Chinese-born, Toronto-raised animator Domee Shi takes a bow for Pixar's Bao

Pixar’s adorable, heart-tugging short film Bao is set to play before the Incredibles 2. 

Bao tells the story of a Chinese empty-nester mom who gets a surprise one day when one of her dumplings turns into an adorable baby boy. The story includes many fun moments with the mom and her new sidekick, as well as some unexpectedly moving scenes that address the pain of seeing your children grow up and leave the nest. 

The short was conceived, written, animated and directed by Chinese-born, Toronto-raised 28-year-old Domee Shi

You get an emotional journey in an eight-minute short. And according to Shi, the film has roots in a very real relationship, one that many audience members will surely relate to. The story was loosely inspired by her own life growing up as an only child to her two Chinese parents. 

 Kids can be so kneady. A scene from Pixar's Bao.

Kids can be so kneady. A scene from Pixar's Bao.

Original-Cin’s Bonnie Laufer spoke with Shi about working on the film and this exciting time in her life. 

Original-Cin:  Welcome home!  How great is it to be able to show this wonderful short to your friends and family in your own city? 

DOMEE SHI:  “Thank you. It is so amazing, especially to be showing it in Toronto where my animation journey started. I’m just thrilled.”

OC:  I’m kind of at the stage where your mother is at, about to become an empty nester. So this short really hit home for me.  What initially sparked the idea for this animated short? 

DS:  “I was that kid that wanted to leave the nest, and my mom was the the empty nester mom. I really just wanted to use this short as an opportunity to understand what she was going through a little bit more. 

“But I also wanted to explore this relationship dynamic, this change between a parent and child relationship, from the other side. I wanted to use a dumpling as the vessel to tell the story - like the little gingerbread man, but it’s a little Chinese dumpling instead of a little cookie that comes to life.”

OC:  When you decided to make the film did you call your mom right away to tell her what you were up to? 

DS:  “I did, and I asked her for a lot of advice. I'd call her up and just ask her for the recipe for making the dumplings, because I really wanted to showcase every single step in the short. Then she just sent me different pictures that she would take of the process. 

 Domee Shi makes a big splash with a short

Domee Shi makes a big splash with a short

“I asked her to make it at home and have my dad film her, or  Facetime with her, so I could  see exactly what she was doing. Then I would  jot down all the notes to try and get it exactly like she did it.  

“I also talked to a lot of other women at the studio, other parents as well, who are going through the empty nest syndrome just to see what it was like for them.”

OC:  I’m sure when you asked your mom for the recipe she couldn’t give you exact measurements, because she probably just cooked knowing in her own mind how much each ingredient was required. My grandmother used to cook the exact same way so nothing that me or my mom makes tastes exactly the same as hers. 

DS:  “My mom was very self-conscious about this process. She wanted me to make sure I told my co-workers it’s an approximate recipe. She would tell me to use a dash of something or like a handful of flour and  to adjust the flour-to-water-ratio until it feels right. 

“Or she would say things like, ‘When you’re seasoning the raw pork filling, smell it to see if it's if it's too salty.’ I never heard of anything like that before. She was pretty amazing.”

OC: So, what did mom think of Bao?

DS: “She loved it, she’s very proud. I learned a lot about her making this film. I feel more empathy toward parents who experience empty-nest syndrome. They spend so much of their lives raising kids who are their everything, and then they’re gone.”

OC: How difficult was this film to animate, because I understand that animating food is not the easiest thing to do. 

DS: “Yeah, it was really tricky. I knew it was going to be like a fun-but-tough challenge for the animation and effects team working on the short - especially food affects which are really difficult to do on the computer, because food is very organic and squishy. Computer effects are really good at rendering hard symmetrical object.

“The hardest shots to do were the dough kneading shots  in the opening and the dumpling wrapping shots. Those took about two months each. Two effects artists worked on them for two months each.”

OC:  How exciting has it been for you not only to be working at Pixar, but to find out that your short is going to run before Incredibles 2? No pressure, but the whole world is going to see it!

 DS: “So amazing! We only found out that we were going to be in front of Incredibles 2  a year ago, and I couldn't be happier. I’m honored to be able to open for such an amazing film. I remember when I was at Sheridan College here in Toronto, in the animation program, me and all my classmates watched The Incredibles on repeat, and watched The Iron Giant and Ratatouille

We were in awe of Brad Bird and loved his films so much, so it's just an honor to be associated and attached to one of his films.”

OC: How supportive has everyone at Pixar been, and what was it like for you to work there?  An animators’ dream I am sure! 

DS: “Oh, definitely. It's been really supportive and amazing. I was so nervous at first when I came in because I was right out of school. I had just been hired out of the story internship that summer. But right away, I felt super welcome that my voice was valued. 

“I was working on Inside Out, and it was almost an advantage being one of the only female artists working with the story team. They’d always turn to me and ask me what it was like to be inside the mind of a teenage girl, and I was able to help them immensely. They valued that and supported my growth at the studio.”

OC: Especially Pete Docter who directed Inside, Out. 

DS:  He  has been an awesome mentor figure for me. It was so great to get to work with him on Inside, Out, but also to get his feedback on Bao throughout the whole process. He's an Executive Producer on this short, but also a confidante and a really smart and generous guy. I couldn't have done it without him and his support.”