‘Turning Red’ Director Domee Shi Says Diversity Among Oscar Animation Noms Is “What Universal Stories Can Look Like”
Alot has changed in Domee Shi’s life since she won an Oscar for her 2018 Pixar short Bao, which follows a Chinese Canadian mother with empty-nest syndrome and a sentient steamed bun. Shi, who began as a story intern at Pixar in 2011 before being hired as a story artist under mentor Pete Docter’s Inside Out, is herself Chinese Canadian with immigrant parents and has learned to embrace her real-life background as inspiration for stories. That included her debut animated feature, Turning Redfor which she just earned her second Oscar nom.
“Four or five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined being here — directing a feature, nominated against Guillermo del Toro and other amazing animation directors and peers,” says Shi. “I learned so much from this experience. I’ve definitely grown in terms of my confidence as a storyteller, as a filmmaker.”
For Shi, this also has served as a reminder of the importance of varied stories and to “celebrate” those from diverse filmmakers: “Storytelling, especially in animation, is a powerful medium in delivering messages to a wide audience.”
Set in Toronto’s Chinatown in the early 2000s, Turning Red follows Mei (voiced by newcomer Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old who transforms into a giant red panda when she gets emotional, as she tries to break free from her overbearing mom (Sandra Oh). “The message that a lot of immigrant kids got is just to be small, move smoothly through life, not to make a ruckus,” says Shi. “With this movie, hopefully kids who watch it, parents too, feel empowered to take up space, to be big and loud, to let their inner red pandas out and to be proud of all the things that make them different.”
Shi takes pride in sharing her heritage in her stories and has leaned into what was sometimes a complicated relationship with her mother for inspiration. “It was such a roller coaster of emotions. I felt like that makes such good entertainment,” she says, describing how the dynamic between Mei and her mother at one point fighting, at another being BFFs “felt so much like my own experience. I was driven crazy by my mom, but at the same time I wanted to make her proud and wanted her to shine her light and her adoration and pride onto me.”
She adds with a laugh: “I think we’re good now. I think I got it out of my system, a short and a feature. That’s enough family therapy.”
Reflecting on this year’s Oscar nominations, led by Everything Everywhere All at Once, the genre-bending story of an immigrant family, Shi is energized by where storytelling is headed. “It’s an exciting time right now for Asians in Hollywood and the West,” she says. “With movies like Everything Everywhere, Decision to Leave and long-overdue accolades for actresses like Michelle Yeoh, it shows how small the world is, and it also proves commercially successful stories can have diverse main characters and filmmakers behind the camera. There’s a new definition of what universal stories can look like and who gets to tell them. I also know that it’s work that we have to consistently keep championing, because we could so easily go backward.”
Shi is developing her next project but keeping the details under wraps. She was named a creative vp at Pixar in 2022, leading to new experiences. “I’ve been working with a couple of new directors that I’m really excited about,” she says. “I’m trying my hardest to be a champion for new voices at the studio.” And of those with diverse backgrounds, she adds, “Now that the door is open for filmmakers like me, I’ll hold it open for the next generation.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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