She was the first female to ever direct a short film for animated studio Pixar, with the award-winning Bao, so it’s no surprise that Domee Shi was handed the reins of an animated feature film with the upcoming Turning Red, the first Pixar film solely directed by a woman.
But the Chinese-Canadian filmmaker is quick to point out that the final product is a collaborative effort that required the work of many. In charge of bringing the tale of a young girls’ growing up experience to life are animation supervisors Aaron Hartline and Patty Kihm, as well as visual effects supervisor Danielle Feinberg. When first approached to bring this vision of Shi’s to life, the team couldn’t be more thrilled.
In Turning Red, audiences learn how to honour themselves (on top of the people they love) through the film’s main character Mei Lin. A young Chinese-Canadian girl obsessed with boybands and making her mother proud, Mei is the embodiment of many young female Asian tweens around the world, in what Shi describes as an Asian tween fever dream. And of course, there’s some magic involved.
“Oh my god, I was so excited to hear that because that resonates with me! She described the palette of pastels and glitter and like all of these things that represented this period of time and I was all in,” shared Kihm, a Pixar veteran in an exclusive interview with Geek Culture.
If there’s one thing Pixar does right, it’s the ability to bring stunning animation to the big screen. Featuring beautiful animation and visual effects, along with a heartwarming storyline, Pixar films are bound to make you laugh, make you cry, feel nostalgic, go home and apologise to your mum, maybe even treat your toys even better.
Added Kihm, “They were stylistically going to carry that theme through every single department through the design of the characters and even the environment, and the lighting. It all felt like it was coming from Mei. It was like exactly the right tone for a teenage girl and so for me, I was in as soon as I saw the storyboards.”
In charge of visual effects seen in the movie is Feinberg. Whilst the ‘Asian tween fever dream’ resonated with Kihm given the similarity in backgrounds, it was a concept new to Feinberg. Although intrigued, figuring out what it meant and how it would look like was quite a challenge.
“When she said that I was like, ‘Hmm, what does that mean?’, and I spent a lot of years with directors saying things like that and turning it into visuals and lighting,” said Feinberg in a separate interview with Geek Culture.
“Finding a new look is a huge deal especially because it’s not just like a thing that you figure out. It wasn’t just like, ‘Oh, pull some of the anime things in’. Domee has a different aesthetic and so finding a way to kind of bring all those things together into this kind of a unique look that we landed on for Turning Red, ended up being both creative and technical challenges that fell into my realm.”
And while Hartline was neither Asian nor female, he was honoured to be part of something so special and unique. Not only is Turning Red Pixar’s first feature film by an Asian director, he explained that it is one of the very few coming of age films to center around a girl.
“I loved it, it seemed really new and fresh. I’ve never seen a film like that before which was kind of a shame. I feel like I’ve seen so many coming of age stories, but then you realize the majority have been boys,” added Hartline in the same interview.
“She’s (Domee) got a really strong point of view, really strong voice, you would not know this was her first feature-length film. She knew exactly what she wanted right from the get-go. She was giving us references and ideas and telling us her influences and I think, as you can see it’s just a really unique voice.”
Kihm couldn’t agree more, “She has this amazing knowledge of film. At the same time, she came from the story department at Pixar and oftentimes, you come up with ideas and storyboards and you have to just throw it out because it doesn’t work and she carried that idea through when she was developing a story.”
“There were some really amazing sequences that just didn’t serve the movie and she was not afraid to throw it out. And you know, it just made the story better. It just made the entire film flow much better!” explained Kihm.
“To work with someone who knows what they want but at the same time are really open to new ideas – it was really refreshing. It was very freeing to work with a director like that.”
‘Fresh’ and ‘Unique’ are the words plenty would describe Turning Red. Whilst the team behind the film allude to the aesthetics and working with someone as passionate and driven as director Shi are the reasons why, one mustn’t forget the special little girl in the film itself – Mei.
“The buzz around the studio early on was that Domee really wanted to do a different look, and having seen her short film Bao, it just felt like it was going to be a really exciting film to work on,” said Feinberg.
“The scene in the movie when you first meet Mei and she’s getting on the bus and doing all these things and she’s just so dorky and awesome and lovable – I saw that and I was just like ‘I really want to work on the film, that would be amazing!’”
Turning Red premieres on Disney+ on 11 March 2022.