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Who is Shi? Pixar intern turned director Domee Shi on Asian upbringing, Turning Red's success

A photo of Pixar director Domee Shi with her character Meilin from Turning Red.
A photo of Pixar director Domee Shi with her character Meilin from Turning Red.

Pixar intern turned director Domee Shi is having an exciting year; she’s currently promoting her film, Turning Red, and now finds herself in Singapore where she gave a talk at the Asian Animation Festival.

Who is Shi? (yes, pun intended) At the young age of 22, Shi first started at Pixar as an intern in 2011 and worked herself up to be the animation studio’s VP of creative. Credited as a story artist on the Academy Award-winning feature film Inside Out, she’s also worked on the feature films The Good Dinosaur, Incredibles 2 and the Academy Award-winning Toy Story 4.

On top of those stellar accolades mentioned, the Asian-American director also wrote and directed Bao, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Fun fact: in Pixar’s whole 36-year history, Shi is the first woman to direct a film by herself.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Shi in person at a roundtable about the success of Turning Red, the influence her parents had on her childhood and what her accomplishments mean to women around the world.

When Turning Red came out, it caused a bit of a stir because some (the film) had a young girl with weird on-screen experiences. What’s your response to that?

Domee Shi: We set out to make an authentic, funny movie about a girl going through big changes in her life, changes that we have all gone through at the age of 13. And in order to tell a truthful story, we had to show her getting her period, fighting with her mom and lusting after boys, because that was just something that all of us kind of went through.

This first movie was led by like an all-female leadership and I think we all look to our own experiences in our lives. And we didn't want to shy away from that, just because it was embarrassing, awkward and confusing.

So you know, one part of it was like, yeah, wouldn't it be so funny and embarrassing if her mum just came out with a bunch of pads? But we didn't think too much of it. Other than that, it was a funny gag. It was kind of surprising when it came out and made a huge wave, but I think it's awesome that our little cute, dorky movie riled so many people up and started so many important conversations.

A still from Turning Red. (PHOTO: Disney/Pixar)
A still from Turning Red. (PHOTO: Disney/Pixar)

How do you gauge the success of Turning Red? Were you disappointed when it went straight to streaming?

When we were making the movie, we had every intention for it to be seen on that big screen. So it was definitely like, a disappointment when we got the call from Disney that it was going to be switched to Disney Plus. But when I reflected on and thought about it – this was like early 2022, and COVID was still a thing and not everybody was returning to theatres, especially families – I just thought, the most important thing for me right now is to have this movie seen by as many people as possible. So our goals kind of shifted to that and the solution to that was Disney Plus, so that families could safely watch and enjoy the movie from home without feeling that anxiety and risk of going out to a theatre.

How did your love for animation begin?

You know, my love for animation began as a kid when my parents bought Aladdin on VHS for me. That was the first time I watched an animated film at home in my living room and I just watched it on repeat.

Recent animated works have explored different cultures and backgrounds such as Coco and Raya and The Last Dragon. Why do you think global audiences like such films in animated form?

I think animation is such a powerful medium, and it's such a visual medium. I think a lot of studios are seeing creative potential in tapping into different cultures and stories from different parts of the world. Because for a while, I think a lot of Western animated feature films have started to look and feel the same. So I think they have noticed that and I think that's why you're seeing a lot more diverse stories being explored and told through animation.

I think it's awesome that our little cute, dorky movie riled so many people up and started so many important conversations.Domee Shi

A still from Turning Red. (PHOTO: Disney/Pixar.)
A still from Turning Red. (PHOTO: Disney/Pixar.)

Did you ever have that support from your parents from the get-go when you wanted to be an animator?

My parents were always supportive of my pursuing the arts in some way. They were both professors back in China: My mum was a professor of education, and my dad was an art professor. When we emigrated to Canada, he tried for many, many years to get a teaching job as an art professor, but that didn't work out. It was just a long and difficult journey for him to establish himself as an artist in the West, and he was finally able to be a successful landscape painter now. But it took (pauses) until he was like, 50 years old, and he didn't want me to go through that same struggle.

I love drawing, and I was like, it's your fault (laughs). He taught me how to draw and he was like my mentor growing up. I always thought it was just so fun and such a magical powerful way for me to connect to other people. I would just show them a drawing, and they would instantly want to know more about it. That's how I made friends at school. So I knew I wanted to do it for a living, but I just didn't know how, And at some point, my parents were like, ‘Well, how about you become a medical illustrator? Like that combines our wish for you to become a doctor and then your love of drawing?’ and I was like, I don't know about that. I'm drawing livers all day; I kind of have a queasy stomach.

In high school, I was on the internet a lot and I discovered DeviantArt, an online art community and I was able to get in contact with these artists that I really loved. I just did a tonne of research on animation and I convinced my parents to support me in pursuing animation.

A still from Turning Red. (PHOTO: Disney/Pixar.)
A still from Turning Red. (PHOTO: Disney/Pixar.)

I love that you have all-female leadership management in the film. But I was just wondering throughout your career path, was it difficult for you to pitch and sound the idea just because you're a woman animator?

Yeah, that's a good question. I feel like at least in my experience at Pixar, it didn't ever feel like there was an intentional exclusion of women in the industry. But it just happened to be like when I was there, when I first joined, there were only five women in the story department, and it was a story department of like 30 to 40 dudes, and that didn't really reflect the animation school that I came from. Now it's changed a lot and I think you're just kind of seeing the industry catch up with what is being naturally reflected in the schools.

But the difficulties that I had early on was just not being able to see positive role models or like leading badass women in the animation industry. There were few and far between, and a lot of them were based in LA, or they left the studio. One thing that really helped me early on was the senior producers at the studio, Nicole Grindle and Mary Coleman. They had decided just out of the blue, to have all the female members just meet for lunch, once a month. They had gathered us and at these monthly lunches, we just commiserate. We were encouraged to talk about our hopes and dreams and I think those meetings were really helpful because it helped build my confidence.

There was this one lunchtime, years ago, where Nicole or Mary was like, ‘let's just go around the table to say out loud, our career goal.’ I had never said that out loud before. But I was like, oh, I want to be a director. And I said it like very meekly because it just sounds so weird and foreign. And I think that was what started everything? I think, just having that community was huge and beautiful.

Disney and Pixar’s Turning Red introduces Mei Lee (voice of Rosalie Chiang), a confident, dorky 13-year-old torn between staying her mother’s dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence. Her protective, if not slightly overbearing mother, Ming (voice of Sandra Oh), is never far from her daughter—an unfortunate reality for the teenager. And as if changes to her interests, relationships and body weren’t enough, whenever she gets too excited (which is practically ALWAYS), she “poofs” into a giant red panda! Directed by Academy Award winner Domee Shi (Pixar short Bao) and produced by Lindsey Collins, you can stream Turning Red on Disney+ now.

Stream Turning Red on Disney Plus