Director Domee Shi Talks Bringing To Life Pixar’s Turning Red

When Turning Red was released on Disney+ earlier this year, critics and fans alike hailed it as one of the best recent Pixar films.

The 2002-set coming-of-age story was the feature directorial debut of Domee Shi, who had previously made waves with her Oscar winning short film Bao.

Her first feature was in many ways a companion piece, this time focusing on the (painfully relatable) relationship between an overprotective mother and her daughter, just as she starts being affected by a curse that turns her into a giant red panda.

There was some controversy over the appropriateness of the studio basing a film around a puberty metaphor – but for Shi, this approach to a sensitive subject matter is why the film has resonated with audiences so much.

Disney Pixar

“The beauty of animation is that you’re able to talk about more adult topics, but disguise them in a colourful, entertaining, and in this case, furry metaphor”, Shi explained to Zavvi.

“For me, the red panda was the perfect metaphor for a girl going through puberty. The colour itself reminds you of all the things associated with that time: getting your first period, flushing red with anger, embarrassment, and lust for your school crush.

“The heart of the story was there from the beginning. It was always about a girl who goes through magical puberty one day, and poofs into a giant red panda whenever she gets worked up or emotional, and the struggle to control and embrace this wild beast growing inside of her.

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“The specific details have changed over the course of the four years we worked on it – the idea of this being a hereditary curse going all the way back to her ancestors, and how the story becomes a clearer metaphor for womanhood, came a lot later in the writing process. But the one thing that always stayed the same was the panda!”

Turning Red was a landmark production for Pixar: Shi was the first solo female director on any of the studio’s films, with Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) being the studio’s first Asian-American protagonist.

The reception the film received has led Shi to be promoted to Vice President Of Creative at Pixar – an impressive feat for an animator whose first credit for the company was as recent as 2015’s Inside Out.

One of the reasons Turning Red has struck such a chord is because of how it shakes up the usual Pixar visual style. Using the influence of the 2D anime shows she grew up loving, Shi aimed to blur the lines between this and 3D animation.

Disney Pixar

In typical anime style, facial expressions are pushed beyond their limits when characters are embarrassed, sad or scared – with wide open eyes and faces flooding with tears. Surprisingly, this was harder to pull off than you may realise.

“The whole animation style is a departure from other Pixar films”, Shi continued. “It’s definitely more cartoonier than the films the studio has done in the past.

“Asking an animator to keep a character’s body completely still and only move their arm for comedic effect, when they’ve been taught to ‘keep the body alive’, took a lot of training – but I wanted to make sure every visual gag landed in a way that was as funny as possible.”

Producer Lindsey Collins constantly had to fight Shi’s corner in this process, as Pete Docter (Pixar’s CCO and the director of films ranging from Monsters Inc. to Inside Out), wasn’t sure how their bold visual ideas could translate to the screen.

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“When we were pitching a lot of these stylistic ideas to Docter, he’d come back with concerns about how we were going to pull it off”, she explained to Zavvi.

“But we never took this as a no, so much as a challenge to see if we could do it – we needed to put it into action and prove to him why all of these stylistic choices were the right decisions for the story.

“This was a great example of where my experience and Domee’s boldness worked together really well. It helped the studio get on board really quickly.”

It may be visually bold, but in many ways, Turning Red is classic Pixar. Many fans reported that they were in floods of tears while viewing, something that Shi was pleased to hear, saying: “One of the reasons I went into animation and directing was to get those big, visceral emotions and reactions out of audiences”.

Disney Pixar

Now that the movie is releasing on home entertainment, including a Zavvi exclusive steelbook packed with bonus features, fans will be able to soak up all the details they might have missed on first viewing.

So, keep your eyes peeled for the hidden Pizza Planet truck (Shi has informed us it’s on the city streets of Toronto during the third act), and for the Easter eggs related to the studio’s next film – Lightyear, which will be arriving in cinemas in June.

“Sometimes when making a movie, it gets to the final stage and you start thinking ‘oh no, we’ve forgotten to sneak the Pizza Planet truck in there'”, Collins continued. “But the animation team is always one step ahead of us. It’s often hiding there for ages without us knowing!”

Turning Red will make you laugh, cry, and cringe more than you thought was humanly possible. In other words: it’s everything you want from a Pixar coming-of-age adventure.

Turning Red will release on 4K (including our Zavvi exclusive steelbook), Blu-ray, and DVD on 2nd May.

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Alistair Ryder

Alistair Ryder


Alistair is a culture journalist and lover of bad puns from Leeds. Subject yourself to his bad tweets by following him on Twitter @YesItsAlistair.