Bao, Pixar’s latest theatrical short, begins with a close-up of a woman’s hands lovingly forming and shaping dumpling dough.
While the scene may be familiar to any viewer who’s watched one of their parents in the kitchen, it’s especially significant for Domee Shi (Bachelor of Animation ’11): the hands are based on her own mother’s.
Shi is the Academy Award-winning director behind Bao — the Pixar short that screened in advance of Incredibles 2 during the feature’s theatrical release in June. The eight-minute film is billed as Pixar’s longest-running short, and Shi, who was born in China and moved to Toronto with her family when she was two, is notably the first female director to helm a Pixar short film. Shi picked up her first Oscar in February in the Best Animated Short Film category.
Bao, which was partially inspired by Shi’s own mother, tells the story of an aging Chinese woman who gets another chance at motherhood when one of her dumplings springs to life. The woman excitedly welcomes the new bundle of joy into her life, but as the dumpling begins to grow, she must come to the terms with the fact that nothing stays cute and small forever.
“Growing up as an only child to my Chinese parents, ever since I was little my mom would treat me like her own precious dumpling, making sure I didn’t wander off or get into trouble,” Shi explains from Pixar’s head office in Emeryville, Calif. The word “bao” can mean “steamed bun” or “something precious,” depending on its pronunciation.
Shi’s love of fairy tales also influenced the storyline. She sees the film as an attempt to create a modern-day, Chinese version of the classic Gingerbread Man story.
Shi first thought of the plot for Bao over four years ago. She brought the idea to Pixar in 2015 when the studio tasked Shi and a few other animators to pitch ideas for a new theatrical short. Although she was concerned Bao would be too dark of a story, Pixar loved it.
To create Bao, the team took special care to research the intricacies of making dumplings, taking several fields trips to Chinatown and photographing dumplings alongside different Chinese foods. Pixar also flew Shi’s mom in from Toronto to host dumpling-making classes for the animators, who would record her kneading and folding the dough. “When you see the opening shot of the dumplings being made, those hands are my mom’s hands,” she says. “We almost just copied her techniques one-for-one onto the screen.”
“It’s good creatively to put bits of yourself into your work because that’s what makes it feel authentic and unique and truthful.”
Pixar has an internationally-renowned reputation for its feature animated films, boasting Toy Story, The Incredibles, Inside Out and Coco among its many credits. The company has also won Academy Awards for its animated theatrical shorts, including For The Birds, Tin Toy, and Piper, which was directed by fellow Sheridan alum Alan Barillaro (Animation ’96). In short, working at Pixar is a dream job for any aspiring animation student.
Shi came to the company organically. After developing an interest in animation in high school, she reached out to several artists whose work she followed. They directed her to Sheridan’s animation program to hone in on what aspect of the industry she wanted to pursue. “At the time, I didn’t know if I wanted to be an animator or story artist,” she says.
It wasn’t until a second-year animation class taught by Nancy Beiman that Shi found her passion for storyboarding. “[Storyboarding] combines everything I love – drawing, storytelling, cameras, composition – all into one profession. I was like ‘I wanna do that.’”
Shi first applied to Pixar’s internship program during her third year at Sheridan. After being rejected, she was inspired to work harder and add more depth to her portfolio, leading her to be accepted to the internship the following year. She was hired by Pixar shortly after, and has since worked on features including Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, the upcoming Toy Story 4 and Incredibles 2.
And much like Bao, Shi tries to inject a bit of her own personality in every project she takes on.
“I think it’s really important – it’s where you find the nuggets of truth in the work you create,” she says. “It’s good creatively to put bits of yourself into your work because that’s what makes it feel authentic and unique and truthful.”
Shi says she’s honored to be Pixar’s first female director of an animated short, and Mark Mayerson, coordinator, Bachelor of Animation at Sheridan, attests to her inspiration to current students.
“Women in the animation industry are still a minority, and there are relatively few in the top creative positions,” he says. “Domee’s success as a story artist and director at Pixar is doubly important for our women students, as she is evidence that there should be no limit to their ambitions.”
Photo credit: Getty images