This summer, before movie audiences sink their teeth into one of the biggest sequels of the year, Pixar’s Incredibles 2, they will be treated to a hilarious and poignant short film from one of the animation studio’s up-and-comers, 28-year-old Domee Shi.
Bao tells the story of a Chinese empty-nester mom who gets a surprise one day when one of her dumplings turns into an adorable baby boy. The story includes several amusing moments with the mom and her new sidekick, as well as some unexpectedly moving scenes that address the pain of seeing your children grow up and turn their attention outside the house. It’s quite an emotional journey for an eight-minute short about an anthropomorphized dumpling, and according to Shi — who wrote and directed Bao — the film has roots in a very real relationship, one that many audience members will surely relate to.
“The story was loosely inspired by my own life growing up as an only child to my two Chinese parents,” Shi tells Eater. “I found that they always treated me like this precious little dumpling, always making sure I was safe and never wandered too far. And when it was time for me to leave the nest, it was hard for them to let go. I wanted to kind of explore that in an allegorical, modern-day-fairytale way with this short.”
In terms of visual inspiration, Shi says that the mom is “kind of how I caricature myself when I’m doing silly drawings of myself, and I send them to my friends.” But in terms of attitude, the filmmaker thinks there’s “bits of my mom in there, but also bits of every strong Chinese woman in my life.”
Shi, who is the first woman to direct a Pixar short in the company’s 32-year history, started at the studio as an intern seven years ago, and was quickly hired as a storyboard artist working on Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. “I have a very visual sense of storytelling, and I wrote this short by drawing it, basically,” she explains. Once the storyboard version of Bao got the thumbs-up from Pixar’s top brass, Becky Neiman-Cobb, a veteran of Ratatouille and Wall-E, was brought on to produce. Pixar legend Pete Docter, who has story credits on six of the studio’s top titles, also worked alongside Shi as an executive producer. Shi says that Docter was like a “mentor” to her on this project who “was great about just encouraging me to stick to my guns, and trust that I don’t have to like, spell everything out for the audience.”
Although Pixar’s shorts have developed a cult following over the years, the features are really the studio’s bread and butter, and so with the production of Bao, Shi and Neiman-Cobb had to work on the film whenever there were breaks between the main movies and talent was available. “We’re sort of like the indie wing of Pixar,” the producer remarks. “We have smaller budgets, and we’re scrappy, and we strategize our production to work within the windows between the big feature productions going on at the studio.” The overall production took about a year and a half, although Neiman-Cobb notes that it might’ve taken nine months — “how long it takes to make a baby” — if they had worked on it consecutively.
One of the challenges of making this short movie, according to the filmmakers, was bringing the art of dumpling-making into the Pixar universe. The more realistic the dumpling, the more surprising the moment would be when it comes to life as a baby. “Computers are great at making non-organic and symmetrical, hard-shiny surfaces look realistic,“ Neiman-Cobb notes. “It’s not as easy for computers to make things that look organic, and things where the shape changes. And so that was one of the major visual-effects hurdles for us, but it was also equally as important that we get those looking right, because that’s sort of the physical manifestation of mom’s love in this short.”
For authenticity’s sake, Shi decided to bring her mom, Ningsha Zhong, into the Pixar offices on two occasions to make some dumplings for her team. The director says that it was “really important for the animators and effects artists and everyone on the crew to kind of see every single step that it took for her to make those dumplings, so we could record her actions and replicate them on the big screen as accurately as possible.” Shi also remarks that in the opening shots of the film, when the mom starts rolling and stuffing the dough, audiences will be seeing “basically my mom’s hands.” Zhong was invited to the premiere of Bao, and she’s getting a “cultural consultant credit” on the short film.
Bao and Incredibles 2 will be released in theaters everywhere on June 15. For anyone who wants an early taste of the short film, here’s Domee’s family recipe for dumplings, drawn by the director herself: