A discussion with Domee Shi

Photo By Surjaditya Sarkar | Mercury Staff


Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your background and how you got into filmmaking.

So my background is, I was born in China, and I immigrated with my parents to Canada when I was two years old. And I grew up in the city called Toronto. I felt really lucky in that Toronto is a very multicultural, very diverse city, so I grew up with other immigrant kids like myself. So I’ve never felt like I was really othered for being Chinese. I was othered for being a nerd. And ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved animation. I’ve loved Disney movies, I loved anime. And I knew that whatever I was gonna do when I grew up, I knew I wanted to draw for a living. For a while I didn’t know what that career looked like. I was like, maybe I could be a medical illustrator, maybe I could be a concept artist.

But then I was on this website called DeviantArt when I was in high school, and I was following a lot of these amazing artists, and I asked them all these questions like, where did you go to school? How did you learn to draw like that? And a lot of them went to Sheridan College, and they attended this animation program there. And I did my research and I found out, oh my gosh, it’s just outside of Toronto. I wanna go where they went. I wanna learn how to draw how they draw. So I convinced my parents. I had to pitch to them the idea of me going into animation. I was like, it’s the perfect combination of creativity and commerce and I can draw for a living, but I’ll have a 401k, and I’ll have healthcare and I’ll have benefits.

That was the first pitch of your life.

Yes, Exactly. I pitched for my life in that moment, and they said yes. And my dad, you know, his background is art as well. He was an art professor in China, and he was like, okay, this is what you wanna do, let’s do it. So he really helped me prepare my portfolio. We went to life drawing together, which was great, but also kind of awkward to draw nude models next to your father.

They were super supportive of my dream of going into animation, and I’ve always just kind of followed that passion, of wanting to continue drawing forever. And through animation school I discovered storyboarding, because that was one of the specific professions within animation where you could still draw with your hands. I wanted to focus all of my portfolio and my career on that. And that’s what led me to the internship at Pixar, and that’s what led me to getting hired at Pixar. I was hired as a storyboard artist. And I’ve just always loved drawing because it was my way to communicate and reach out and connect with other people. Like, I was always really shy as a kid and I was always nervous about talking and speaking. And in middle school I even developed a stutter. But then when I started to draw, I could just show people my drawings and they would understand immediately what I was trying to communicate and say.

Q: Your very first major project at Pixar was the short film Bao. Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to make that?

I’m an only child and ever since I was little, I was super close with my mom. When I eventually moved away for work, like for Pixar, I felt this incredible sense of guilt and this feeling of really missing her. And feeling like, what must it be like to be an empty nester, to be in her shoes, having to let go of me. I was feeling both the sense of missing her but also wanting to break free as well.

And every time I would visit home, she’d always say, oh, Domee, I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew where you were at all times. And I’m like, oh, that’s so sweet and creepy. And I wanted to explore that love where you love someone and something so much that you’d rather consume it and destroy it rather than letting it go.

Q: It definitely seems like a lot of your work is autobiographical in nature, that Bao and Turning Red both speak to your own childhood and experiences. What specifically from your life are you putting into your stories?

There’s that saying that art is therapy, and I think I really use a lot of my stories in ways to process the emotions and feelings that I’m having at that moment.

So when I was making Bao, it was only a year or two since I moved out of my parents’ house and was living on my own. So I was feeling those feelings. And then for Turning Red, I think what started with Bao in exploring my relationship with my mom, I wanted to continue diving into that a little bit more and kind of peeling back the curtain of my adolescence, because I remember it being so messy and tumultuous, and I remember going back and forth from hating her and loving her. And as a filmmaker, I just wanted to understand that time in all of our lives a little bit better, and just understand it more for myself too, because I don’t think at the beginning of Turning Red I even really understood that part of my life or my mom or why she was so crazy sometimes.

Q: How did your perspective of your family and the story of Turning Red change as you understood both the project and your family better?

I think when I pitched Turning Red at first, it was more from Mei’s point of view, from the perspective of that kid that felt so oppressed and imprisoned by a strict mom and a strict family. But I think as I continued working on it, as I collaborated with my writer Julia Cho, who’s Korean American, she has an Asian mom but she’s also an Asian mom herself. And working with other women who are also moms too. I think the mother’s point of view kind of slowly started developing into the story as well and kind of forced me to try to understand that mother character more. So she evolved from more of a one-note, tiger mom character into someone more nuanced. And we actually dove in and we were like, why is she that way? That’s why we introduced the grandma and the aunties and we started exploring the intergenerational trauma of it all, and what that relationship is between mother and daughter, and what you carry from your parent and pass on to your kids. So it started to evolve more.

Q: Even five or ten years ago, stories about women, teenagers, and mothers and daughters just weren’t as mainstream and normal. How do you feel about that?

I think it’s really exciting right now, especially last year with our film and Everything Everywhere All At Once, and with Lady Bird as well. I just love that there’s so many more movies now that are exploring that relationship. Because it is a very juicy, emotionally complex relationship, that specific thing between mothers and daughters. And I think it’s worth exploring and celebrating and investigating on the big screen. I hope with the success of all these movies, that there’s more films that tackle that subject and other subjects that we haven’t seen yet.

Q: Do you have a quick word of advice for any college students here, especially those who might be minorities themselves or otherwise feel like their stories aren’t mainstream?

I would say to find each other, because it’s so easy to feel alone, or that you’re not heard or that you don’t deserve to be here, that your voice doesn’t deserve to be heard. But I think there’s so much strength in numbers. There’s so much strength in supporting each other. And in those moments where you don’t feel like you could advocate for yourself or you feel like you’re an imposter, at the very least you can boost somebody else up too. And if we’re all doing that together, then we can all bring each other up together.


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