Pixar may be largely known as a feature film studio, but there’s no denying that a great deal of their culture is embedded in their shorts. In fact, it was through the creation of shorts that they developed the technology that led to the eventual production of their first feature, Toy Story. Since then, shorts have still played an important part at the studio in developing creative talent from within, and they tend to really push the creative boundaries behind the visual medium.
The short that will be accompanying their latest feature, Incredibles 2, is called “Bao,” which follows a middle-aged Chinese woman who makes a baby out of dough. I saw this during my visit to Pixar a few months back, and even had a chance to sit down with its director Domee Shi and producer Becky Neiman. In our discussion, I had a chance to dig into the origins of the film as well as the Shorts Program at Pixar and how it all operates.
LRM: So, I was really fascinated to talk to you guys. I wasn’t expecting this short. I didn’t know what to expect when I heard about it and a little background for me, I’m ex-military. I spent four years in Korea, and it’s … It’s not apples to apples, right? Chinese to Korean, but, watching this, it just yanked me right back. It was amazing. For me, it was the … Not just the themes, but it was just the atmosphere. It captured what I remember from when I was overseas. And I live here in Alameda, I’m a local kid. So, in Alameda, we have a lot of Chinese people and we see them doing tai chi all the time at the park and … This was really interesting. How did you guys approach this? What was the deciding factor for you in terms of deciding to make something that’s very specifically Chinese and do you think that this a story that’s universal? Do you think it will make sense to people who are not Chinese or that the themes and everything will appeal to people who are not Chinese?
Domee Shi (Creator, Artist): Yeah, I think … Good question. Yeah, I think when I first came up with the idea, I didn’t quite … I didn’t know specifically where it was gonna be, but then like with a lot of creative people, you draw from your own life and so I made the choice to like … Okay, let’s set it in Toronto, Canada. Let’s draw inspiration from my own experience and my own childhood and my own house, it’s literally like we modeled it heavily after my mom’s home in Scarborough and [production designer Rona Liu’s] mom’s home in San Jose.
And, I think … That was awesome in that we are able to tell this universal story of a mom learning to let go of her kid which every … I’m pretty sure a lot of people in this world can identify with that, if they’re not a mom, they’re a kid that had a mom who didn’t want to let them go, but then we’re painting it with a culturally specific paintbrush and that’s what makes it unique and something that not everyone’s ever seen before. That’s what makes it fun to watch. It’s like dumplings and tai chi, and old Chinese people, and cool lanterns and Chinatown.
Becky Neiman (Producer): Yeah, and I think one of the reasons Domee’s pitch was greenlit here at Pixar was because the theme is so universal. Family, food, and we continue to —
Shi: But done in a unique way.
Neiman: But done in this unique way. And we continue to hear from others, as you know not many people have seen it yet, but the ones that have, it doesn’t matter their background, they’ll come up to us and say-
Shi: “That’s my Italian mom,” or “That’s my Jewish mom.”
Neiman: Yeah, or “That’s how I feel.” Or, yeah … “That’s … I feel like that about my son.” So-
Shi: Or like, “That was me, I was the girlfriend in this relationship.”
Neiman: Yeah. People find it very relatable.
Shi: Yeah, like in lots of different ways.
LRM: Was there any dialogue in it? I don’t recall.
Neiman: Well, I guess, fun fact, there’s a little bit of dialogue coming out of the soap opera.
Shi: So the soap opera that they’re listening to, or they’re watching on TV in the dining room, we recorded it ourselves. It’s kind of a homage to the Cantonese soap operas that I’d watch with my mom growing up in the ’90s, so the dialogue … We wrote it. And I guess that counts as dialogue, but it’s in Mandarin. And it’s kind of a … It’s a subtle nod to what the whole short is about, ’cause in Chinese the characters are basically … It’s a son and a mother and they’re arguing with each other.
Neiman: Yeah, so it’s almost like a more literal parody of what’s happening in the short.
Neiman: But it’s so subtle and it’s not … It’s really … It’s basically an Easter egg for Mandarin speakers.
Shi: People who are interested in Mandarin, yeah.
LRM: Well, I think that was what was interesting about it to me, is that, I’m a writer, and so I always portrait everything from dialogue and building my characters up from the inside out, and here, it wasn’t until I was talking to you just now that it occurred to me that I didn’t remember any dialogue, which is why I asked. Because the storytelling was so clear. So, when you approached … Was it all from storyboards? Is it all … What’s like the inception and the early bits of process here?
Shi: So for me, I wrote down a really quick and dirty outline just with words like, “Once upon a time there was an old lady and then this happened, and then this happened, until finally, this happened.” And then I just used that as a really, really rough structure for my beat boards and so for me, because I’m originally a story artist, and we think very visually when it comes to telling stories, I was trained to try to tell stories as visually as possible without even … Hopefully when the audience watches my work that they know what’s happening even without dialogue, and so I wrote with drawings and with images and beat boards and that’s how we develop a story visually.
And it was a conscious decision for me to make the whole short play out without dialogue because I wanted it to be universal, so I didn’t want language to be almost a barrier for people, and also I just think there’s so much fun to be had when you’re using the animation medium to get really physical and visual with all the gags and with how the characters pose themselves, and their expressions, and I think that was my goal with this short.
Neiman: The other thing, too, is we had … We have sound effects and some, what we call vocs, so it’s like … You can hear crying, or you can hear sniffs, or coughs.
Neiman: Or gasps. But during the making of it, Domee had this idea of that whole montage where the mom and dumpling are having this sort of … The whole fantasy of him growing up, and them growing apart. She pulled all of the sound effects out of that and just had it be score and in a way, she had this idea that it might feel more emotional. And we tried it, and it did. And so there’s something interesting about really the more you strip away, and you’re just leaving it to picture and in this case the score, we found that there’s this other emotional piece to it, too, that can be profound.
LRM: Yeah, I can definitely feel it.
Neiman: Good, yeah.
LRM: And I’m not … Best way to say is, I’m more of a live-action person. I’m more on the literature side, perhaps. So I don’t watch a lot of animated. I’ve seen most of the Pixar stuff, but I was surprised that this grabbed me because it isn’t necessarily the sort of thing that I gravitate to. But I also … I’m an artist, so I originally way, way, way back was an illustrator through Academy of Art before they ever did computers, right? So … Lucky me. But, are you guys … Would you guys describe yourselves as more 2D or 3D? I guess when you came to Pixar … Maybe stepping even further back, when you came to Pixar, were you 3D artists, or were you 2D artists?
Shi: Oh, yeah, for me I was a 2D artist. I came as a story artist, so my … I did drawings. That was my main job for almost seven years was to do storyboards, and I storyboarded on Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, on Toy Story 4, and even on Incredibles 2. And so my background is animation, but I’ve always loved drawing. Drawing was how I communicated with people, how I told stories, and it was my passion. So, yeah … But then it was interesting to translate drawing into directing a CG movie. But I’ve always loved storytelling. I think … Just the medium changed, but my love and my passion for storytelling was always there.
Neiman: Yeah, for me my background is actually photography and graphic design and when I started at Pixar I was doing some of the … I was a graphics artist for Ratatouille and Wall-E, but then I also had … Because I had one foot in the art department, but I had one foot interest in more in the production management side. So I ultimately made a decision to go that route. For me, what’s most satisfying is supporting the creative process, so that’s how I ended up going in that direction.
LRM: Pixar is a bit opaque to most people, I would presume. At least in the people that I’ve worked with, and I’ve been in video games for 20 years, so I’m used to a very different structure. And I was always wondering, and I was always curious, that Pixar always seemed like just a 3D company which belittles what you guys do, obviously, because the more I learn the more I see there’s a lot of talents here, but do you find that people that apply to Pixar, come to Pixar, are 3D first, or are they covering the full gamut?
Neiman: Oh it’s full gamut.
Shi: Full gamut.
Neiman: Yeah, and I think too, similar to what Domee said, it’s just … It’s just a … It’s like the difference between drawing with a pencil or drawing with a paintbrush. So somebody may be … If you’re an artist, you’re creative, you’re passionate, you can tell a story, it doesn’t really matter what the format is, it’s really … It’s almost that’s more the easy part to teach people. But if they come in with an artist’s … With an artist’s background, they can do anything here.
Shi: It’s the ideas and that creativity that transcends medium.
LRM: Oh, okay. And that’s why I asked the question. I was very interested in the storytelling fundamentals, I guess, because in video games, just as a side comparison, people tend to be very siloed. You’re an engineer, you’re an artist, you’re a producer, and there’s not a lot of crossover, and it creates a lot of communication barriers.
LRM: So, how does Pixar get around all of these varying, disparate skillsets to marry it into something that you’re creating?
Neiman: Well we could … What’s special about the Shorts Program, and we can speak for “Bao,” is it’s like we’re sort of the startup … We have a startup company vibe, almost like the scrappy Indie wing of Pixar where we take advantage of really anything anybody could do, and because our crew is small and we don’t have a lot of time and we don’t have a big budget, we just … Whatever anybody can do, we have them do and-
Shi: People wear lots of hats.
Neiman: People wear, yeah.
Shi: We have our supervising technical director who is also our lighting DP. He was our lighting director of photography, and he was literally … He had one foot in technology and one foot in the creative side, too. And on “Bao,” I can’t speak for the bigger films, but on “Bao,” because our crew was so small, that we had that communication.
Neiman: But it didn’t feel siloed, it felt like a community working.
Shi: Yeah, some people that could work … That did shading for the characters also dipped their toe in other aspects of the production, too. And that was also just because we didn’t have the resources to have a bunch of people, but then that fostered more creativity and more opportunity for people to try out different things.
LRM: And how big was your team?
Neiman: It’s … It grows to, at our peak, no more than … At one point, probably no more than like 40. Because, and I talked a little bit about this last night, we’re trying to fit our production in between these big features that are being made here at Pixar, and so we may start and stop and wait a second until somebody becomes available, grab that person a little bit more, continue, so-
Shi: Yeah, we’ll go from like ten, to 40, to five, to 20.
Neiman: To one, or two.
Shi: To just me drawing alone in a room.
Neiman: Yeah, so we work around … Yeah. We wanna make sure we’re not getting in the way of feature productions.
LRM: Okay, that makes sense. Well then, the last question is, you described this was developed as a kind of a … You had a pitch day or a … I haven’t seen that work in my previous industry, that was an idea that just never happened even though everybody tried to get it done. How does it work here and why did it work?
Shi: Oh, well, that’s kind of how they picked short film ideas in the past. Not for all the shorts, but I know for a number of shorts in the past they did ask a bunch of artists and animators and people to pitch ideas and then they would have a pitch day where they pitch in front of a panel of judges, directors, producers, executives, and each person comes with three ideas for the panel to choose from, and so I had “Bao” and two other ideas, and I pitched it with 20 other people, and I made it through the rounds and it got chosen, it was crazy. But they … I don’t know if they do it on a regular basis, but this kind of … This was how in the past would choose ideas and so because it worked before, maybe that’s why they chose … They did it again here, and it worked. Somehow.
LRM: And in the past, other ideas come from above down to teams?
Neiman: No, it’s actually always come from people pitching their three ideas, and similarly for features. It’s just a way that’s … That’s been our process.
Shi: So the director isn’t married to just one idea, so having the three ideas kind of forces me to try new things and to not be so emotionally tied or precious to one idea.
“Bao” will air in front of this coming weekend’s Incredibles 2.