Pixar’s Domee Shi Puts a Magical Spin on Toronto in Turning Red

Share

The Chinese‑born, Toronto‑bred Pixar director first spotlighted her home city in her Oscar‑winning short, Bao. This month, she’s making her feature‑length debut with Turning Red – and Toronto is a star once more. 

When she was a kid growing up in Toronto, drawing was Domee Shi’s superpower. In school she was awkward and shy, but, armed with her sketchbook, she discovered she could communicate her ideas and even make new friends by doodling their favourite Pokémon characters. Eventually, her superpower catapulted her into the magical world of Pixar: first, as an intern, then a storyboard artist on Inside Out and, ultimately, a director. Shi’s eight‑minute film Bao, about a dumpling come to life, earned the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2019, making her the first woman of colour to win the category.

Now, Shi is releasing her debut feature‑length film, Turning Red, a coming‑of‑age story about Mei Lee, a nerdy Chinese‑Canadian girl growing up in Toronto in the early 2000s who turns into a giant red panda when she gets overly excited. The film’s a decidedly Canadian affair: Sandra Oh voices Mei’s mom, and Never Have I Ever’s Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is the voice of one of her best friends, while Timbits, TTC streetcars and the CN Tower all make cameos. We chatted with Shi, now based in the Bay Area, about the inspiration behind the film, her affinity for Toronto’s Chinatown and where she’s dreaming of travelling next.

March 9, 2022
Concept art and sketches from Turning Red: Mei looking in the mirror; a Toronto temple; Mei as Red Panda.
Concept art and sketches from Turning Red: Mei looking in the mirror; a Toronto temple; Mei as Red Panda.    Concept Art: Tom Gately and Rebecca Shieh

enRoute How did drawing become your special talent?

Domee Shi I’ve loved drawing since I was little. I think I got it from my dad because he’s an artist and painted all the time – I would hang out in his studio and watch him. My mom was very much your typical immigrant mom and education was super important for her, probably even more so because she was in academia. Both of my parents encouraged me to pursue art, but in a very immigrant‑parent way. Like, “Oh, you like drawing? Well, you better practise!”

ER What did you like to draw most? 

DS In elementary and middle school I was really into Sailor Moon, Pokémon and Cardcaptor Sakura. I loved anime because there was a lot more variety in the protagonists and the types of stories compared to Western cartoons at the time. I was like, “Oh, they have protagonists who are teen girls with magical powers and handsome boyfriends? That’s so cool!”   

ER After graduating from Sheridan College in 2011, you got an internship at Pixar. What were your early days there like? 

DS The story internship was like a three‑month boot camp. I knew almost nothing about filmmaking when I started: I liked anime, manga, comics and drawing, but I didn’t know anything about putting those drawings on screen and telling a story. Then, I got hired to work on Inside Out as a storyboard artist. I felt I could relate to it: It’s about going into the mind of a young girl. I was like, “I have experience with that!” At the time, the animation industry was a different place. There weren’t a lot of women at the studio and just a handful of us in a department of 30 or 40, but I think my point of view was valued because I was one of the only women in the room. 

ER How did you wind up making Bao

DS Pixar was asking for ideas for its next theatrical short and I signed up. It was like American Idol: You go into a room and there’s a panel of directors and producers. I kept making it through the rounds, and eventually Bao was green‑lit. As I was working on my pitch, I got some feedback that the story might be too dark because, at the end, the mom eats the dumpling. But Pete Docter, the director of Inside Out and now the chief creative officer of Pixar, encouraged me to pitch the original version. That gave me the confidence to embrace my quirky sense of humour, and it helped shape who I am as a storyteller and a filmmaker.  

Red Panda Mei reading with Miriam, Priya and Abby (digital concept art).
Red Panda Mei reading with Miriam, Priya and Abby.    Concept Art: Bill Cone

ER What was your inspiration for Turning Red

DS I wanted to tell a coming‑of‑age girl story. Turning Red was inspired by my relationship with my mom and how it evolved as I grew up and changed as a person – using magical red pandas as a metaphor for both puberty and change. Like Mei, my relationship with my mom started off really close. We did everything together – we went on bus tours to the Maritimes and to Disney World in Florida. But when I turned 13 and puberty hit, I started to change, and we grew a bit apart. Part of me didn’t want to lose that closeness, but it wasn’t something I could help – I was getting my own interests and group of friends. My mom and I are still close, but I think we have a more honest relationship than when we were two peas in a pod. As an Asian immigrant kid, I wanted to show a girl caught between these two worlds – it’s that experience of loving your parents and wanting to make them proud, but also wanting to come into your own.

ER How do you relate to the main character, Mei?  

DS She’s basically me when I was 13. Or, actually, who I wanted to be. I wanted to depict a protagonist that I haven’t seen enough of: a dorky nerd who is also very confident and oblivious to the fact that she’s a dweeb. That was me and my friends growing up. 

Mei listening to music with a friend (pen and ink concept art).
Mei listening to music with a friend (pen and ink concept art).    Concept Art: Arina Korczynski

ER A lot of Turning Red takes place in Chinatown. Did you and your family visit Toronto’s often? 

DS We came to Canada when I was two years old, so Chinatown was the only place that felt a little familiar. We’d go there to grocery shop and to eat out. My mom would buy clothes for me at the tourist shops, and I’d be so embarrassed. She’d get those three‑for‑$10 Canada T‑shirts, and I had to wear them to school. 

Red Panda Mei sitting on a rooftop overlooking the Toronto skyline (digital concept art).
Red Panda Mei sitting on a rooftop overlooking the Toronto skyline (digital concept art).    Concept Art: Bill Cone

ER What cultural landmarks will Torontonians spot in the film?

DS We took heavy inspiration from the Spadina Avenue and Dundas Street West area. There’s the sculpture of a cat on a chair on this giant beam, and a lot of semi‑detached houses where half is painted one colour and the other half another colour. We wanted to go to Toronto for research, but then the pandemic happened, so a lot of it was from my own memory, looking at photos from the early 2000s and then just going on Google Maps and “walking” around.

ER Lots of Hollywood films are shot in Toronto, but few are set in the city. Did you have to convince Pixar to set Turning Red in Toronto?

DS It was easy to convince them. I don’t know why, but Americans think Canadian things are kind of cute and offbeat. Toronto’s such a multicultural city, and when I was growing up and watching TV or movies that depicted schools and the life of teens and tweens, it never felt like how I grew up at all. Toronto is a mosaic of different cultures and people. With Turning Red, I wanted to celebrate and pay homage to the city that raised me. 

ER What do you miss most about living in Toronto?

DS The food. There’s really good food in the Bay Area, too, but there’s so much Chinese food in Toronto because of the huge immigrant population. The one thing that I haven’t found in the Bay Area yet is fancy Asian buffets. I remember my parents took me to a Mandarin Restaurant and we loved it. We would make a beeline for the crab legs and be like, “Ignore the carbs! Just go for the snow crab legs!”

ER Outside of visiting Toronto, where are some of your favourite places to travel? 

DS I love Japan, obviously, because it’s the birthplace of anime and manga. But I also like how you can find artisanal versions of every single thing in existence, like a cup of coffee or a pair of scissors made by a craftsman that cost $100. I went to the Amalfi Coast in Italy a couple years ago and it was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen – it was like Porco Rosso, the Hayao Miyazaki film that I love about an Italian pig pilot, in real life. I really like Shanghai, too: It’s such a cool modern city, but then there are neighbourhoods that are super old and historical. I want to go back.

   Concept Art: Bill Cone

The Questionnaire

  • Carry‑on essentials My iPhone charger, AirPods, and a Moleskine notebook and Muji 0.38 gel‑ink ballpoint pen, in case I want to draw something or write an idea down. 

  • Favourite souvenirs I collect magnets from every place I visit. I’m sad because I just moved to a new house and the refrigerator isn’t magnetized, so all my magnets are just in a box in my cupboard.

  • Dream seatmate Oprah. I think I’d be too afraid to strike up a conversation, but it would just be interesting to be a fly on the wall and see what she packs in her carry‑on and watches on the entertainment system. We could make small talk about the food. 

  • First travel memory Immigrating to Canada from China. I remember getting off the plane in St. John’s – we lived there for six months before moving to Toronto – and it being so freaking cold. 

  • Dream destination The U.K. When I was a kid I was a huge Anglophile – I loved Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Wallace & Gromit. I would geek out if I ever visited.

Domee Shi’s Toronto 

The Turning Red director shares six of her must‑visit spots.

Photo: Jackie Chou @jackiewanders
  1. Rol Jui Seafood Restaurant — Every time we went to Chinatown as a kid, we’d go to this restaurant and get the lobster. It’s low‑key and not fancy at all, and it had a lobster‑shaped neon sign in the front window. I actually had an allergy to lobster, but I powered through because it was that good. My mom would say, “Your lips are swelling!” and I wouldn’t care. 

  1. Art Gallery of Ontario — My dad, Le Shi, is an artist and we would go here to get inspired and sketch the visitors, or go to life‑drawing classes at OCAD University nearby. His paintings are shown at Bau‑Xi Gallery across the street. At the AGO, I discovered my favourite Canadian painters, including the Group of Seven, Emily Carr and Alex Colville. 

  1. The Beguiling — This is one of my favourite comic‑book stores – I loved perusing the shelves with my friends in high school. It’s the place to find indie comics, manga and alternative graphic novels that go beyond superhero stuff.

Photo: Christina and Dakota @chris.kota.eats
  1. Crown Prince Fine Dining and Banquet — Whenever I’m back in Toronto, my parents take me to this dim sum restaurant in North York. My go‑to order is shrimp dumplings, braised pork ribs and marinated chicken feet. The restaurant has such a unique interior design, it’s like tacky European. You’re eating your dim sum and looking at a giant framed print of Napoleon – it’s a trip.

Photo: Seyemon
  1. Pacific Mall — This giant mall in Markham is full of Asian vendors and shops, and clothing stores where you can get the latest trends from Hong Kong or Korea. I remember going there as a teenager and buying DVDs. It was the only place I could get anime – this was before streaming – and find the newest episodes of Naruto or One Piece. It’s like an Asian wonderland. 

  1. Koreatown North — The Koreatown in North York is newer and more developed than the one on Bloor Street West. I like to go and eat authentic Korean food, like gomtang, hit up a cute café – my college friends and I used to go to Café Princess because of its kitschy French interior – and then sing karaoke. My regular songs are “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse or “The Phantom of the Opera” if I’m feeling dramatic.