scraps of paper that I have lying around. I should find it though.
What is so impressive about Turning Red is how specific your vision is with it. When you make a movie — especially an animated movie — it's so many years and so many artists, and you're making changes and sometimes concessions through the process. How did you maintain such your specific vision through all of that?
Oh, man. Yeah, it's hard. I think I always tried to go back to those initial drawings that I drew when I was pitching the idea and remind myself what got me excited about this film to begin with. That was the one thing I never really let go of — this idea of telling a story about this girl struggling with her inner emotions, and her mom, and magical puberty. I always went back to that.
And also, having gone through many other film productions, I've seen the stories get smoothed out, perfected, but a lot of the edge and spontaneity get sanded down too. I knew that going in. So, my strategy was, 'Let's just shoot for the sun right from the beginning, and then, we'll land somewhere on the moon.' We never held back at all, and our attitude was it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission. It's better to be told that something is too much and we need to reel back versus, 'Oh, there's not enough here. Add more.' That was our attitude, to go in guns a'blazing from the beginning.
Do you have a scene or a sequence that you are ultimately proudest of, either because it was the most challenging or you're just pleased with what made it to the screen?
There's so many moments that I still geek out about. One of my favorite moments, where I feel like when we showed an early version of it, it really clicked in for me what this movie is about — the charm of it and the fun of it and the heart of it — is the bestie beatboxing moment, where Mei can't control her emotions and has transformed into a red panda. She's feeling so s****y about her body and locked herself in her room, and her besties come in and make her feel better with spontaneous beatboxing. They just burst into song. Initially, in the script, it was just, 'Her friends come in and they start beatboxing and they cheer her up.' But then when we were recording, I was like, 'They should have this cute, bad way of beatboxing, like 'boots and cats and boots and cats.'' And we had the voice actresses try that.
And then our editors came in and they cut it with the storyboards and turned it into this really fun, really special scene. And it's one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie. And we didn't bring in Billie [Eilish] and Finneas until halfway through. And we were like, 'Can you create a song for us that has beatboxing, but also lyrics that can speak to this specific moment where her friends are trying to make her feel better about her body and herself?' And they were like, 'Yes. We can do that.' They came up with the lyrics off of the story reels that we gave them, and it all came together that way. It was amazing.
When you won your Oscar, you implored the nerdy girls hiding behind their sketchbooks to tell their stories. With Turning Red, you made history as the first woman to be sole director on a Pixar feature and had an all-women leadership team. What did it mean to you to look around and be surrounded by fellow nerdy girls sharing their stories?
Making this movie was such an amazing experience, and sometimes I'm reminded, oh my gosh! It was kind of a miracle how this film was made by this cast and crew. How does this even exist? How was I so lucky to be able to make this? Because this is not the norm at all in the rest of the industry, and I get reminded of that a lot. But when I gave the speech, I was working on Turning Red at the time, so nerdy girls with sketchbooks were on my mind, for sure. I remember as I was doing promotions for Bao and getting led around the circuit and meeting other people in the industry, that I was like, I'm lonely. I need more people that look like me here with me.
And every time I saw a fellow female director or filmmaker or animator, I would cling to them like a lifeline. Because you get reminded you're still a rarity or a weird unicorn in these spaces. And I was like, 'I can't be the only one.' And with casting this movie and assembling the crew, I was like, 'I don't want to be the only one in the room.' I hate that feeling. It's incredibly lonely, and it feels like there's so much pressure on you to represent everybody. It all just came from I don't want to be alone, so I'm going to surround myself with awesome, powerful women to inspire me.
You put so much of yourself into this film, but what do you take from it? How has making Turning Red changed you as a filmmaker?
I definitely learned to really embrace the messiness of film production and the messiness of creativity. I come from story, so I came in from a more specialized area of animation, where you're working on your own specific piece of the puzzle and your goal is to make it as good and as perfect as possible. But through making Turning Red, I learned to work fast, work messy, and to fail fast. To get to that good version of the movie, you have to fail a lot, and you should just fail as quickly as possible to get there and not hesitate, and noodle, and perfect. That was the main thing I learned. And it was really hard for me because I'm so type A, to be comfortable working that messy. But it's so necessary, I think, embracing the cringe, so to speak.
In the era of Disney+, there are so many opportunities for series spinoffs or shorts or sequels. Would you be interested in exploring the world of Turning Red more?
I'm currently in development on a new feature, but I love Turning Red, and the world and the characters so much. We've spent so long bringing these characters to life, I want to keep them alive, and I think a lot of people are invested in Mei and her journey through life. How's she going to deal with her panda in college, or as a young adult as she enters the corporate world? I would love to see her as a mom herself. I think there's just so much more to explore in that world. I would love for it to continue living in some way.
By John Boone