The Importance of Motherhood Shines in Disney-Pixar’s short, “Bao”

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In Disney-Pixar’s “Bao,” an aging Chinese mom suffering from empty nest syndrome gets another chance at motherhood when one of her dumplings springs to life as a lively, giggly dumpling boy. Mom excitedly welcomes this new bundle of joy into her life, but Dumpling starts growing up fast, and Mom must come to the bittersweet revelation that nothing stays cute and small forever.

This short film from Pixar Animation Studios and director Domee Shi explores the ups and downs of the parent-child relationship through the colorful, rich, and tasty lens of the Chinese immigrant community in Canada.

Domee Shi 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” and the upcoming “Incredibles 2” and “Toy Story 4.” In 2015 she began pitching some ideas for short films, and soon was greenlit to write and direct “Bao.” A whimsical story loosely based on her own experiences growing up as an only child, and set in the Chinese community in Toronto, Canada.

Shi graduated from the animation program at Sheridan College, where her love of storytelling and animation really blossomed. Her biggest creative influences are the works of Studio Ghibli, 90s anime, Disney, Pixar, as well as the works of Yasujiro Ozu, Ang Lee, and Bong Joon Ho.

During a visit to Pixar Animation Studios, we heard from Shi about the making of “Bao.” She started off by giving us the meaning of the word Bao which means steamed bun, and also treasure or something precious. The idea came from an obsession with food. Shi also loved food folktales and wanted to create a short based on food and culture as well as personal experiences of being an only child.

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

Shi stated that her mom kept her close, who treated her like her precious little dumpling. The family was very close and present in life. Shi’s mom was also invited to Pixar to show the animators how to make fresh dumplings and how much work went into the food making preparation to help formulate the sequences for Bao.

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Short film “BAO” Director Domee Shi with her mother Ningsha Zhong shows the production team, including Lourdes Alba, how to make dumplings at Pixar Animation Studios. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

The third ingredient used in the short was China Town, specifically Toronto China Town. The family would go a dumpling restaurant, get groceries and shopping and it was a vibrant, lively and nostalgic setting and Shi wanted to honor that setting and residents of China Town.

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BAO concept art by Domee Shi (Director). ©2018 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

After the short was greenlit, Shi started to draw an idea of what she wanted to see in the short and dig deep into the story. The core of the story was almost the same but originally had more characters and it was more complex. Shi stated that having fewer characters, the simpler the story is the better. The focus was on the relationship between the dumpling son and mom. After drawing the storyboards, a story reel was created with temp music and sound effects. Story reels are useful for seeing the big picture of the short, what’s working and not working.

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Members of the production team for the short film “BAO” including Director Domee Shi, Producer Becky Neiman, Ian Megibben, Lourdes Alba, Rona Liu, Connie Li and Lucy Laliberte. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Production took a year and a half, with first-time director Shi, as a perfectionist she was seeking that success formula to battle production challenges. “The really talented artists we have here at Pixar are often working on other projects simultaneously,” said Shi, “and getting everything right took a lot of time, so that was a challenge and a great learning curve.” The mixture of Chinese and Western implemented were a reminder that this is Chinatown in the West; that in itself was important to the storyline.

Becky Neiman-Cobb, the Producer, hopped on board and, having been in the industry for over a decade, lent her expertise in production streamlining and creativity to Shi with whom she’d worked with on Inside Out. “It was a story I believe in and Domee, from the very beginning, had such a strong vision for the film,” she explains.

Neiman-Cobb joined Pixar Animation Studios as a production assistant in 2004. Since then, she has worked as a graphic designer, production coordinator, and departmental manager for a number of feature films including the Academy Award©-winning “Ratatouille,” “WALL•E,” “Up,” and “Inside Out.” Neiman-Cobb served as the production manager for “Finding Dory.” She is currently the associate producer for an upcoming feature film.

Prior to joining Pixar, Neiman-Cobb was a creative director, photographer and graphic designer working in the music industry in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in Rolling Stone, Spin, and Guitar Player Magazine.

In addition, Rona Liu joined as a production designer to help create the adorable look of Bao. Liu who was born in China, moved to the US and grew up with her mom was a little tough and the relationship underwent a lot of changes because of the different cultures. She was happy to work on Bao to come up with the colors and design of the short, it was a very special project.

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Liu commented on Dumpling, the main character, he has a wide range of personality that worked great in 2D and sketch form and she wanted to create a sculpture to see how the cuteness would translate into 3D. The mom character was the other dynamic character of the short, during the research trips in China Town, Liu and the team looked at colors to complement her outfits with her emotions. The environments were also critical and needed to fit into that world. She added that they wanted viewers to focus on the characters of the story. Everything was carefully designed and hand placed to support the story.

After watching the completed short, Shi hopes for audiences to leave with a stronger sense of understanding towards families, as well as a little side dish: “I want people to feel that they are at their Mom’s house after watching this” she added. “Feeling cozy, safe and loved.”

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“Bao” opens in theaters on June 15, 2018, in front of “Incredibles 2.” We can’t wait for you to see this incredible short.

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Robbie Bulus
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