Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan chats with Turning Red director Domee Shi about using color to create the personalities of the female characters and how everyone needs to embrace their red panda.
When it comes to being the first woman to solo direct a Pixar film, Domee Shi says it wasn’t until after Turning Red came out that the gravity of this stat really hit her.
“In my idealist mind, I thought, ‘I’m not the first, right?'” says Shi. “There’s gotta be someone else before me. Either way, it’s about time.”
And if being the first woman in this realm isn’t ballsy enough, she also co-created a female protagonist (with co-writers Julia Cho and Sarah Streicher) described as “annoying” by characters in the film.
“I found Meilin really funny and relatable. Maybe I’m annoying and that’s why!” she says with a laugh. “But I think that’s okay. That’s what I love about her, that she is a little bit too much and is so passionate and outgoing. You don’t often see female protagonists like that in movies, and I just wanted to celebrate the overachievers out there like myself to give them a folk hero to cheer for. And we also call her out on it in the movie!”
Male Critics Turning Red
Shi and her team weren’t the only one to call it out. When the film was released earlier in the year, one male critic went viral for his remarks that Turning Red was too specific in its experience and characters for him to relate to it. To an extent, Shi agrees.
“Honestly, that particular critic was kind of right in that I made it to make myself and my friends and people I love and respect, to make them laugh and feel something. That’s why a lot of filmmakers go into making movies. When people are shown things that they aren’t familiar with, a lot of times their reaction is negative or causing confusion, but I think the more we can expose people to different kinds of stories from different points of view, talking about different kinds of themes that they’re not used to, the less we’re going to see these negative reactions. I take no personal offense against it, too; our film doesn’t have to be for everybody. But I can tell you that everyone on the crew—men, women, old, young—everybody could relate to Mei and her struggle with puberty, with change, with facing her mother and staying true to herself. It feels very universal to me.”
Using Color and Pandas to Highlight Personalities
While Meilin is your classic overachiever, there isn’t just one kind of female character represented in the film, which adds to its universality. Meilin’s mother, grandmother, and aunties celebrate all kinds of female characters; Shi and her team, including production designer Rona Liu, highlight these differences through the use of color.
“We were really drawn to this idea of designing this world of how it would look through Mei’s eyes, so we really pushed the pastels and the colors of Toronto, just to have this fresh, youthful feminine feeling when you watch it. It was important for us to really use the colors to support the characters, so we assigned specific colors to each character: Mei is red; the mother is green (contrasting color for red, but also complementary); Miriam is also green, so we’re subliminally pitting Ming and Miriam against each other; Abby is purple; Priya is yellow; Tyler is a deeper indigo. All of it was to try to take the audience into the mind and point of view of an excited teen girl living in the 2000s.”
In addition to color, the family panda sizes also factor into personality.
“When Mei’s aunties transform, they’re all different sizes. Our thinking was the more you repress, the bigger the panda is. Mei’s is the smallest because she’s been poofing a lot, and her aunties are a little bit bigger, but her mom—who’s had a lot to repress her whole life—her panda is so big because that’s 40 years of oppression coming out.”
How the Film’s Energy and Pacing Changes
In order to support Mei’s story, Shi and her team had to use every aspect of filmmaking to support the story, including editing and camera direction.
“During the first half of the film and when Mei is in the temple with her mom at the beginning of the movie, the camera is more still, and the shots are more composed and symmetrical. And then when she’s with her friends, we switch to a janky, early-2000s handheld camcorder, just to show that her friends are messier and looser, more casual and more intimate with each other. That’s something that we subtly do.”
Once Mei’s panda arrives, the camera becomes more handheld and more dynamic.
“We’re showing that Mei’s changing through the lens of a camera and through the editing as well. When you watch it, you can feel the latter half of the movie has a more frenetic pace because it’s building up—she’s changing from a buttoned-up, perfect mama’s girl to this wild free beast.”
Everyone Has a Red Panda
Even though the film is a metaphor for menstruation, you don’t need to be a period-having individual to relate. Shi believes that everyone has a red panda that they need to make peace with.
“Pet it and embrace it. Embrace that messy side of yourself that comes out. It’s okay to be kind to yourself when you make a mistake, whether you overreact or have an outburst—it’s okay. It’s not about getting rid of all those messy things.”
However, if Turning Red does encourage more conversation about periods and normalizing more cavalier discussion, Shi is happy to be a part of it.
“I wish I had a movie like this to point to when I was that age. I was Mei confused in my bathroom, wondering whether I was dying. No one talked to me about it, so I didn’t know. If this starts this conversation, I’m glad and you’re welcome,” she laughs. “It’s just going to save embarrassment and trauma for kids when it’s actually happening, and they have no warning whatsoever. The more we talk about it and normalize it and make fun of it, the less scary it is, too. That’s the goal, right? I hope five or 10 years from now it’s normal to see characters on screen buying pads or talking about cramps.”
Turning Red is streaming on Disney+.