How director Domee Shi turned Toronto into a pastel Pixar wonderland

The Animated Life of Domee Shi

She was a storyboard artist at Pixar when she pitched an idea about a sentient dumpling and won an Oscar. Now she’s releasing Turning Red, a film about a Toronto teen who morphs into a giant red panda—and it’s going to be huge

By Emily Landau| Photograph by Cayce Clifford
| March 8, 2022

When Domee Shi was growing up in 1990s Scarborough, her mother, Ningsha Zhong, was the central force in her life, a figure both intimidating and inspiring, idolized and emulated. As Shi crept toward adolescence, though, she started to seek independence. On her first day at Don Mills Middle School, Shi made a group of new friends. “We were walking out of the school and then suddenly one of them goes, ‘Uh, who’s that lady behind the tree?’ ” she says. “I look up, and to my horror, it’s my mom wearing sunglasses.” (Zhong had wanted to make sure Domee was fitting in.) That scene made it into Turning Red, Pixar’s latest film and Shi’s feature directorial debut. When Zhong saw the scene in the movie trailer, she told Shi, “Oh, you used one of our memories together and put it in your movie. That’s so funny and cute!” Shi says. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, that was funny for you.’ ”

Shi’s knotty relationship with her mother is the spine of the new film, which premieres on Disney Plus this month. Bright as a jelly bean, it serves up a hilarious yet poignant coming-of-age story about Meilin Lee, a dorktastic 13-year-old who wakes up one morning to find herself transformed into a giant red panda—a menstrual allegory of epic proportions. The vocal cast includes Sandra Oh as Mei’s helicopter mother, Ming Lee; Never Have I Ever star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Priya, a friend of Mei’s whose deadpan deportment rivals that of Bill Murray; and the ebullient newcomer Rosalie Chiang as Mei. Billie Eilish has composed songs for the movie’s fictional boy band heartthrobs, 4*Town. And in keeping with the boy band theme, the trailer is set to *NSYNC’s relentlessly catchy “It’s Gonna Be Me”—which, in Justin Timberlake’s pubescent twang, sounds conveniently like “It’s Gonna Be Mei.”

While Pixar groupies all over the internet are giddy about the upcoming film, Torontonians have extra reason to be excited. The movie is set in early-2000s Toronto, and Shi has transformed the city into a radiant animated fantasia in an ice-cream-parlour colour scheme of pinks, corals and lilacs. The trailer features tantalizing glimpses of Toronto touchstones: the CN Tower, of course, but also the streets of Chinatown, a box of Timbits on a kitchen table, a vintage clothing store in Kensington Market. “The time I’m gonna spend scouring every frame of this for Toronto stuff,” tweeted TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey.

Turning Red arrives three years after Shi won an Oscar for best animated short for Bao, her bittersweet mini-movie about a lonely middle-aged woman in Toronto’s Chinatown whose homemade pork dumpling magically comes to life, only to grow up, move out and break his mother’s heart. The film is an epic in eight minutes, a story at once ancient and alive, a domestic tragedy worthy of Yasujiro Ozu, albeit with a buoyant Pixar ending. In Turning Red, Shi takes the same ingredients—a fraught parent-child relationship, a magical premise, her reflections on her culture and community—and whips up a crowd-pleasing fable that’s poised to do for red pandas what Finding Nemo did for clownfish.

How director Domee Shi turned Toronto into a pastel Pixar wonderland
Shi, pictured with her mother, Ningsha Zhong, explores the parent-child relationship in both Bao and Turning Red
How director Domee Shi turned Toronto into a pastel Pixar wonderland
Storyboard courtesy of Pixar

Toronto has long had a hangdog self-image about its place on screens big and small. The city’s $2.2-billion film and TV production industry is thriving, yet Toronto rarely appears as itself outside of CBC productions. Instead, the city stands in for apocalyptic America on The Handmaid’s Tale or Pennywise-plagued Derry, Maine, in It. Guillermo del Toro has made a cottage industry of using Toronto as a rotating backdrop for his gothic films. Turning Red, a film conceived, developed and produced at Pixar’s campus in Emeryville, California, is the biggest Toronto-set release since Scott Pilgrim 12 years ago. To see the city translated into a lush Pixar landscape, all stretched, squished and gleaming, is a pure dopamine hit.

Shi possesses a vision both wildly expansive and emotionally incisive. She’s 32, with a huge smile and a cheerfully dweebish affect, the prototypical cool nerd who attends anime conventions and fan expos. She’s sunny and slightly awkward in conversation, clearly brilliant but humble about it, speaking as if anyone could dash off the kind of dynamo sequences and layered characters that she manifests in her sketchbook. Her visual language is classic Pixar, all bubbly shapes and expressive faces, but thematically, she hearkens back to vintage Disney, which happens to be Pixar’s parent company. The Disney films we all grew up watching were concerned with transformation: Ariel’s fishtail forking into legs, Cinderella’s rags swirling into a sparkling gown, the Beast mutating from lovable ogre into Baywatch hunk.

Shi’s films continue that tradition, drawing on fairy tales and her Chinese-Canadian culture to excavate her characters’ personal evolutions through magical, monstrous physical transformations. She specializes in the kinds of visual tricks that can only be done with animation, where a dumpling can sprout arms and legs and a roly-poly belly, where a puff of pink smoke changes a teen girl into a shaggy ursine beast. Astonishingly, Shi is the first woman to direct her own Pixar feature film. She represents the future of the company, one whose stories are diverse and inclusive and fresh. And, like her giant red panda, she’s going to be huge.

If you stop into the Bau-Xi Gallery across the street from the AGO on Dundas West, chances are you’ll spot some paintings by Domee Shi’s father, Shi Le. He creates Group of Seven–esque landscapes the size of big-screen TVs that sell in the range of $5,000 to $10,000. They depict familiar Ontario sites like Lake of Bays, Algonquin Park and Hockley Valley in lucid and lovely detail. But the colour schemes are near-psychedelic: sun-washed bottle greens and turquoises and magentas that look like they belong in, well, a Pixar movie. Like her father, Domee Shi is a master at reimagining her real-life world in Candyland colours. “He’s the reason I got into art,” she says. After he saw Bao for the first time, he told her he liked it, but had some notes about the palette.

Shi is the only child of Shi Le and Ningsha Zhong. When she was born, in 1989, the family was living in Chongqing, a city of 16 million in central China. Two years later, they immigrated to Canada so Zhong could pursue her PhD at OISE (she now works at U of T as an administrative coordinator in the physical therapy department). For their first few years in Canada, the Shi family lived in student housing at Yonge and Charles while Zhong got her degree. They later moved to Scarborough, but Shi still commuted downtown with her mom every day to attend Orde Street Public School. “I was never the only Asian kid in my class, and I formed a tight circle of friends who were all immigrants like me,” she says. They came from Korea, India, Pakistan, Eastern Europe.

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Both of Shi’s films focus on the push-pull between an overprotective mother and a child (or a pork dumpling) seeking its own identity. She was shy growing up, protected by her parents. For most of her childhood, she aspired to nothing but making them proud. She did whatever she could to please them, studying hard and taking up extracurriculars—the softball team, anime club, orchestra (like Meilin, she played the flute). At around 13, Shi, also like Meilin, stopped being her mother’s mini-me. “For me, and for a lot of kids from my background, we have this eternal mental struggle. We want to honour our parents and make them happy. There’s guilt and a sense of duty. But we’re also living in the West and exposed to all this culture that encourages you to be yourself, embrace yourself, find your voice,” she says.

Food was a preoccupation in the Shi household. “In Chinese culture, in a lot of cultures, food represents love without having to say it,” she says. Even Domee’s name, which means “bean rice,” is a pet name. Her given name is Zhiyu, but her parents had it legally changed to Domee when they moved to Canada because they thought it would be easier for westerners to pronounce. Bao, coincidentally, was one of Shi’s favourite dishes. She’d make pork and cabbage dumplings with her mom for Chinese New Year, on holidays, on weekends. Zhong always loved mushrooms; she’s a former member of the Mycological Society of Toronto, an amateur club for fungus fiends, and she even keeps one of Shi’s sketches of her as a mushroom in her office. Every time Shi visits home, they go foraging in the woods. Her father, meanwhile, is a gifted amateur chef. His specialty is an egg and tomato stir-fry served over rice.

Growing up, Shi was dazzled by animation. Her first love was Aladdin—she watched it so many times that she wore out the VHS tape—and she quickly progressed to anime and manga, with a particular fondness for Sailor Moon. “I was on the internet a lot and I just devoured it,” she says. “So many of the stories centred around Asian girls who looked like me, and a lot of the famous anime and manga artists were women. It made me want to make art.” Her father started teaching her how to draw when she was five, and as she grew older she kept hidden under her bed what she calls “a secret spicy sketchbook,” in which she doodled sexed-up anime heroes and Harry Potter fan art. As a teen, she even sold prints of her work at a booth at Toronto’s Anime North convention.

By the time Shi was nearing the end of high school, she knew she wanted to be an animator, setting her sights on the competitive animation program at Sheridan College. While she was preparing her application, her father took her to OCAD for weekly life-drawing classes. He also offered feedback on her portfolio. “He’d take out every drawing, line them up in a row and critique them one by one,” she says. The tough love paid off: Shi was accepted to Sheridan’s Oakville campus in 2007 and moved into residence.

Shi found her calling during her second year, when she took an animation course with Nancy Beiman, who’d been a supervising animator at Disney and had worked on Hercules and Treasure Planet. Beiman has said Shi is one of the finest students she’s taught in her 13 years at Sheridan. She was as much struck by Shi’s story instinct as she was by her artistry. For her final project, Shi wanted to sketch out a love-hate story between two people. Beiman was lukewarm about such a simple idea until she saw the result: Shi had designed a story about two high school classmates who loathe each other until they get their hair stuck together with bubble gum. Eventually, the couple are swirling in the air with birds and cats and peanut butter glued to their hair, until a barber has to shave their heads. By this point, of course, they’ve fallen in love. Beiman was enchanted.

Shi’s prestige extended far beyond Sheridan. Rona Liu, a fellow animator from L.A. who would later work with Shi at Pixar, studied at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena at the same time Shi was at Sheridan. One evening, Liu was pulling an all-nighter when a friend sent her a link to a 20-second animation of a hamster dancing to a K-pop song that was making the rounds in animator circles. “We were like, ‘Man, whoever animated this is so funny,’ ” she says. “We figured she was probably going to be a really funny director one day.” What she didn’t know was that the director was Domee Shi, who’d created the clip at Sheridan.

For Shi, and for many young animators, Pixar was the ultimate goal, the Emerald City, something she’d dreamed of ever since she first saw Finding Nemo in her teens. “I realized, Wow, they’re making different stories, stories that are really emotional and they feel real,” she told the pop culture website That Shelf. She applied for a summer internship there in her third year but was rejected. The second time around, a year later, she got in.

Before every office building in Silicon Valley looked like an amusement park, there was the Pixar campus in Emeryville, California, a town of 12,000 between Berkeley and Oakland. The spiritual architect behind the 22-acre compound was Steve Jobs, who effectively founded Pixar in 1986 when he bought George Lucas’s CGI division and gave it an extreme makeover. The headquarters spill out around a central edifice predictably dubbed the Steve Jobs Building, which resembles an airplane hangar, with the requisite gyms, cafés, screening room and foosball facilities, plus a lobby populated by life-size replicas of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Sulley et al. Outside, there are pools, basketball courts, a 600-seat amphitheatre, an organic vegetable garden and, to encourage employee daydreaming, a wildflower meadow.

Shi was 21 when she arrived at the campus in 2011. Her Pixar internship was a 12-week animation boot camp, where every week, she and her fellow students had to create their own storyboards and enthusiastically pitch their ideas to story artists, walking through the plot points, doing voices, miming characters. Shi, who’d always been shy, says the internship was the hardest thing she’s ever done. “Public speaking was my number-one fear. That’s why I went into art. I was like, ‘My drawings can do all the talking for me. I don’t have to talk,’ ” she says. “In the pitches, you’re waving your stick at each drawing and you’re doing all the voices and the sound effects, which I was terrible at,” she says.

She impressed her superiors nonetheless, and when the summer was over, she was hired full time as a storyboard artist for Inside Out, Pixar’s tearjerker about childhood depression and anthropomorphized emotions. Her job was to draft out the staging, actions and lighting for her assigned scenes, transforming them from rough blueprint to final animation. Most Pixar feature films require between 50,000 and 75,000 individual storyboard drawings, which artists illustrate using a stylus. When Shi started on Inside Out, she immediately noticed the scarcity of female animators. “I was one of three women in a department of, like, 30 or 40 people,” she says. “It was kind of awkward because it was just me and a bunch of dads.” They told her she had to watch Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s entire oeuvre. But when it came time to work on Inside Out, she suddenly felt she had the edge. “Luckily I was on a show about being in the mind of a girl. And I was like, ‘Hah! That’s the one thing I can be an expert at,’ ” she says. “I don’t know all of Spielberg’s movies, but I do know what embarrasses a young girl.”

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Early in her tenure at Pixar, she met Rona Liu, who’d started at the studio within a week of Shi. Liu was star-struck to discover that Shi was the same person who’d animated her beloved dancing hamster clip. They became friends and began carpooling to work together, since Shi didn’t have a vehicle. Late one night, both women were working at the Pixar campus, Shi on Inside Out and Liu on Finding Dory, when Shi approached Liu and asked her to look at something. It was a series of sketches for what would eventually become Bao. “I was working on it in my spare time,” Shi says. “I wanted something that was going to be my own.” The germ of the film came from Shi’s relationship with her parents—how they treated her like their precious little dumpling. She sketched a few dumplings in her notebook, and the idea suddenly came to life (so to speak).

How director Domee Shi turned Toronto into a pastel Pixar wonderland
At Pixar, Shi worked on Bao in her spare time. In 2019, it won the Oscar for best animated short, and she accepted alongside her producer, Becky Neiman-Cobb. Image courtesy of Pixar
How director Domee Shi turned Toronto into a pastel Pixar wonderland
Photo by Getty Images

Shi and Liu began workshopping the project. They took research trips to practically every restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, poking and prodding at their dumplings to see how they kneaded and quivered, how the light refracted off different types of dough. They visited the Asian Art Museum and absorbed the kawaii culture of the early 2000s. “We wanted Bao to be influenced by the stuff we grew up with, like Hello Kitty and Sanrio,” Liu says. “So we decided to make the aesthetic chunky and almost like stop-motion.”

Over the next few years, Shi worked on more Pixar films, including The Good Dinosaur, Toy Story 4 and Incredibles 2, all the while honing her short film concept with Liu. During that time, she was earning a superstar reputation with Pixar producers. Lindsey Collins, a vice-president and producer at the studio, had heard of Shi long before she met her. “You just start to hear somebody’s name come up in rooms repeatedly, like, ‘Oh my gosh, Domee pitched this scene the other day...’ ” she says. One of the people who told Collins about Shi was Pete Docter, who directed Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out and now serves as the studio’s chief creative officer. “Even as a story artist, she would come in with a take on something that was funny, kind of quirky, a little out there,” Collins says. For example, while making Inside Out, Docter and the team were looking for a way to get the humanoid emotion Joy back to the central headquarters of the main character’s mind. Shi pitched the idea of creating a tower of the girl’s imaginary boyfriends that Joy would climb.

In 2015, Pixar held an open call where any employee could pitch their short film ideas. In the weeks leading up to her presentation, Shi floated her concept past Docter: a dark, metaphorical fairy tale about a sentient dumpling and the woman who raises him as her child. Near the end of the short, Shi said, the grown-up dumpling, now with a goatee and hipster glasses, would try to move out of the house with his new human fiancée—and in order to stop him, his mother would swallow him in one horrifying gulp. The surreal, twisty ending stemmed from something Shi’s own mother always told her: that she wished she could put Domee back in her stomach so she’d know where she was all the time. But Shi thought it might be too dark and weird for Pixar, so she nixed it when she made her official pitch in front of her colleagues.  Docter convinced her to resurrect the scene, and by the time Collins heard the pitch, it was back in. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, I love it,’ ” says Collins. “She is so consistent and clear in her vision, and that’s rare.”

Bao took three years to produce after it was greenlit. Thematically, Shi was influenced by some of the creepier fairy tales, like the Gingerbread Man, as well as the haunting films of Studio Ghibli. The film takes place in Toronto—a Domee Shi hallmark—and hawk-eyed viewers will spot some local treats, including Chinatown stalls, a vintage Raptors jersey and a tai chi group in what appears to be Trinity Bellwoods Park. Shi also filled the film with tiny, wonderful details from her childhood, like tin foil covering the stove burners, a Chinese calendar on the wall, a roll of toilet paper on the coffee table. When a non-Asian colleague questioned that last detail, Shi insisted it had to stay.

Pixar hired Shi’s mother as a consultant and flew her down to the campus to teach the crew how to prepare her pork dumplings. Shi and Liu also consulted a food photographer about how to make the dishes in the film appear as succulent and appetizing as possible. He told them that food needed to look oily and glazed to be delicious, so they designed impossibly glossy noodles and bright, craggy chunks of carrot and cabbage in the pork mixture. One shot featured a gorgeous spread of Sichuan dishes, including boiled fish in hot chili, bok choy, cucumber salad and sliced cold beef. While the world of the film was chunky and stylized, the food was so real you could practically smell the aromas emanating from their bamboo steamers.

In 2018, Bao premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and was later screened in theatres with Incredibles 2. Despite its wacky conceit, the final result is quiet and elegant, drenched in jewelescent colours and soft light. The gentle score, by Chinese-American composer Toby Chu, blends traditional Chinese instruments—mandolins, spike fiddles, plucked zithers—with a 60-piece orchestra. It’s full of cunning animation: at one point, the baby bao starts to droop, so his mother feeds him a spoonful of filling to plump him back up. Another time, a dog at the park picks him up and shakes him in his mouth like a tug toy. For such an outlandish premise, the feelings are achingly real. Your heart swells for the dumpling mom when she meets her affectionate dumpling baby, shatters when he grows into a surly and distant teen. The moment when she ingests the bao is a plot twist right up there with The Sixth Sense, and it elicited audible gasps from movie audiences. For Shi’s mom, however, the ending made perfect sense. “She was like, ‘Yes. The only way that the mom can keep the son is in her stomach,’ ” says Shi.

When Bao won the Academy Award for best animated short, Shi accepted the Oscar with her producer, Becky Neiman-Cobb. “To all of the nerdy girls out there who hide behind their sketchbooks, don’t be afraid to tell your stories to the world,” Shi said in her acceptance speech. After the ceremony, she went to the Vanity Fair Oscar party, where she approached Antoni Porowski from Queer Eye and, in classic nerdy girl fashion, told him she liked that he made all his dishes with avocados and that she didn’t think his recipes were too simple. “He was like, ‘What, people say that?’ And then I was like, ‘Okay, sorry, bye,’ and ran away,” she says. “The whole evening was like a glittery cherry on top of an already awesome sundae.”

For many years, Pixar was a boys’ club, both in its content and its management. It specialized in whiz-bang boyhood adventure stories, and didn’t feature its first female lead character until Brave in 2012. Brenda Chapman, who wrote the screenplay for Brave and was later hired to direct it, used to carry around a fake business card that read “Token Female Pixar Story Artist.” (She was eventually removed from Brave for creative differences and replaced with Mark Andrews.) Things changed in 2017, when the studio’s long-time head honcho John Lasseter—a gleeful manchild who wore Hawaiian shirts festooned with Pixar characters and filled his office with more stuffies than FAO Schwarz—took a leave of absence from the company after allegations of inappropriate conduct emerged. Lasseter left for good the following year, and his replacement, Pete Docter, committed to changing the culture, ensuring that 50 per cent of the creative advisory teams were women, and lobbying for diversity in the stories Pixar told and the people who told them. (Today, almost a quarter of Pixar animators are women.)

Domee Shi is the Thor Heyerdahl for the new and improved Pixar. After the success of Bao, Pixar execs invited Shi to pitch a handful of features. The team loved all her ideas, and in the end they asked her which one she wanted to make. She decided on the project that would become Turning Red. “I wanted to explore this adolescent girl going through bodily and emotional changes and her relationship with the most important person in her life, her mother,” she says. “And I wanted to combine it with the red panda, which I think is the cutest animal on the planet.” Shi wrote the screenplay with Julia Cho, a playwright who’s also done some TV work. In what had rapidly become her signature style, Shi planned an unlikely mashup of adorable whimsy and searing emotion. She called her aesthetic an “Asian tween fever dream.” Her character designs, for example, were largely inspired by anime, where facial features can grow and shrink depending on the character’s emotion. Shi would often sketch out what she calls “moon eyes” and “cat mouths” for her story artists to emulate.

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She took her cues from her own personal war for independence. “After I made Bao, I realized I still had a lot to unpack with my mother. A whole feature film’s worth,” she says. Like Shi, the main character, Meilin Lee, also keeps a secret sketchbook under her bed, filling it with drawings of her crush, a bucket-hatted slacker, who Mei doodles as a merman with a six-pack. To contrast Mei and her mother, Ming, Mei always wears fire-engine red, while Ming wears emerald green. “It usually takes two or three years spent working on something to get that kind of character specificity,” says Lindsey Collins, who produced the film. “Domee had it in the pitch.”

The Toronto of the film is specific to 2002, when Shi was 13. “Toronto is awesome, and I don’t see it in movies a lot,” she says. “And everyone at Pixar was on board with the idea. For some reason, Americans are always amused by Canadian things. It actually helped me sell the pitch even more. It gave the film a unique, novel flavour.” To engross themselves in the particularities of Y2K-era Toronto, the art team and production designer Rona Liu reproduced old TTC Metropass designs and retro streetcar models; Shi specifically wanted to depict the stifling cars where you could barely crack a window. She even recreated the quintessentially Torontonian Daisy Mart convenience store chain. “Someone at Pixar questioned a sign that read, ‘Bags of milk $3.99.’ They were like, ‘Is that a mistake?’ ” she says. “I said, ‘No, we put it in bags. It’s easier to transport.’ ”

How director Domee Shi turned Toronto into a pastel Pixar wonderland
Shi, pictured below at Pixar, packed Turning Red with retro streetcars, Timbits, bustling Chinatown streets and other visual salutes to her childhood. Images courtesy of Pixar
How director Domee Shi turned Toronto into a pastel Pixar wonderland

One of the crew’s biggest challenges was transforming Toronto’s bustling Chinatown into a Pixarian panorama—especially because they couldn’t travel to Toronto during the pandemic. So Shi and her crew plunged into Google Street View, creating idealized renderings of Chinatown, of Kensington Market, of graffiti-soaked alleys, all cartoonified with cherry trees in bloom and hanging red lanterns. Look close and you’ll even spot the famous Cat on a Chair sculpture at the corner of Spadina and St. Andrew. Liu loved the way the Victorian houses in Kensington Market looked like cat ears, and she created different colour schemes for different parts of the city: the Chinatown buildings are washed in warm salmons and pinks, while the downtown scenes are done in shades of grey.

Turning Red is a masterwork of teenage mortification, and to make that resonate, Shi and her cohorts had to dig deep into their own adolescent awkwardness. The red panda, of course, is the apotheosis of adolescent embarrassment. “You’re covered in hair, you smell, you’ve grown five feet,” Shi says. The crew visited the San Francisco Zoo to observe the creatures, creating a humongous version whose DNA is probably closer to Clifford the Big Red Dog than real live red pandas. They designed Panda-Mei’s fur to be fluffy yet messy, her whiskers like electrocuted guitar strings. And like a real red panda, she sticks her front paws in the air when she gets startled.

The production team also brought in their old yearbooks to remember what it feels like to be gangly and splotchy and clumsy. They agreed that a boy band would be the perfect obsession for Mei and her friends and created 4*Town, a Pixarified take on *NSYNC. To entice Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas to write the songs for the group, they created an old-fashioned scissors-and-glue scrapbook filled with pinups of the band, doodles and song lyrics. The ploy worked, and Eilish and Finneas agreed to write three songs. “Boy bands are ridiculed by the media, as lots of things teen girls love are. But boy bands are often a kid’s first foray into adolescence,” Shi says. “For Mei, 4*Town represents a new, alluring world that’s completely opposite from her mother and her home life.”

Like so many of us, Domee Shi has spent most of the last two years working from home. And like so many of us, she finds the daily Zoom marathons and eye-scorching screen time to be exhausting. But making a Pixar film remotely comes with its own set of challenges. In normal times, for example, if Shi wants a character’s eyes shaped a certain way, she can quickly sketch it with her stylus and show her story artists. During the pandemic, however, she has to manoeuvre awkward screen-sharing functions or manually hold her sketchbook up to her camera. Everything takes longer and is more cumbersome. The other thing she missed when working on her laptop at home was a sense of scale, the ability to see her creation on a big screen and assess its proportions, its shapes, its minutiae. When she finally got to see a rough cut of the movie in a screening room, she was shocked by the nightmare sequence that catalyzes Mei’s transformation into the red panda. “I love that scene and I always wanted it to be surreal and Lynchian and spooky, because this is the night when magical puberty arrives.” But the version she saw was much more intense than it seemed when she was watching it on her laptop. “We all turned to each other and we were like, ‘Oh, that’s scary. We’re really going to traumatize some kids.’ ” They modified the scene by tweaking some of the scary music and cutting a few particularly creepy shots. “It hits so different when it’s on a giant 50-foot screen,” Shi says.

In the end, most viewers won’t be watching Turning Red on the big screen but in their living rooms. As Covid surged in early 2022, Pixar announced that the film would be debuting exclusively on Disney Plus instead of in movie theatres as originally planned. This change translates to fewer box office dollars but lots more viewers, many of whom will watch it enough times to drive their parents batty. Turning Red did get one important big-screen airing, however: at the Pixar amphitheatre in that lovely twilight period between Delta and Omicron. When the film was over, Shi got up on stage along with Lindsey Collins, Rona Liu and visual effects supervisor Danielle Feinberg. It was the first time anyone at Pixar had seen an all-female leadership team on stage together. They got a standing ovation.


This story appears in the March 2022 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $24.99 a year, click here.

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