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Image: Disney / Pixar
This interview originally ran in conjunction with Bao’s premiere at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. It has been updated for the short’s theatrical release ahead of Incredibles 2.

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The title of Pixar’s lakiểm tra short film, Bao, has two meanings in Chinese: “steamed bun” or “precious treasure.” In the short, it could easily mean both. The bao in this film is a xinh đẹp homemade dumpling that comes to lớn life, turning into a weird little dumpling baby that delights the empty-nesting Chinese mother who made it. From there, the bao-baby starts growing up. That sounds surreal on paper, và the execution is just as jarring. Writer-director Domee Shi has described it as a “magical, modern-day fairy tale, kind of lượt thích a Chinese Gingerbread Man.” But there’s more khổng lồ it than just yet another fable about runaway food.

Bao plays ahead of Pixar’s new feature Incredibles 2. Shi, a Chinese-Canadian storyboard artist, has worked at Pixar on Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Toy Story 4. She started at the company as a story intern in 2011, & is now the first woman to direct a short in the studio’s history. I sat down with Shi & producer Becky Neiman-Cobb lớn discuss the challenges of animating food & crafting a relatable story, plus how Isao Takahata & Japan’s Studio Ghibli influenced the short film.

This interview has been condensed & edited for clarity.

This short made me cry, which surprised me. I wondered, “Why do I empathize with the mom here so much? I’m not the mother of a Chinese bun.” Were you aiming to have viewers relate more with the mother than with the child here?

Domee Shi: Definitely. I’m lượt thích you; I’m not a mother either. I am the steamed bun in this story. I thought this would be a really cool exercise for me khổng lồ put myself into lớn the point of view of this mom, I guess to lớn understvà my own mom better. I’m an only child, and I’ve sầu been coddled and protected my whole life, but I wanted lớn underst& “Why did my mom always act this way? Why was she always so protective?”

Becky Neiman-Cobb: I’m a new mom, và I kept being floored by Domee’s total understanding , like, “How bởi you know that that’s a mom thing?” This was Mom’s story, so everything she talked about, và all of Domee’s direction was about that. Down khổng lồ our composer, Domee would give sầu notes khổng lồ him and say, “This needs to feel lượt thích how Mom feels right now. Follow her emotions.”

The composer, Toby Chu, is Chinese-American. Was it important khổng lồ you lớn not only have sầu a representation of Asians on-screen but also behind the scenes?

DS: For sure. The production designer, Romãng cầu Liu, is a Chinese-American artist as well. I specifically went lớn her, not just because she was Chinese-American, but because I love her style and aesthetic. I knew this short would require an art director who knew those specific details of a Chinese household — Asian parents, the food, và Chinatown — to lớn make the short feel as authentic as possible. We worked really closely together, going on research trips khổng lồ SF Chinatown and Oakland Chinatown. We’d visit our families’ homes, and we’d take tons of pictures of her grandma, my uncles và aunts, & my parents. We made sure every single detail felt like the household we grew up with.

Accurate down to the Asian mom visor.

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Image: Disney / Pixar Even though Chinese culture plays such a dominant role in the film, it’s still a universal story.

BNC: The thing about the story is that it’s very personal. Because the story is so personal, genuine, and authentic, it becomes relatable. Yes, it’s culturally specific, but those themes of family, food, & love are so universal & relatable. The more specific Domee went with details, it just meant it felt more real.

DS: I never felt lượt thích I had khổng lồ water anything down. There was this one discussion where a non-Asian person asked, “Why is there a toilet-paper roll on the table?” & I was lượt thích, “We must keep it there, it’s very important & a staple in all Chinese parents’ homes khổng lồ have sầu it there.”

I definitely made sure that I showed the early storyboarded versions of the short to different groups of people — Chinese groups, non-Chinese groups at Pixar — just to lớn make sure the story was clear. I wanted the details to be specific, but I wanted people lớn come away from the film feeling the same way, that food brought this family baông xã together, và that this is a universal story of a mom letting go of her kid. I definitely wanted everyone lớn get that, but also learn something about a world they weren’t used lớn.

Image: Disney / Pixar I underst& your mother was a dumpling consultant on the film. What was it like working with her?

DS: It was cool! We invited her to lớn Pixar twice lớn vày dumpling-making classes for the crew because I really wanted the animators và the effects artists to lớn touch the dough and fold it, & watch my mom make it, so we could replicate her technique exactly on-screen. I definitely learned more about dumpling-making watching my mom. Growing up, she’d make dumplings for me all the time, but I didn’t appreciate how much work was involved.

Is food particularly hard lớn animate?

DS: It’s one of the most difficult things to lớn make look good on-screen because raw pork doesn’t look that good in real life.

BNC: We’re all experts on what food looks lượt thích, so if it’s even a little bit off, you can tell. So it was really important that we vày it right.

DS: It felt lượt thích we had to exaggerate a lot of stuff. We had lớn make it brighter, more saturated. Kind of like how food photographers have sầu to lớn enhance the food. We had lớn do that on the big screen as well.

Given that food connection, were there crew members from Ratatouille who also worked on this film?

DS: We consulted with one guy who had worked on it, & his advice for us was, “One thing that makes food look really good is that shiny layer of fat that coats it.” That was a breakthrough for us. There’s a really quichồng shot of Mom stir-frying the pork in the wok, & we made sure it was glistening and oily because we wanted that nice, shiny fat.

Bao concept art by Domee Shi. Image: Disney / Pixar I saw your tribute to Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata on your Instagram. You said he was an influence on the story, và he resembles the father in Bao. Was that intentional?

DS: That was completely unintentional, but maybe his spirit was driving me khổng lồ design the dad to lớn look lượt thích him? <Laughs> But yeah, he was a huge influence. I love My Neighbors the Yamadas. Takahata’s style in general, và how he explores slice-of-life moments for these families. I wanted to lớn incorporate that spirit into Bao. In the opening, I wanted lớn get every detail of Mom making the dumplings, and I wanted the dining room shot of Dad và Mom eating breakfast together — have it play it out very naturally, as if you were watching your own parents eating breakfast in the morning.

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BNC: When our animators first came onto lớn the team, we had a screening of My Neighbors the Yamadas for all of them. Domee refers to it so much, so we wanted to lớn make sure everyone had seen it.

DS: I love sầu the subtlety in the way his characters are animated, how they can be so expressive sầu. Their mouths can go so big, but also they feel so human và real. And I really wanted that in my short as well.

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