Episode 134

Domee Shi  ·  Turning Red

“Back in 2017, I had just finished bough my short film with Pixar, and Pixar asked me to go into development and start thinking of three ideas to pitch as a feature film and they asked every person going into development to pitch three ideas.”

DOMEE SHI (Directed by/Story by/Screenplay by) began as a story intern at Pixar Animation Studios in June 2011, and was soon hired as a story artist on the Academy Award®-winning feature film “Inside Out.” Since then, she has worked on the feature films “The Good Dinosaur,” “Incredibles 2” and the Academy Award®-winning “Toy Story 4.” In 2015 she began pitching ideas for short films, and soon was greenlit to write and direct “Bao” which won the Academy Award® for the best animated short film. In her role as a creative VP, Shi is involved in key creative decision-making at the studio and consults on films in both development and production.


 Shi graduated from the animation program at Sheridan College where she was fueled by her love of anime/manga, Disney, and Asian cinema influences that can be seen in her work to this day.


 Shi was born in Chongqing, China, and resided in Toronto, Canada most of her life. She currently lives in Oakland, Calif., and notes that her love of animation is only rivaled by her love of cats.


TURNING RED is an endearing coming-of-age story that follows Mei Lee (voice of Rosalie Chiang), a confident, dorky 13-year-old torn between staying her mother’s dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence. Her protective, if not slightly overbearing mother, Ming (voice of Sandra Oh), is never far from her daughter—an unfortunate reality for the teenager. And as if changes to her interests, relationships and body weren’t enough, whenever she gets too excited (which is practically ALWAYS), she “poofs” into a giant red panda!


Social media handles:

Instagram: @domeeshi @PixarTurningRed

Twitter: @PixarTurningRed

Facebook: @PixarTurningRed

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Podcast Transcript

Domee Shi

[00:00:00] Bryan Pham: Welcome to the Asian Hustle Network podcast. We’re so excited to have you on today.

[00:00:03] Domee Shi: Thank you. Thanks for having me. 

[00:00:05] Bryan Pham: Of course. Congratulations on all your successes. You are the first woman director of Pixar, and you come up with an awesome movie coming out soon and before I hop into your story. I want to have you talk a little bit more about this movie that’s coming out and what significance it is for not just the Asian American community, but for fans around the world. 

[00:00:25] Domee Shi: Yeah, I’m really excited that Turning Red is coming out. It’s a coming-of-age story that I think everyone can relate to, even though it’s super-specific. It’s about a 13-year-old, Chinese Canadian girl named Meilin Lee going through big changes in her life, in her body, in her hormones, and in her relationship with her mom.

[00:00:44] And then the story is just about how magical puberty hits and she suddenly has to deal with transforming into a giant red Panda anytime she gets emotional and just navigating, growing up with that very unique family cork that she’s inherited.

[00:01:00] Maggie Chui: Oh, wow. I love that so much. And I’m sure a lot of people who are listening to this podcast, have yet to watch it, but I’m sure a lot of people in our community will be watching it because it’s so applicable to a lot of people in the Asian-American community or Asians in general.

[00:01:15] And you talk about changes in the body, changes in hormones. And we see Mei going through those changes as she’s growing up, puberty. So the film also deals with aspects of puberty, but it doesn’t exactly say, you know anything about puberty, but we get hints of it, biological changes. And I think when Mei had realized she was going through a transformation, Mei’s mom thought that she was going through her first menstruation.

[00:01:37] I think there was an article saying that the production team was unapologetic about the discussion of these topics in the film. I want to know why that was so important to you as the director? And do you think these discussions of these topics in the film help younger girls feel more comfortable about the many stages that they have to experience while growing up as well?

[00:01:58] Domee Shi: Yeah. I think it was really important for us to not shy away from the cringy or topics of puberty and adolescence, especially pertaining to girls. I think it’s just one way to normalize it, right? Like instead of dancing around the topic or not really mentioning it, it just didn’t feel genuine for us to try to tell a coming-of-age story about a teen girl, without touching on this very important event and moment that happens to every single girl on the planet. And I think by not shying away from it by just showing it on the screen, we can normalize it and laugh at it and just tell girls and anyone who menstruates that it’s totally okay. And that you will survive. It’s embarrassing, but it’ll be okay. 

[00:02:47] Maggie Chui: I absolutely agree. I think the more we talk about it, the more girls will feel comfortable talking about it and we won’t shy away from the topic. It’s something that’s natural. And I think that we should all be talking about it. We know that the film is taking place in Toronto, Canada during the early 2000s, specifically during 2002 and 2003.

[00:03:10] Bryan Pham: And you’re born in 1989. 

[00:03:16] Domee Shi: Yes. So I’ll be in my 30s. 

[00:03:18] Bryan Pham: I think it’s really cool. Cause Maggie and I were also born around that time. I was also born in 1989.

[00:03:24] Domee Shi: Oh cool. Nice. 

[00:03:25] Bryan Pham: And the fact that we’re following this character who is in middle school 2002, 2003. And that is a reflection of us being in middle school during that time. I’m curious, how much of Mei’s character is based upon your own personal experience? 

[00:03:38] Domee Shi: Yeah, a lot of May’s personality I think is based on me at the time. Like her, I was a total confident dork and had my little girl squad of nerdy girlfriends. I obsessed over boys, mostly fictional. And I had a secret sketchbook that, to this day, I don’t think my mom ever found out about. So I think, a lot of Mei is myself, but also who I wanted to be too.

[00:04:06] I don’t think I was as brassy and sure of myself as she was at the beginning of the movie. But in writing her, we really wanted to make this role model and this little Chinese Canadian folk hero that you can immediately root for and fall in love with the minute you saw her on-screen.

[00:04:25] Bryan Pham: I love it. It’s based upon your character. And there’s a lot more to the movie that I want to talk about which are like the hidden secrets throughout the movie. Cause there are little things that you touch upon that if you’re a 2000s kid like this is what we grew up with, Tamagotchis. And the Canadian flags everywhere. 

[00:04:39] Domee Shi: Yeah. Like we really wanted to just populate the world with as many early 2000s symbols and objects and just things that just have nostalgic meaning and feelings for me. I love the scene where Mei’s friend, Miriam, gives her a 4 Town mix CD that she decorated herself because that’s totally what me and my friends used to do back in the day of CD burning and Kazaa, Limewire, and all that.

[00:05:11] It was just really interesting for us to tell this story about this teenage girl coming of age during the early 2000s. So that just felt like the height of boy bands of pop music and the internet was just starting out. And like social media wasn’t really that big of a thing back then. So it just felt more innocent, almost like a more innocent time too. That’s what drew me to want to talk about it.

[00:05:39] Maggie Chui: That’s amazing. We know that you had first pitched the film to Pixar in 2017. So it’s been a while now. And I want to know what was the first inspiration for you to come up with a film like this? And where did you get this idea from? Bringing it back to 2017, tell us how that idea came about. 

[00:05:59] Domee Shi: Yeah. So back in 2017, I had just finished Bao. My short film with Pixar and Pixar had asked me to go into development and start thinking of three ideas to pitch as a feature film. And they asked every person going into development to pitch three ideas and Turning Red was one of them.

[00:06:20] But all three of my ideas were girl protagonists coming of age. Cause that was a really important topic and theme that I really was passionate about telling. Cause just didn’t feel like at the time, and even now it’s a little bit better, but still, it didn’t feel like there was enough in the media that was like talking about this topic or there weren’t a lot of movies, especially animated movies that dealt with this topic.

[00:06:46] It was just an important subject that I wanted to explore. And so for Turning Red, I really wanted to explore like what the experience of puberty would be like if it was exaggerated and magical. And what if this girl just uncontrollably transformed into the most embarrassing thing for a teenage girl to transform into at the time and kind of used that transformation as a metaphor for a girl going through magical puberty. That’s what I really wanted to dive into with this idea. And the image of the red Panda just popped into my mind because it just felt like such a funny visual and the color really reminded me of red for your period but also red in how it represents different emotions. Like you’re red with anger, you’re red with embarrassment, you’re red with lust for your crush. So it just felt like the perfect animal to represent puberty. 

[00:07:50] Maggie Chui: It was also the perfect color to represent the culture as well. Being a Chinese Canadian, being Chinese in general, Chinese and Asians altogether, they love the color red, red means fortune and good luck. And so I thought it was just so fitting. 

[00:08:04] Domee Shi: Yeah. It was a very auspicious color for sure. And it just had so much meaning wrapped into it. So it just felt like the perfect animal. 

[00:08:14] Bryan Pham: Yeah. I really liked the selection of the red Panda. Nowadays you see a lot of normal Pandas like black and white, but the red Panda, I feel like it’s getting a lot of popularity lately. That’s an awesome character. 

[00:08:24] I’m kind of curious about the creative process you went through. As you’re pitching the idea, this may or may not be true, but I think I followed Pixar for a little bit to understand that the creative process in their department is extremely difficult.

[00:08:35] I wonder what it was like for you working with them and trying to formulate stuff. And how’d you handled different plots, rejections, and approval processes? It sounds very complicated. I just want to get our listeners an opportunity to hear what the creative process was like.

[00:08:48] Domee Shi: So Pixar’s creative process is very unique compared to other studios. We’re very much perfectionists and we’re very meticulous and it takes us at minimum four years to make one movie which is a really long time. But I knew going in that it was important to work with collaborators and leadership that could speak to the experience of having once been a teenage girl or being from the Asian community. It was important for me to not be the only Asian on the leadership crew. So the first thing I did was I found our production designer, Rona Liu who was a production designer for Bao. And I wanted to work with her again.

[00:09:35] And the production designer basically is in charge of the entire look for the movie, from the colors to the character designs, overseeing the design of the sets and everything. And I knew, the movie was going to look amazing with her at the helm because not only that she’s Chinese American and could speak to that perspective of being 13 and awkward and going through changes, but just having worked together with her on Bao, we develop this trust and this shorthand and we both have similar tastes and aesthetics in terms of anime, influences, color, and design. So I knew that she was gonna help us find a very unique style for this movie that reflected Mei’s perspective on the world.

[00:10:22] And then. We also found an incredible writer, Julia Cho and she’s been with us since like almost the very first draft of the movie. And she’s great. Again, it was important to be working with people that could speak to that background and Julia being Korean American.

[00:10:40] It was just very easy for both of us to access those experiences and memories and stories of when our moms embarrassed us and the angst of growing up as an immigrant kid and relating that to Mei and her story. Like a lot of our writing sessions are just us, like exchanging battle stories of being a teenager and trying to go to our first concert or trying to explain our parents, like this certain type of music that we were really into, but they didn’t understand it. And working closely with Julia, we just work really closely together on writing the movie and through the process. We had eight screenings. Almost like eight chances to improve the movie. Eight times we show it to an audience. Eight times we’ll get a ton of notes back and we’ll just have to filter through all of the feedback and try to figure out what we should change or what we should keep.

[00:11:42] And it takes a village to make a movie and I just really relied on the leadership on the show to really help guide me through this process. 

[00:11:53] Bryan Pham: I love it. I really liked the fact that you guys also selected the number eight, which is a very lucky number in Asian culture, was that intentional.

[00:12:01] Domee Shi: Yeah that just ended up how the process was. But it’s funny cause there’s a boy band in the movie called 4 Town. And people always ask oh, like, why are they called 4 Town? Okay. There are five of them. And then one of the reasons why is because like for story purposes, we needed Mei’s mom to disapprove of 4 Town. And four is a very unlucky number in Chinese, but also I think in other countries as well. 

[00:12:26] Bryan Pham: All Asian cultures. 

[00:12:28] Domee Shi: Cause in Asian cultures it means death. So that’d be really funny if she’s covered in fours and she’s trying to convince her mom like, no, this band is amazing and her mom can only just see it as unlucky like death. It is added to their conflict, calling them 4 Town.

[00:12:42] Maggie Chui: That’s brilliant. That is so funny. I love that. Yeah, in Chinese culture and I think a lot in a lot of Asian cultures, 4 is a really bad luck number. 

[00:12:50] It’s just so amazing. Just hearing you talk about exchanging stories and experiences with Julia and just talking about the experiences that you had as either immigrants or children of immigrant parents, which is why I think a lot of Asians can relate with each other.

[00:13:06] I think even though we have such unique differences, we all come from very similar struggles, and we all come from very similar backgrounds and we are starting to learn more about that. Oh, I went through the same experiences too. I’m also a child of immigrant parents. I wanted to know what it was like for you personally, to be working with such an incredible community with so many Asians, Julia Rosalie, Sandra Oh. Wai Ching Ho. I’m sure it was such a phenomenal feeling to be able to connect with so many other Asians and be able to relate on such a different level. Talk about your experience in that sense and how was it very special for you to be working with such a great community? 

[00:13:45] Bryan Pham: Yeah. I also want to add to that question too.

[00:13:46] I want to hear more about how that affected your Asian identity and how much of that you want to incorporate into the movie. Because as a lot of us growing up, like being Asian wasn’t cool. And nowadays, being Asian is super cool. 

[00:13:58] Domee Shi: How did we become cool now? We were always cool. It’s been so surreal and I feel so honored and so lucky that I was able to work with such amazing Asian collaborators on this film. Like in every department, writing, art, animation, voice acting, and voice talent. It just made me realize how important it is for studios to support these types of stories because they’re still super rare. I still feel like there aren’t a ton of shows or movies, especially in like Western media. So it just feels so special. There was like one recording session we had, Sandra was there. I was there. Julia was there. I think Rosalie was there. I don’t remember, but it was just, it just felt very oh my gosh, like we’re all here. We’re all Asian women. We’re all working on this multi-million dollar animated film, how is this possible? This is so cool, but let’s make sure that this isn’t the only time this happens. I feel incredibly lucky and also feel this immense responsibility to make sure that this continues into the future and that more stories from our communities are supported and told. It’s been awesome. 

[00:15:18] Bryan Pham: That’s absolutely amazing to hear. Honestly, as we’re looking things up, what is it? The first Asian-themed Pixar movie ever. And we’re so happy that you’re able to lead this project. We watched Bao before too. There couldn’t be a better person.

[00:15:31] So I’m curious too. Going back to the question that I wanted to ask earlier, like, how did your Asian identity play into the movie? Because I want to hear how that helped you plan the storyline based on your own personal life? And also did you talk to your parents about this and be like, Hey, am I talking about the traditions? Am I getting the culture right? I’m curious too.

[00:15:50] Domee Shi: Yeah, if you’ll watch a movie, my identity plays a huge part in the movie. I think also just in the specificity of the story I think is very unique to an immigrant kid, an Asian immigrant kid, and their struggles. It was important for me to not tell a story, like a more typical kind of Western story, where the parent is very militant and strict, and the kid is very rebellious and wants to break free from the very beginning. That’s not Mei’s relationship with her mom. When you watch the movie, you can tell that she genuinely loves her mom and her family, and she wants to be good for them.

[00:16:26] And she wants to make them proud and she enjoys spending time with them. But at the same time, she’s growing up. In a completely different environment than her parents did and she’s growing into a different person and she is inevitably going to leave them because she’s just turning into a different person.

[00:16:43] And I just really wanted to tell that story in that specific struggle, where there is no black and white answer of just, no, you got to just be yourself and be independent and screw your parents. And yeah go pursue your dreams and f*ck everybody else. But that’s not what this story is and the truth of it is it’s always going to be this struggle, I think for a lot of immigrant kids and Asian kids to deal with. Or trying to keep their families in their lives, but also trying to be their own person.

[00:17:13] And I just thought that was a very juicy topic to explore. Also at the time too, when I pitched it, I didn’t quite figure that out yet either. I didn’t know what the answer was to that, be yourself or honor, your parents, or yourself. So I think in making the movie, it’s almost like I came to a little bit more of a conclusion or a resolution within myself while making this movie. And to the question of how my parents thought of the movie, they haven’t seen it yet. They will when we premiere in Toronto. But I have been able to involve my parents in the production of it. Like if you watched the movie, in Mei’s family temple, there’s a lot of calligraphy around the temple. And all of that was based on my dad’s calligraphy. His background is painting and calligraphy and we were able to get him involved in the film production. 

[00:18:10] Maggie Chui: That’s so sweet. I love that. 

[00:18:13] Domee Shi: Yeah. He was like credited as a cultural consultant. I think. 

[00:18:16] Maggie Chui: I love it. Thank you so much for sharing that. I think we talked a lot about Turning Red. I do want to do the big picture. There are a lot of kids who try to look for, representation in movies and film, and I think animation is such a great way to go about it because films that are filming, actual people acting and with actors and actresses, might be a little bit harder for them to conceptualize. 

[00:18:40] Kids love watching animation, kids love watching cartoons. So I feel like it’s so important for animation films to be out there to be building representation. How do you see representation changing within this industry? With the last couple of years, or just the amount of time that you’ve been in this industry and do you think that we have been improving in terms of building more representation for the Asian community?

[00:19:05] Domee Shi: Yeah. I’ve been in this industry for 10 years now and I’ve seen a ton of change since I started. I was starting to see the change even when I was in animation school. Cause enrollment at that time was like, the majority of female students enrolling in animation. Whereas this industry has been pretty male-dominated for a long time. But even when I first started, I think Anime was still kind of niche and almost looked down on a little bit like an animation school or people just thought Anime was like one thing, like big creepy girls. 

[00:19:43] But now it’s way more accepted in the mainstream. And I think it’s just because our world is getting smaller. Like we just have more access to cool stuff in Asia. Anime is more accessible. I used to have to go to a specific Asian mall in Toronto to get bootleg DVDs of the latest episodes of One Piece or like Inuyasha. But now you can just go on the internet and you have access to everything like My Hero or Demon Slayer and all that stuff. And I think because we have more access to animation and artists all over the world. There’s a bigger appetite for different kinds of stories and different kinds of styles of cartoons and animation.

[00:20:27] So I definitely think you’re starting to see more Asian representation in animation in the west. It’s always been huge in Asia, Anime has always been huge, but now more Westerners are paying attention to it and it’s being taken more seriously as a medium, I think.

[00:20:45] Bryan Pham: Yeah, I absolutely agree with that statement for sure. A lot of Anime out there are still mainstream and Attack on Titans, Demons Slayer. Demons Slayer the movie had a huge box office year. The acceptance is super high, but I do want to ask a very fun off-topic question. What is your favorite anime of all time?

[00:21:02] Domee Shi: Oh, what? That’s so hard. What’s my favorite Anime of all time? This is hard cause I haven’t been following it for so long, but for a while, it was One Piece. 

[00:21:12] Bryan Pham: Okay. 

[00:21:13] Domee Shi: One piece was my favorite but I literally stopped reading it like, five, six years ago, and now there’s just too much to catch up on. And I don’t know where to jump back in, but I was obsessed with it. One Piece in college. 

[00:21:30] Awesome. I do agree. One piece is freaking amazing. So that’s a great answer in my book. 

[00:21:35] Maggie Chui: It’s okay. You’re not caught up. Bryan tried to make me watch it from the beginning. I was like, it’s too long. 

[00:21:43] Domee Shi: Wait, how many years is it? Is it 15 years? 

[00:21:46] Bryan Pham: More. Majority of our adulthood. Majority of our life in general. I think it came out when I was like six or something 

[00:21:53] Domee Shi: It came out like 1998 or whatever. 

[00:21:55] Bryan Pham: Yeah. It’s like that. 

[00:21:56] Maggie Chui: Crazy. 

[00:21:57] Bryan Pham: Pretty crazy. But yeah. I want to bring it back to Turning Red. So what do you hope the viewers would take away from viewing the movie and let’s put it into two points of view, right?

[00:22:05] If you were Asian, what is your biggest takeaway? If you’re a non-Asian was, what is the biggest takeaway that you hope that they will get from watching the movie?

[00:22:13] Domee Shi: Yeah. That’s a good question. Yeah, I think I think from both Asian and non-Asian audiences my hope is that when they watch it, for kids and teens, they realize that growing up is messy and it’s okay.

[00:22:27] That you’re feeling. All over the place and that your emotions are all over the place and that your body is unrecognizable and crazy and going through changes. And all of that is okay. And we all go through it and you’re going to be okay. And yeah, I think specifically for Asians like that, they can finally see parts of themselves and their own life growing up, celebrated on the big screen and shared with millions of people all over the world. And that they’re no longer niche and that this, like that their stories are just as universal as any other culture or race of people’s stories are.

[00:23:15] And then for non-Asian people, even if we look different and there’s like details in our family life, there are differences but we all go through this same stuff. Like we all go through the ups and downs of growing up and issues with our parents.

[00:23:30] But also, this is a cool window into a world that you’re unfamiliar with. And hopefully, this can create some curiosity in yourself about exploring different cultures. And, maybe try some of the food that Mei tries or that Mei and her family eats in the movie or take a trip to Chinatown or a temple.

[00:23:52] Maggie Chui: Amazing. I know you mentioned that Mei in the movie, goes through a lot of stages of growth and puberty. And you mentioned that she is in ways representative of you, right? In many ways. Because she went through so many changes. And maybe you thought of this, maybe you didn’t, but I do want to know, was there anything that you had learned about yourself that was new while you were writing the script for this movie and as Mei was growing up, was there anything that made you realize? Oh, I learned something new about myself as I relate myself to Mei. 

[00:24:26] Domee Shi: Oh, for sure. The whole message of the movie is Mei embracing her inner beast, like embracing the messiness in her life. But that message wasn’t really there in the first initial pitch. That was something that me and Julia eventually found through many different versions of the story. And I think that’s because we had to embrace the mess in our lives but to embrace the mess and unpredictability of production, like suddenly having to stop everything and work from home and all of the unforeseen issues and things that would come from that.

[00:25:06] The messiness of production, like last-minute notes on shots that are already animated and almost done. And then we have to go back and redo them because we got a big note from an exec and all that stuff. I think I learned to embrace the mess, making this story about a girl learning to embrace her mess.

[00:25:27] Maggie Chui: I love it. And so we have one last question for you, Domee. And that is if you could give advice to a young female, a young girl who is trying to embrace her mess as she’s growing up or what that one advice be. 

[00:25:40] Domee Shi: This feels almost too specific, but I would draw or write it down, like anything embarrassing or cringy or terrible that happened to you. I feel like you should document it and then come back to it like a couple of days later, or even a year or two later, or even decades from now, come back to it and you can see that it wasn’t as bad as you thought it was at the moment. And then that could also just be like a source of gold for you later on. A fun little time capsule, I think, but just know that everything that you’re feeling is totally valid. But it’ll just feel smaller and less scary and intense with time. 

[00:26:24] Maggie Chui: I love that. I love that so much. Oftentimes we go through so many peaks and valleys and it’s we’re always thinking, how do we get through this? And then a year later. I got through it just like that. You just get through these problems. One problem after another, we are actually stronger than we think we are. And I love that you mentioned that, you should write and draw it down. I think Bryan loves that because Bryan loves writing down things.

[00:26:48] Bryan Pham: I love writing down things and drawing things sometimes. I can’t draw that well though.

[00:26:55] Maggie Chui: So where can our listeners find out more about you and Turning Red? 

[00:27:01] Domee Shi: So for Turning Red, you guys can check it out on Disney Plus on March 11th. I am on Instagram @domeeshi. You can check me out there where I post doodles and using things. And yeah, if an embarrassing thing happened to me, I’ll draw it and post it on Instagram. I’m not as active as I want to be, but I’ll try to be more. 

[00:27:25] Bryan Pham: Sounds good. And we leave all that in the show notes for you guys to find Domi. Your energy, your story. It’s so positive. We love it. And when the movie comes out, you can make darn sure that we’re going to promote it. I’m just going to say that we’re going to promote the crap out of it on our social media. We’re super excited to support you. And thank you so much for being a podcast today. 

[00:27:45] Maggie Chui: Thank you, Domee. 

[00:27:46] Domee Shi: Yeah, of course. It was fun. 

[00:27:48] Bryan Pham: All right. Thank you.