A Conversation with “Bao” Director Domee Shi & Producer Becky Neiman
I received an all-expense paid trip to L.A to attend the #Incredibles2Event, #BigCityGreensEvent, & #PixarFest Events. No additional compensation was received.
What do all Disney•Pixar films have in common? If you said a short playing in front of them, you are absolutely correct. And guess what? This Friday, playing in front of Incredibles 2, you can catch the latest Pixar short. Bao is about an aging Chinese mom suffering from empty-nest syndrome welcomes another chance at motherhood when one of her dumplings springs to life as a lively, giggly dumpling boy. Her newfound happiness is short-lived, however, as she soon realizes that nothing stays cute and small forever, and even dumplings grow up. Is anyone cutting onions? Yes, the short in typical Pixar form touches on a subject most of us can truly relate. Recently, we had the opportunity to chat with “Bao” Director Domee Shi & Producer Becky Neiman and today we get to share that conversation with all of you.
So, what was the inspiration for the film? And, how did you come about this idea?
Domee: “Oh, I came up with the idea over four years ago technically. I think it was in my office late one night and I was really hungry. But I really wanted to, one, just like do a modern take on a classic fairytale like The Little Gingerbread Man but with a Chinese dumpling. And actually, I was just doodling in this image of this mom nuzzling her little baby boy dumpling to death. It just popped into my head. I had to draw it out, and as I was drawing I started developing this story. I was also drawing a lot of inspiration from my own life growing up.
I’m an only child, and ever since I was little I feel like my mom and my dad have always treated me like a precious little dumpling, always making sure that I’m always safe and never wandered away too far. So, I didn’t wander away too far. I want to explore that relationship between this parent and this child and this mom character learning to let go of her little dumpling.”
Becky: “And fun fact. I’m not sure you all know this, but the title Bao has two meanings. One is steam bun and one is treasure or something precious.”
I sure didn’t know what Bao meant, but something precious is just so fitting for this short. After all, our kids are all precious to us moms. So, why did you choose to do the point-of-view from the mom versus the point-of-view from another person?
Domee: “When I’m coming up with stories or when I’m developing any art or anything like that, I wanna learn something new as well. And if it was just from the dumplings point-of-view, I already know what is, ’cause that’s me. I wanted to know what it was like for my mom learning to let go of me. And so, I decided to explore this idea from the parents’ point-of-view.
Then also if it gets too autobiographical, then you get too precious with details and you don’t wanna cut stuff out. So, it was good to tell the story from a distance.”
Domee’s mom was actually in the room with us while we chatted with Domee and Becky, which got us wondering did Domee consult her mom a lot to get details just right?
Domee: “Yeah, she has a creative consultant credit actually. In the short. We brought her in twice to do dumpling-making classes for the whole thing.
So, it was really important for us to get all of those little details right and to get the animators and effects artists like in there like studying my mom technique of like how she folds the dumpling exactly and kneads the dough and poking the dough and smelling the pork filling. ‘Cause it was important to get those details right like just to get them as accurate as possible on the big screen.”
Speaking of Domee’s mom, you can download Bao’s Dumpling recipe right here.
As you can see from the video above and from the short description above, this short will resonate with us moms. This got us wondering if Domee and Becky have gotten any reactions from children seeing the short? As a matter of fact they have and accoding to Becky even a grown man has chimed in!
Domee: “Yeah, yeah. We showed it at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and this little girl — I think she was like ten years old — came up to us afterward, and she was like, oh, I loved it so much. I loved the little dumpling. And then she turned to her mom after and said you better not eat me when I go off to college.
So, I was like, oh, good. I didn’t traumatize you.”
Becky: “And also at Tribeca we had a woman come up to us and she said, you know, my boyfriend he never cries. He’s like not very emotional, but he sobbed at your short. We just need to make sure you guys know this.
We have found that it’s this very unique and culturally specific story, but the themes are so universal. And we found that with our crew. You know, anybody who would join would just be like I am Dumpling. I’m the mom. I’m the girlfriend. I was the dumpling. I became a mom during the making of this short. And then I related more to the mom.”
Pixar’s really well known for their rules of storytelling. What were the most important rules that you followed while you were making this short?
Domee: “I think that’s really important to just pick your main character and then follow them emotionally throughout the whole story. And for us, the main character was the mom. We tried to tell the whole story from her point-of-view. And we tried to get the audience to be feeling what she’s feeling on screen and to never like feel like, you know, like they were ever ahead of her or behind her like emotionally.”
Becky: “Yeah, even when we were working with our composer, that would be the direction that we would give ‘em. Mom feels terrible right now, the music needs to reflect that, or this is a happy time for her. They’re really connected. And even the lighting direction would support that.”
Domee: “Everything has to support the characters and their emotion throughout the story. So, we couldn’t design stuff just for the sake of it looks really cool or colorful. It has to be where are we in the story? Is she feeling really low or lonely, or is she feeling really happy? And we would design like her clothes to be like even more colorful if she’s like feeling really happy and close to dumpling. Or like the lighting would reflect the relationship between Mom and dumpling. Like, we would separate them with light and shadow when they were growing apart. And bring them together in like a warm glow when they’re closer together.”
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Did you find that there are were any challenges because there aren’t any spoken words in the short?
Domee: “It was challenging, but I really loved the challenge, ’cause my background is storyboarding. And I just love visual storytelling so much. It was a conscious decision for us to early on take out the dialogue completely from the whole short so that the story could be understood, more universally. Anybody from any country and any age could understand what was happening. And I think animation is such a cool visual medium, too, that I thought it’d be a cool challenge for the team to just push themselves to just tell the story and emotions through the acting and through the set dressing, through the colors.”
Becky: “There’s a lot of little details in the sets. Like, in the kitchen there’s tinfoil covering the burners, which, you know, in that subtle way you’re seeing Mom’s practicalness. It’s also something that’s common in Asian households and lot of little things like that to help teach you who this character is and tell the story.”
As a mom of a little girl and as a female, I always love to see empowered strong females doing great things out in the world. So, as the first female director of a short at Pixar, how do you about this accomplishment?
Domee: “I feel super like honored and humble, but hopefully I’m the first of many female short film directors and feature film directors. It’s been awesome. I was telling Becky it almost didn’t hit me that I would be the first because making the short I was just focused on finishing it and hoping that people liked it or understood it. And now I can kinda sit back and bask and be like wow. We’re blazing that trail.”
Becky: “It’s happening. And you had a really strong female leadership team. It’s us, but it’s also our editor, our production designer, our sound editor, our production manager, technical manager. It was super inspiring for us.”
Why did you decide you to do a boy instead of a girl?
Domee: “I like that creative separation between me and my arts. So, if it was gonna be a girl, then I think I would’ve gotten too heady and like this is me. This is my life. And it was always a boy in my head. In my head like that first image was of that mom nuzzling this baby boy dumpling to death. And I just wanted to kind of run with it and see where it would take me.”
Since Bao is playing in front of Incredibles 2, how did you feel when you found out your short was gonna be in front of this much-anticipated film?
Domee: “Oh, my gosh. It was amazing.”
Becky: “When we start on these things, one, we’re not even sure that they’ll greenlight it. Two, we’re not sure we’ll be able to finish it. So, we’re definitely like the indie wing of Pixar, the shorts programs. The feature films are what need to get made. And so, oftentimes we’ll have to stop production so that artist can go work on those. We had a lotta starts and stops. And then we don’t even know if we’ll be able to be in theaters.
We only just found out like within the last year that we could finish it and that we’d be attached to Incredibles 2. We could not believe it. We know that this feature is so highly anticipated and so that just means we hope more people will be able to see it. And we’ve noticed on the surface they look like very different films, but they both feature strong super moms. And so, we feel like there’s this really sweet connection between two. So, it’s been awesome for us.”
As a minority, I always wonder how it feels to be able to bring any minority culture into the spotlight. So, how was it to highlight the Asian culture in one of Pixar short film?
Domee: “Oh, it’s been awesome. My original intention with this short is just to tell this story that might be familiar with a lot of people around the world between like a parent learning to let go of their child. But that’s almost like a Trojan horse to kinda introduce the world to these different little specific cultural details that I grew up with that I think are super cool, like making dumplings and what a Chinese household looks like, or just what a typical day in this Chinese mom’s life is like shopping for groceries, you know, not at an Albertson’s but a Chinatown.
We’re telling this universal story but with this culturally specific paintbrush, more people can learn more about this stuff that they don’t know much about. So, I’m really excited about it.”
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