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.