Domee Shi’s upbringing was the inspiration for her animated short, Bao. The story screened before Incredibles 2 this past summer. It’s about an elderly mother who makes a little dumpling that comes to life.
I caught up with Shi to discuss how she worked to animate Bao and why working with an Asian production designer helped with creating the finer authentic details of an Asian kitchen.
Tell us how Bao was born for you?
Bao was born with my own life, growing up with my overprotective mom and dad, especially with my mom. I’m an only child. I’m Chinese and ever since I was little my mom has treated me like a precious little dumpling.
She would ever say, “Domee, I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew exactly where you were at all times.” I’d be like, “Mom, that’s creepy.”
I think I wanted to tell a story about that creepy, sweet love, but from the mother’s point of view. I am that dumpling and I know what it’s like to be that dumpling, but I didn’t know what was going on in her mind when she was coddling me, helicoptering over me, and calling me every day. I think through making this short, I understood her a bit better.
I’m also a huge foodie so I wanted any excuse to do the deep dive into the research of making Chinese food.
That’s what Asian mothers do. How did you dive into the mother’s world without dialogue too?
That was tricky. That involved a lot of research and chatting with my mom. I involved her in the making of the short too. I showed her early reels of the short to get her opinion of it. We also invited her to the studio to do dumpling making classes for the whole crew and we filmed her doing it. I chatted to other moms. Our producer Becky Nieman-Cobb became a mother while we were making this short. For a lot of the scenes when the dumpling was coming to life, and when the dumpling is a baby, I’d ask her and other parents, “Does this feel right? Is this what you’d do?” I relied a lot on my crew and their experiences for the things that I didn’t quite know.
I tried to emphasize and connect with the mother’s story in any way I could. I’m a cat fanatic and I remember when I had a cat, there was that feeling of it being so cute that I just wanted to eat it. I channeled into that when I was writing the story.
Food is the hardest thing to animate so I’ve heard. Talk about getting the fine detail down to perfection.
It’s really difficult. Especially on a computer. Computer animation is really good at simulating hard symmetrical objects, but it’s very hard to simulate food because food is organic and squishy and changes shapes.
That shot in the opening where the mother is making the dumpling, those were the hardest effects shots to do. It took two effects artists two months of the mother folding the dumpling and twisting it into a bun. It was a great combination and collaboration between art and tech. We filmed my mother making the dumplings and we tried to recreate the exact shot.
The art department worked on making sure the colors and lighting made the food look really good. In that shot, it’s raw pork and raw pork filling doesn’t look great in real life. We had to be food photographers and up the saturation and colors, making it look better than real food.
Our art team designed the vegetable chunks to be bigger.
The other shots of the mother preparing noodles and tofu, we ordered tons of food from Sichuan restaurants and took a lot of photos. It was just that collaboration. Art would say the food needed to be glossier and colorful.
There’s so much emotion without the use of dialogue. You chose to do this without any.
My background is animation and I love how it’s a visual story medium. I really wanted to push myself in telling the story in a visual way. I loved the idea of everyone around the world experiencing this short in exactly the same way without dubs or translations. I wanted it to feel like a universal story with culturally specific details.
It was a great canvas for the animators to push the acting and posing for the lighters to utilize the light to reflect the mood. It really just pushed every department to reflect the story in a visual way.
I feel my parents and a lot of Asian parents don’t communicate through words as much. They communicate through making food and feeding you and fussing over you. That’s definitely the case for Bao. I wanted this character to show her love through her actions because that felt the most authentic.
Let’s talk about representation for a bit. Aside from being Asian-Canadian yourself, Toby Chu, your composer and your production designer Rona Liu is Asian.
A lot of key leaders in the group were Asian. I think it was really helpful to work with Rona who had that Asian background. She’s in charge of the look and feel of the short. We worked together really well. We both knew the little details and references to a Chinese household. It helped that she’s fluent in Chinese and the graphics you see in those scenes were done by her. There’s a lot of details I felt that I could trust her to execute and look over because she had that background. It made my life easier.
We had similar tastes in design and we clicked mentally on how we wanted it to look. The character design is based on our relatives. The house — we went through photos of our parents and grandparents households and used that as the basis.
The attention to detail is incredible in the way you captured that Asian household.
Yes, Rona had that in her life to draw from.