Pixar is known for the short films that play before their full-length feature film. These “shorts” often have an emotional impact, drawing the audience in for a few minutes to tell a fun story in a unique way.
Innovative storytelling has always been at the core of Pixar’s foundation, and our shorts allow the freedom to experiment and develop both new ways to tell stories and new technologies – many of which often then go on to be used in our feature films. Just as important, our short films also allow us to cultivate the next generation of storytellers here at the studio, letting individuals work on smaller teams and often hold leadership positions for the first time.
Some of my favorite short films were Piper, LOU, LaLuna and the latest short, Bao.
In Disney•Pixar’s all-new short “Bao,” a dumpling springs to life as a lively, giggly, dumpling boy, giving an aging Chinese mom another chance at motherhood. When Dumpling starts growing up fast, however, Mom must come to the realization that nothing stays cute and small forever. In the short, which is directed by Domee Shi, you’ll see deep into the bond mothers have with their children. You’ll also see the perfect way to make a pork dumpling. Which I hope to try, soon!
Last week, we sat down with both Domee Shi and producer, Becky Neiman, for an interview on their thought process, creativity and film success.
What is your inspiration for the film? How did you come about it?
Domee Shi: I came up with the idea over four years ago. I think it was in my office late one night and I was really hungry! But I really wanted to do a modern take on a classic fairytale like The Little Gingerbread Man but with a Chinese dumpling. And actually, I was doodling in this image of this mom nuzzling her little baby boy dumpling to death, so 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 in 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 like safe and never wandered 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 Neiman: 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.
As Domee Shi points to her mother, who accompanied her to the interview, we asked:
Did you consult your mom a lot for inspiration?
Domee Shi: Yeah, she has a creative consultant credit actually. We brought her in twice to do dumpling-making classes.
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’s technique of like how she folds the dumpling exactly and kneads the dough and just like, you know, poking the dough and smelling the pork filling. ‘Cause it was important to get those details right … to get them as accurate as possible on the big screen.
And the details are perfect. I mean, seriously. The animation looks like a professional making a dumpling.
(You can see Domee Shi’s mother’s recipe for pork dumplings here.)
Pixar’s really well known for their rules of storytelling. So, what were the most important rules that you followed while you were making this?
Domee Shi: Oh, we definitely follow one protagonist. I think it’s really important to pick your main character and then like 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 filling what she’s filling on screen and to never like feel like, you know, like they were ever ahead of her or behind her like emotionally.
Becky Neiman: Even when we were working with our composer, that would be the direction that we would give ‘em. Like, Mom feels terrible right now, and the music needs to reflect that. Or Mom’s really happy — you know, this is a happy time for her. They’re really connected. And even the lighting direction would support that.
Domee Shi: 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 like, 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 her dumpling.
Did you find that there are challenges because there aren’t any words?
Domee Shi: It was challenging, but I really loved the challenge, ’cause my background is storyboarding. And I just love visual storytelling so much. And so, it was a conscious decision for us to like early on like take out the dialogue completely from the whole short so that the story could be understood, like more universally. Like, anybody from like any country and like any like 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 like tell the story and emotions through the acting and through the set dressing, through the colors.
Becky Neiman: Yeah, there’s a lotta 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 lotta little things like that to help teach you who this character is and tell the story.
Make sure you get to the theater early to see Bao in it’s entirety before Incredibles 2.