Domee Shi on Turning Red’s Intergenerational Trauma –

Domee Shi on Turning Red’s Intergenerational Trauma

After making waves on Disney+, Pixar’s Turning Red becomes available on digital on April 26 and on Blu-ray on May 3. Directed by Domee Shi, the film stars Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, and Orion Lee.

“The film introduces Mei Lee, a confident, dorky 13-year-old torn between staying her mother’s dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence,” reads the synopsis. “Her protective, if not slightly overbearing, mother, Ming, 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!”

ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief spoke with Turning Red director Domee Shi to discuss the film, its depiction of intergenerational trauma, its anime influence, and more.

Tyler Treese: First off, congrats on your recent promotion to vice president of creative at Pixar. What did it mean for you to get the backing from the company in this very public and financial showing that they trust and believe in your vision?

Domee Shi: It’s amazing. I definitely feel so grateful that Pixar has really embraced this movie and has really thrown their support behind it and me as a filmmaker and a voice at the studio. I just feel an incredible amount of gratitude and responsibility in just paying forward all the support I’ve gotten throughout my experience at Pixar and helping the next generation of filmmakers really thrive like I have at the studio.

I thought Turning Red just starts so well. I love how it kind of captured, at the very beginning, just the excitement and sort of awkwardness of wanting to be independent and wanting to be more adult than you really are as a young teen and it set up the overall themes so well. How important was it to nail the opening and introducing all these characters at the very beginning of the film?

Yeah, it was really important for us to just from the very beginning of the movie kind of start off with that bang. Start the movie in a way that we haven’t seen yet from a Pixar film and in that very first draft written by Sarah Streicher, the first screenwriter for the movie, we took inspiration from you know, from John Hughes, from Ferris Bueller. From a lot of teen sitcoms that we grew up watching, like Clarissa Explains It All or Lizzie McGuire, where characters, these like very strong brassy female protagonists, will just break the fourth wall and talk directly to camera. It was just important for us to really make the audience fall in love with Mei right from the beginning.

You definitely nailed it.

There have been some, but it’s pretty rare to watch a Disney or a Pixar film that doesn’t really have like a traditional evil villain. How was it like just breaking away from that structure and just getting to tell this story?

Yeah, it was it was really fun. I think it’s more challenging in a good way to try to write a story and come up with a conflict that doesn’t involve a muahaha-like super evil sinister kind of antagonist. But I think you’re seeing that trend a lot in a lot of animated films, like Encanto, just exploring this idea of like the antagonist being more like intergenerational trauma because it’s interesting and juicy and very relatable topic that I think affects a lot of people. I just really was excited to kind of do a deep dive into that.

RELATED: The Relatability of Pixar’s Turning Red

The transformation aspect is so fun, but I wanted to ask because red pandas are so tiny and they’re adorable and, Mei’s panda is still very, very cute. But how did you decide on the transformation of just a giant red panda? It’s such a fun concept.

Yeah. I really wanted to make a movie with a red panda [laughs] because they’re so cute and you don’t really see them a lot in movies. I thought wouldn’t it be funny and even more cute if it was like 10 times bigger than a regular red Panda. It also just felt like the perfect metaphor for puberty as well. Because something big, hairy, and red, that is, in my mind, a great metaphor for getting your period. For all the emotions that are kind of boiling inside of you at that age.

Then it just really just answered that, that question of like, “Why animation?” because who wouldn’t want to see this girl kind of proofing back and forth between a human and a giant furry red panda. Her size also helps kind of her awkwardness and her teenager-iness. Just seeing how uncomfortable she was in her new, big body, how she’s knocking stuff over, how she can’t fit into her bed or clothes. Like all of that just kind of helped service the story that we wanted to tell.

RELATED: Generational Trauma: The Latest Disney Movie Trend

You spoke about the intergenerational trauma and I thought it was interesting how you explore it in the film because you see Mei’s mother, she kind of has that same sort of relationship with Mei’s grandmother. Then with the red panda curse, there’s kind of like a lot of blame-shifting toward it rather than accountability, but I like that ultimately the family’s relationship is about this love and acceptance at the end. So can you talk about just exploring that theme and how you decided to wrap it up in such a nice manner?

The panda and the movie really represents all of the messiness that comes with growing up, like all of the messy emotions that we begin to develop as we’re you know, coming of age as we’re growing older. But all of the messiness that society or our families have always told us to tamp down to try to get rid of, to control in order to move through society. Mae’s mom, her grandma, and her family, they grew up in a different generation where like they had to get rid of their pandas. They had to get rid of the messy side in themselves and order to like survive in order to live and thrive in a harsher environment.

But Mei has what they didn’t have. She has this great support system of friends. She’s living in a different generation and she doesn’t have to follow the same path that her mom and her family has gone down. So she’s the first in her family to kind of choose to embrace and to keep that messiness and to really celebrate it and incorporate it into her life. But that isn’t to say, we’re blaming or judging her family for her mom or her grandma for doing what they did because they needed to do that. They didn’t have friends like Mei had. So, in that story, we’re kind of just exploring how each generation kind of effects the one down the line and how a newer generation [doesn’t] have to grow up in a world as harsh as their parents or grandparents have gone through. So they can be different and they can break the cycle in that sense.

Pixar films always have top-notch presentation, but I thought this was so stylish and a lot of that comes down to the anime influence. What was the challenge in kinda trying to apply that to 3d animation? Because it’s not something that we see super often.

It was a really exciting challenge for the whole team. We were excited to come up with this new style because all of it just comes from wanting to like depict the world and the animation through the eyes of our protagonist, through Mei, who’s this ball of energy and tween girl-ness. So, from the very beginning, we were looking at anime from the 90s, like Sailor Moon, Ranma 1/2. A very vibrant color palette for the way that their characters are so expressive. It just really felt like the perfect style to kind of take inspiration from to apply to Mei and her story because Mei has so many big emotions in the movie that just applying this kind of more anime cartoony style really helped the audience feel what Mei was feeling at any given moment.

It was challenging, but in a good way, because a lot of people in the crew weren’t familiar with anime. So, we had to do like crash courses on anime style. Like how to pose the character faces when they react to things like in surprise or anger or happiness. Like Sailor Moon eyes, what does that look like in 3d? We just iterated a lot hair emoting, which was the simulation team. Like any time Mei gets like really riled up or you feel like her anger is boiling up, you kind of see her hair start to rise as a panda, but even as a human. We did a lot of tests just to see like what that would look like. So it doesn’t look like too unnatural, but it feels like it’s connected with her emotion and it’s like done in a very subtle way. I think it looks really cool and it really helps again what it helps the audience feel what Mei is feeling.

I think every department helped develop this 3D anime-inspired style, like simulation for hair emoting, lighting for the Sailor Moon eyes, and the whole cityscape. That like dreamy pastel kind of feeling like that was all lighting. Effects with all the sweat beads, and the pink proof cloud whenever Mei poofs back and forth between human and panda. That proof cloud had to be designed in a way that like looked believable and cute, but not like realistic smoke. So that was all effects. Then animation, of course, with like her really fun, expressive facial expressions. Then even in the editing, in the cutting, it has an energy and a snappiness to it. Every department kind of like came together to make that happen.

One moment that really touched me was the father’s speech at the end, and I thought it resonated even more because he was so quiet and sort of in the background for the beginning part of the film. Can you speak to just kind of saving him and making that moment more impactful in the final act?

Yeah. I love Jin. He is kind of like the soft but stoic rock of the family. The movie is mainly about Mei and her relationship with her mom and her friends. But we definitely didn’t wanna ignore the importance and the impact of fathers to teen daughters. I think for Jin, the way that he loves his family is through actions and through listening. That’s one of my favorite scenes too. When he kind of sits down and he talks to Mei, we’re showing that he’s been watching this whole time. He’s been safely keeping his distance, but supporting his wife and his daughter when they need him. I think he like knows when to come in and give that much-needed advice when it’s needed. He’s kind of the quiet hero of the movie.

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