Domee Shi breaks new ground with remarkable career
Her unexpected but delightful characters stay true to her roots growing up in Toronto as the child of Chinese immigrant parents, while also bringing to life universally relatable stories about the push and pull of the parent-child relationship.
In her latest film, Turning Red, an ungainly but lovable red panda becomes the perfect metaphor for the awkward early teen years. The film, available on Disney+ on March 11, is also generating plenty of buzz for being unapologetically Toronto-centric: rumbling streetcars, the CN Tower and even bagged milk make up the backdrop for the authentically multicultural characters.
Turning Red – which is also Shi’s debut as director of a major feature film – is just the latest in her anthology of work inspired by her own experiences. In 2018, her Academy Award-winning short film Bao was partially inspired by her own mother. It tells the story of an aging Chinese woman who gets another chance at motherhood when one of her dumplings springs to life. The woman excitedly welcomes the new bundle of joy into her life, but as the dumpling begins to grow, she must come to terms with the fact that nothing stays cute and small forever.
Shi returned to Sheridan back in 2018 to reflect on her time spent here as an emerging animator, and the path she followed to Pixar and her work on Bao. The eight-minute film was then billed as Pixar’s longest-running short, and made Shi the first female director to helm a Pixar short film.
“Growing up as an only child to my Chinese parents, ever since I was little my mom would treat me like her own precious dumpling, making sure I didn’t wander off or get into trouble,” Shi said, ahead of Bao’s release. The word “bao” can mean “steamed bun” or “something precious,” depending on its pronunciation.
Shi's love of fairy tales also influenced the storyline. She saw Bao as an attempt to create a modern-day, Chinese version of the classic Gingerbread Man story.
“It’s good creatively to put bits of yourself into your work because that's what makes it feel authentic and unique and truthful.”
Shi first applied to Pixar’s internship program during her third year at Sheridan. After being rejected, she was inspired to work harder and add more depth to her portfolio, leading her to be accepted to the internship the following year. She was hired by Pixar shortly after, and has since worked on features including Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, the upcoming Toy Story 4 and Incredibles 2.
And much like Bao, Shi tries to inject a bit of her own personality in every project she takes on.
“I think it’s really important – it’s where you find the nuggets of truth in the work you create,” she says. “It’s good creatively to put bits of yourself into your work because that’s what makes it feel authentic and unique and truthful.”
“Women in the animation industry are still a minority, and there are relatively few in the top creative positions,” he says. “Domee’s success as a story artist and director at Pixar is doubly important for our women students, as she is evidence that there should be no limit to their ambitions.”
Photo credit: Getty images
Originally published April 17, 2018. Updated March 7, 2022.