Like all Pixar films, there is always one short that precedes the feature. And Incredibles 2 is no different. Before audiences get into the thrill of watching the animated superhero sequel, they will get to see the tasty Bao.
Pixar’s latest short is a play on the fairy tale story of the gingerbread man. In Bao, a Chinese mother is now adjusting to her new life as an empty nest parent. But she gets a second chance at motherhood when one of the baos she made comes to life. From there she learns to care for it as if it were one of her own. The word bao actually has two meanings. One means the delicious title food. Another means treasure. Directed by Domee Shi, the short draws a lot of inspiration from her own upbringing. So it makes sense that she use the dual meanings of Bao in the film to reflect upon her life. Where there was plenty of food and her mother treated her as one of her precious treasures.
We had a chance to talk to Shi and producer Becky Neiman-Cobb about capturing the spirit and Asian culture and putting it into the short, what its like to be the first Asian female director for a Pixar short, the road to becoming a Pixar short, and more below.
Geeks of Doom: When you first presented the idea for Bao, you were working on Inside Out. Ironically, I attended an event where Pete Docter said it can be a four-year process to complete. So is the process the same for shorts?
Domee Shi: The steps are kind of the same, but condensed.
Becky Neiman-Cobb: Super-condensed, a mini version of the same thing.
Domee Shi: I came up with the idea over four years ago. But I didn’t start working on it full-time until a year and a half ago. About four years ago I came up with the idea, and I was kind of developing it on my own. I had not pitched it to Pixar yet. But then a year later in 2015, Pixar asked anybody if they wanted to pitch ideas for short films. I signed up and said “Me! Me!” I signed up with Bao, along with two other ideas. I didn’t know if they were going to go for Bao because I was like “This is going to be kind of weird. Maybe a little dark for a Pixar short.” But those are the reasons why they liked it. And it was officially greenlit as a Pixar short in 2015.
And then I worked on it, on my own still, with an editor, Kathy Ringgold, and I was just storyboarding and developing the ideas myself for another year until 2016, Becky was brought on as my producer. After we developed the story, that’s when we started production.
Geeks Of Doom: Becky, can you tell us what some of your responsibilities are as a producer for a short? I imagine that are slightly different.
Becky Neiman-Cobb: It’s actually similar to features in terms of responsibilities. It’s just like Domee said, it’s just on a smaller scale. We are still held to the same level of excellence as our feature films. Just in this appetizer form. I helped put the crew together, a budget, a staff. It’s important for me that Domee’s vision is met on screen, and that we spend time in areas that are most important to her. The shorts program is known as the scrappy indie wing of Pixar. So we don’t have big budgets and often times stop production if people are needed in the studio. So the production, like Domee said, took about a year and a half because we had to stop production because we had to work on Coco or Incredibles 2. Whenever features are needed, we would pause.
Geeks of Doom: All Pixar shorts mean a lot to their directors, but this one must mean a lot more because you are the first Asian female director to helm a Pixar short. Can you tell me what that is like to be the first and be an inspiration to future artists?
Domee Shi: It’s a huge honor. Really humbling. Super grateful that Pixar supported it and completely got behind this short. I think to me it celebrates Chinese food and culture but like Chinese-Canadian food and culture. It’s really cool that so many people in the world are going to be introduced to these specific details they’ve never really seen before.
I think I read a couple of tweets before, where people were commenting on the 30-second trailer for Bao, and they were like “What’s a bao? Is it an onion?” And I was like “You’ll see.”
Geeks of Doom: Obviously the devil is in the details, and in this short, I recognized a lot of things that I would see in an Asian bakery like the pink boxes or the outdoor markets. Can you tell me what sorts of things you were looking to have during your research trips?
Domee Shi: We took the crew to multiple trips to San Francisco Chinatowns and took tons of pictures and made the walk and talk with the locals. I grew up going to Chinatown with my mom, who is right there, back in Toronto. That’s where we would go shopping for groceries. That’s were we could find ingredients that we would use in our dishes. I was pretty familiar with that setting. But I still wanted to capture those details. It was a lot of research but also drawing from my own memories, nostalgic feelings of those places, and making sure that it all felt authentic.
Becky Neiman-Cobb: You’ll appreciate this. In one of the Chinatowns, there are carrots in the box that is labeled tomatoes. That was our production designer being like “In Chinatown, they kind of like throw that in there and they just grab that box.”
Domee Shi: They reuse that box.
Becky Neiman-Cobb: Yeah, they reuse that box. We had a screening for some of our Chinese Pixairans, and they come up to us and one of them was like, “Did you know that the carrots were in the tomato box? We just wanted to make sure you know that.” I said, “We do know that! That was by design. But good observation.”
Geeks of Doom: Can you talk about how valuable your mom’s input was for the dumpling making. Again, with Pixar being a stickler for research, I imagine that you guys looked at every single detail to get your short to look and feel as real as possible.
Domee Shi: She was super valuable. She came in twice to do dumpling-making classes for the whole crew. We filmed her pretty much emulating the shots that were in the short. So the whole opening with the shots with the hands making the dough and folding the dumpling was basically my mom’s hands. We recorded them and just told the animators to look at this reference and try to follow her technique like how she breaks the dough into a ring and splits it and rolls it out. It was important for us to get those details right. Because it’s such a cool way to open a short too. You are showing this audience this very specific cooking technique that maybe not a lot of them know much about.
It was super important to get those details right, because the world is super-stylized in the short. Everything is really round, short, chunky, and the characters have chibi-esque proportions and big heads. But because they are stylized, I wanted the details and acting to feel as realistic as possible so we could have that balance of stylized design but with realistic details.
Geeks of Doom: So do you have a greater appreciation for your mom and her taking the time to cook dumplings?
Domee Shi: Yeah. I’m not good at it. But it was really hard to make on the computer and it is even harder to make in real life. So now I pause before I inhale my food, “This all took a lot of work. Okay, now I’ll eat it.”
Geeks of Doom: Speaking of stylized-animation and chibi-proportions, could you talk about what kind of anime influences went into Bao?
Domee Shi: My Neighbors the Yamatas were an influence for us, for me especially. It’s by Studio Ghibli. It’s one of my favorite films ever. I just love the proportions of the characters. They are so round and their world is so simple. But the way the filmmaker, Isao Takahata, was able to capture those slice of life details and put them on screen was so great that I wanted to incorporate those elements into the short as well.
Becky Neiman-Cobb: Just that family interaction in My Neighbors The Yamatas is so – it’s a Japanese family and yet we have experienced that. It’s so relatable.
Geeks of Doom: Was that your original pitch going into Bao? Because the story is so relatable yet, it is about an Asian family.
Domee Shi: I really wanted to explore the universal theme of parents letting go of children but with a culturally specific paintbrush. The story and theme is universal because I wanted people to get it. That would be the international audience’s way in. But I would pepper in Chinese details to introduce them to something new or have something they haven’t really seen before, and that’s what would make it really unique. So it’s like a familiar sort of story told through very unique details.
Geeks Of Doom: So I want to talk about the foodie, because I am a fan of it myself, not only eating it but cooking it as well, and those details in the pork filling looked all too real. Could you talk about the process of animating food?
Becky Neiman-Cobb: Thank you for noticing that because that was the hardest shot in the short. That was the most challenging for us to get right. First of all, pork filling, raw pork doesn’t look good in real life. So how did we make it look good on the computer and how did we make it look appealing? It took two special effects artists two months. So food effects were the biggest challenges for us. But that shot, in particular, was the hardest.
Domee Shi: Yeah, it was a great collaboration between the effects artists and art team, led by Rona Liu, who is our production designer. She and I would work closely with the effects artists to bring out the color and saturation of the pork filling. If you just imitated the color of the pork filling, it would look kind of grey, so we would have to boost the saturation, add bigger chunks of vegetables in it so it wouldn’t look like pink paste.
Becky Neiman-Cobb: It was art design filling.
Domee Shi: It’s like food photography. They don’t actually use real food. Sometimes they will use mashed potatoes for ice cream. But we had to make the food look better than real food.
Geeks of Doom: So what do you hope audiences take away from their experience watching this short?
Domee Shi: I hope they get really hungry. And I hope they call their mom’s and invite them out for dinner.
Becky Neiman-Cobb: Call your mom.
Domee Shi: Yeah, they will be able to still see this story about parent and child and identify with it even if they weren’t part of the culture themselves. Or maybe they learned something cool like how to make dumplings.
Bao can be seen right before every showing of Incredibles 2, which hits theaters June 15, 2018.