For our January Beginnings Issue, we interviewed 14 achievers, from a rookie cop to a new American citizen, about the act of starting—or starting over. Domee Shi, the first woman at Pixar to direct a short film, shares what it was like to make her directorial debut with Bao.
Where did the idea for Bao come from?
A lot of it was inspired by my own life, growing up as an only child to my two Chinese parents. They were extremely overprotective of me, so I’ve always kind of felt like a coddled little dumpling—so that’s where the idea of a coddled little dumpling that breaks free from his overprotective mom came from. Bao also came from my love of fairy tales like “The Gingerbread Man” and a lot of Asian folktales—a lot of them have to do with old people finding babies in food or plants, you know? I wanted to do a modern take on those types of fairy tales, because I love how they deal with light and dark elements, even though a lot of them are told to kids. Also, I’m a huge foodie, and I just wanted an excuse to draw dumplings for years and years.
What was the process like for getting the film off the ground?
I started developing Bao as my own side project outside of Pixar. Then, in 2015, Pixar did an internal call for pitches for their next short film at the studio. Any employee could sign up and pitch three ideas, so I did. I did some concept art for each idea—Bao was one of them—and I pitched them in front of a panel. There were multiple rounds, and by the end, Bao was the idea they picked to be the next theatrical short. So that’s kind of how I became a director.
How much did the final film change from what you originally presented?
It always was about this lonely, empty-nester mom going through this crazy dumpling fantasy in order to process her real son moving away. All the major beats in the final short were in the original pitch, including the part where she eats the dumpling. When I pitched it, I was like, All right, I don’t know if Disney or Pixar would ever go for something this dark or weird. But the reason why they chose it was because it was so different, and it really surprised and shocked them. I think they liked that. So they took a chance with this short.
You were the first woman to direct a Pixar short. Was that something you were aware of at all during the process?
It didn’t quite hit me until after we finished the film. As I was making it, the concern running through my head was, Oh, my gosh, I’ve never really done something like this before. I’m so green! [laughs] Not so much that I’m the first woman to do this. When we started showing it to audiences, it hit me. I think it’s so important that we keep seeing female-led projects and TV shows and movies, because you can’t be what you can’t see. I feel really humbled and honored to be one of the first, but hopefully not the last. Hopefully one of many.
Why do you think it’s important for the industry to keep promoting diverse voices and stories?
Movie-making is a super creative industry, and if companies like Pixar want to keep leading the way in telling unique, fresh stories, you can’t keep drawing from the same well over and over again. You’re going to find creative, unique voices from creative and unique people, so it almost seems natural that studios should tap into creative people who they don’t normally tap into. The more points of view, the more different voices you have in making art and telling stories.
What advice do you have for someone who’s starting something new?
As a director, the most important thing is to be honest and communicative. The worst thing is to pretend like you know what you’re talking about and lead your team down the wrong path when it would have just been easier if you were upfront. That way you can involve everyone in solving the problem together. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions—you’re not expected to know everything. And surround yourself with people who are way more talented than you. We asked my mom to come in to Pixar twice to do dumpling-making classes for the crew. It was kind of surreal—I was like, Whoa, I’m making a movie with my mom that’s sort of about my mom. But I thought it was really helpful and important for the animators, effects artists, and everyone else to just get in there and observe and study her technique so we could replicate it as accurately as possible. Paying attention to those little details—like how she folded the dough, how she rolled it out—grounded the short, made it feel more real, and made the character feel like an empathetic, believable person, not just a cartoony character.
How did you get involved in art and animation?
I’ve loved drawing for as long as I can remember. My dad is an artist and a painter, so I grew up playing around in his studio. I’ve always been kind of quiet, and I found that drawing was a really easy way for me to communicate ideas to people when words were more difficult. I found I could make people laugh; I could get really good reactions out of them. That became intoxicating, and I wanted to keep doing that.
Who do you look to for inspiration when you’re starting a new project?
Like a lot of animators, I’m a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki. Spirited Away is a film that I always pop on now and then just to make myself feel good and motivate myself and remind myself why I love animation and film so much. But also I have a lot of people I look up to around the studio, too. Pete Docter has been a big influence on me. He was our executive producer on Bao, and I worked with him on Inside Out, but I’ve always known of his work from Monsters, Inc. Seeing how he’s able to preserve that sense of spontaneity and play in his work is really cool. He loves animation so much and you can tell through his work. On the other side, I really respect Brad Bird, who I was lucky enough to work with on Incredibles 2. He’s one of those rare people who can do everything—he writes, he directs, he can draw and animate. So I think I learned a lot from absorbing those two guys at work.
What do you hope is next for you?
I’m currently working on my own feature film at Pixar. I’m in early development right now, and I hope I can make this. [laughs] I hope I can survive production and make it through to the other side with a completed film that’s entertaining and emotional. That’s what I’m going to be focused on.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.