Pixar's movies have always been a feast for movie fans. But as with any good meal, the appetizer is an essential part of the experience, and the studio's animated shorts have a well-earned reputation for being more than just a tasty amuse bouche.
Such is the case with Bao, which will be playing before The Incredibles 2 when that film debuts in theaters on June 15. SYFY WIRE had a chance to screen the company's newest animated short during our recent visit to the Pixar headquarters in northern California, and we can confirm that Bao is wonderfully charming with an emotional depth that will have all but the most hardened of souls wiping away tears. Did we mention it's about an absurdly adorable dumpling that comes to life?
(Don't worry, we'll avoid the spoilerish elements of the story here, but again, don't forget the tissues!)
Bao is an eight-minute story about a Canadian-Chinese woman struggling with empty nest syndrome when one of her handmade dumplings comes to life. What follows is a funny and touching story of parenthood, touching on its inevitable ups and downs and the pain that often accompanies it. It's an intensely personal story from Domee Shi, who is breaking new ground as the first-ever female director to helm a Pixar animated short.
The film marks a critical career turning point for the three women critical to the project: Writer/director Shi, producer Becky Neiman and production designer Rona Liu. All three held their respective positions on a production for the first time. As Neiman pointed out during a screening of the short at Pixar's Emeryville, California campus, "providing new leadership opportunities is part of the tradition of the Pixar shorts program." All three creators were on hand to screen the film and walk a select group of journalists through the creative process that birthed the animated fable.
For Shi, Bao is a passion project-turned-career game-changer. After landing a coveted job at the studio right out of college, she worked as a storyboard artist on projects such as Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. Soon, she started thinking about creating a more personal project. "I began feeling like it was time to make something of my own, something that was me," the filmmaker said. "Something that was a little bit … weird."
It quickly hit her what her film should be about.
"Something that should be obvious about me after watching Bao is that I love food," Shi explained. "The number one obsession in my life at the time — outside of animation — was food. I love food. Not just eating it, but drawing it. I was doing webcomics called My Food Fantasies, and I discovered I really liked writing and drawing food-related gags and stories."
The strangeness and cuteness of food folktales also fascinated Shi, as did the strong link between food and family in Chinese culture. "In our culture, food and family go hand in hand," Shi said. "When you want to show someone you care about them or that you love them, you don't say, ‘I love you.' You say, ‘Have you eaten yet?'" As for the title, Shi observed that the word "bao" has two meanings in Chinese culture. One means a steamed bun. The other signifies something that is precious and treasured.
As she developed the story for Bao, Shi's childhood became a major influence. Born in China, she moved to Toronto with her family at a very young age. An only child, Shi was very close to her mother and they formed a tight bond. "Ever since I was a child, [my mother] has always treated me like her precious little dumpling, always watching over me, making sure I was safe," she said. Shi added that her mother was a master dumpling maker, and often used food as her way to express her love for her daughter. The two would often spend weekends making dumplings together.
Shi's mother struggled with her daughter growing up and becoming an adult. The filmmaker notes that her mom would often pull her close and tell her "I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I can know exactly where you were at all times." Shi laughed at the memory, but it was the genesis of so much in the film. "It's that creepy sweet love of a mom who learns to let go of her little dumpling that was the spark that became the heart of my short."
Shi pitched her idea during an open call at Pixar to Pete Docter, the Academy Award-winning director of Up and Inside Out. It quickly earned the greenlight to become Pixar's next theatrical short. As word spread through the studio of Shi's idea, and people started to see the adorable concept drawings of the title character, other Pixar employees of Asian descent started reaching out to get involved in some way with the project.
Once the short was given the official go-ahead, Shi began to refine the story. She turned her beat boards into a story reel, which is essentially the first and very rough version of the short film. That helped her get necessary feedback to see what was and what wasn't working, leading to a tighter version of the story. That led to certain details, like a dumpling house and dumpling girlfriend, being cut from the final version. Simpler, Shi learned during the process, was better.
"I made Bao the only magical food character in the story so the focus would be on this mom and her dumpling son," Shi noted.
Figuring out the animation style was also arduous. Bao has a very different type of animation style than other Pixar short films. Shi was really interested in some aspects of Japanese animation, but what looks good in 2D doesn't necessarily translate well to 3D animation due to factors such as proportion. "Mom in particular was very hard to animate because of her big, squishy head and tiny, chubby body," Shi said.
Pixar being Pixar, the attention to detail was predictably precise. Time after time, be it the space dance scene in Wall-E or the magically intricate door vault sequence in Monsters, Inc., the studio has managed to raise the bar in animation. But even the studio's fabled team of animators was flummoxed by one particularly tasty challenge in Bao. "What brought our team to its knees was … pork filling. To be fair, it is hard to make ground pork look good in real life. But it took our team of artists two months to get the filling to look just right," Neiman pointed out.
Most critically, Shi wanted her star dumpling to be cute, according to production designer Rona Liu. She wanted to take advantage of the fact that he was made of dough. "We knew this film had to look and feel very, very cute," said Liu, who like Shi was born in China and was also influenced by Chinese folk tales. "The dumpling is our main character, and he looked so good in 2D animation and in sketches. We brought him into Sculpting as quickly as possible to see how that cuteness would translate into a 3D space."
While Bao was in production, Neiman gave birth, something the producer credited with giving her an instant understanding of Mom's feelings. "I suddenly became the expert on all things baby," Neiman said. "I had the real thing at home to cross-check."
It should also be noted that Shi's mother not only served as inspiration, she also helped the film get many of the little details exactly right. That includes making sure the proper amount of pork goes into the dumplings seen onscreen. Shi even brought her mom in to do dumpling demos for the animators and storyboard artists so they could fully grasp the subtle art of making the perfect dumpling.
"She still hasn't seen the completed short yet," Shi said about her mother, "but she is very happy about the cultural consultant credit."