Domee Shi was a Pixar story artist in 2014 when an idea inspired by her Chinese parents and a love of food launched her on a creative journey. That journey ended with Shi becoming the first woman director of a Pixar short, and an Oscar nominee, too.
“I was mainly inspired by my own life as an only child to two Chinese parents, but especially my mom,” says Shi, 29, from her home in Oakland recently. “She’s always been overprotective of me, coddling me, smothering me like a precious little dumpling.
“So I decided to tell the story through her point of view, and I think by doing that I understand her more,” she says. “I think I understand the idea of loving something and letting it go.”
That’s the heart of “Bao,” the 8-minute short released in theaters with “Incredibles 2” in June. A Chinese-Canadian mother – Shi was raised in Toronto, and the film includes landmarks of that city – discovers that one of her dumplings has come to life. She raises it as her son, tries to keep him as close as can be, and when he decides to marry and move she – spoiler alert – swallows him whole to possess him ever after.
It’s a sweet and slightly dark, emotional and ultimately happy allegorical short, which for Shi is a most personal story, too.
“I thought food was a great metaphor and vessel to tell this story of a mother and her love for her child,” Shi says. “Chinese immigrant parents won’t say, ‘I love you,’ or ‘I’m proud of you’ to a kid, but they’ll say, ‘Are you hungry? Have you eaten?’
“I wanted to use food as that language, that expression of love,” she says.
Shi laughs as she describes how much she and her colleagues debated what kind of dumpling the dumpling baby should be: “‘Oh, is he like a shumai? Or a xiao long bao?’”
He ended up being “a hybrid between a Shanghai soup dumpling and a steamed bun, which isn’t really a dumpling,” Shi says. “We just loved how glossy and shiny steamed buns look but we also loved the size of dumplings.” His soul patch, when the dumpling son is old enough to move out, is drawn as individual sesame seeds in place of actual whiskers.
Shi had been working on the project on the side for a few years when Pixar announced it would hold an open call for pitches to make the next Pixar short from anyone who worked at the studio. She submitted three ideas, and out of 50 or so who pitched hers was chosen.
The significance of that honor was not lost on her, she says.
“I felt really excited and honored to be the first, but also I felt that pressure of being the first,” she says. “Like, I hope I don’t ruin it for the rest of the women.”
She laughs and continues. “One of the burdens of being the first is you’re kind of representing the whole group,” Shi says. “I kept thinking, ‘If this ends up bombing and people don’t like it, please don’t let it be blamed on me being a woman or being Chinese, just that I didn’t direct it well.’”
She need not have worried: In January, Shi and producer Becky Neiman-Cobb nabbed a nominated for the Academy Award for best nominated short, news that out of superstition she didn’t learn until she woke up that morning and saw a flood of congratulations on her phone.
“I was just laying in my bed and I looked at my phone and went, ‘Woo!,’” Shi says. “To myself. In my bed. In the dark. Yeah. That whole day it just felt like a weird dream.”
In addition to adding diversity to Pixar’s team in both gender and age – Shi is just 29, but has worked at Pixar since interning there in 2011 – the focus of “Bao” on a Chinese-themed story is also important, Shi says.
“With ‘Bao’ receiving all this love, and other movies, too, like, ‘Coco’ and ‘Sanjay’s Super Team,’ studios are willing to take more creative risks,” she says. “I think it will pay off.”
She’s currently in pre-production on a Pixar feature, writing the story, and waiting for it to be greenlit, but just the fact that she was asked to direct a Pixar feature – something only one other woman has done at the studio – is beyond thrilling, Shi says.
“Oh man, it’s the same feeling as when they greenlit ‘Bao’ but multiplied by a thousand,” she says, before describing the rush of thoughts that accompanied the news: “Oh my gosh, I’m so grateful. Oh my gosh, I’m so honored. Oh my gosh, I better not screw this up for all the people I’m representing as a woman and a minority and a person under 30.”
As for her parents, well, they couldn’t be prouder, Shi says, though they’ve also stayed true to their nature.
“They couldn’t be prouder,” she says. “To them, it’s like their immigrant dreams have been realized in me, although they do say even if I didn’t end up directing anything or get nominated they would love me no matter. But they’re very much still Chinese parents.”
Her father, an artist, said he loved “Boa” but also wanted to share some notes with her on the colors it used.
“My mom will congratulate me but remind me to be humble and be respectful to my seniors at work,” Shi says. “And I’m like, ‘Thanks, mom, for that advice I didn’t ask for.’”