Interview: Domee Shi and Lindsey Collins on the Responsibility of Turning Red

Director Domee Shi and producer Lindsey Collins discuss what the role of storytelling can be in creating change.

Domee Shi and Lindsey Collins on the Responsibility of Turning Red
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Pixar’s 25th feature, Turning Red, marks a key milestone for the animation studio: their first film directed solely by a woman. Domee Shi, already recognized with an Oscar for her work on the short film Bao, stands at the vanguard of generational change within the company. She’s among the cohort that grew up with Pixar movies and took the craft of their old guard to heart working on films like Inside Out and Incredibles 2. Yet she infuses their house style with a unique verve, demonstrating how a rising group of diverse animators can tell personal and culturally specific stories that maintain wide resonance.

Shi brings a mighty dose of imagination to her depiction of the turbulence of puberty for Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a Chinese-Canadian teen who discovers that she will transform into a giant red panda when her emotions run high. And as she’s navigating the challenges of family and adolescence while also exercising her independence, the chance of “poofing” into her panda self presents itself quite frequently. Through it all, her parents, Ming and Jin (voiced by Sandra Oh and Orion Lee), guide Mei to manage her panda until such time as she can contain it inside a trinket like previous generations of women in her family had.

But the more Mei comes to experience life through the fever pitch of her red panda incarnation, the more she comes to view the manifestation of her inner turmoil as something to be managed rather than vanquished. Turning Red, then, tells a story of finding emotional and familial balance, and it fits to sit alongside Pixar’s most beloved works.

Prior to the film’s home video release on May 3, I spoke with Shi and her producer Lindsey Collins about bringing Turning Red to life. Our conversation covered the pandemic’s influence on the film’s production, how they found the right characterization of Mei’s parents, and what the role of storytelling can be in creating change.

Domee, as a product of Pixar’s short-to-feature pipeline, what did working without dialogue teach you about the craft—and how did Lindsey help you level up?

Domee Shi: I was super grateful to have had the experience of working on a short before tackling a feature because of being exposed to the [animation] pipeline. But, also, working on this short without dialogue really just encouraged me and reminded me that animation is a visual medium. And if you can say something in a scene without dialogue, you should try to do that. Those are the most powerful moments in movies, I think, and especially animated movies—the ones that don’t have that that barrier of like dialogue. Everyone can watch it and understand the feelings of the characters without a word being spoken. That was something that we constantly struggled with and worked on, especially with the emotional scenes. Or the funny moments: if there’s a way to get that laugh without a line—or if the line is short and sweet. That’s how we operated when we made the movie.

I’m very appreciative of Lindsey’s experience and knowledge. Not just in making feature films, but from the perspective of a mom of a teenager. I didn’t realize how useful that would be.

Lindsey Collins: Yeah, mom of three teenagers, yikes! We always have incredibly talented people come through Pixar, and I’ve had the honor of working with a lot of them. But Domee does stand out among her peers in a way that she’s got such a confident sense of her voice and what her style is. There’s a boldness to it, not in an arrogant way but a confidence to say, “This is what I’m looking for,” and not shying away from a different kind of sensibility and tone. I think that’s what attracts us to any kind of filmmaker, no matter where you are.

For me, I was definitely feeling if I had the opportunity, I’d jump at it—like, please! And, not to mention, being part of Pixar’s first solo female filmmaker was pretty special too. There’s a lot of it that felt really challenging for me because I had to adjust my way of working and rethink [things]. And, obviously, the pandemic happened, so all kinds of things were thrown in there that were the first time. But it’s so nice to kind of feel that way again after you’ve worked with somebody for so long, or you’ve gotten very comfortable with how things are getting made. To have to figure it all out again and do it for the first time with a feature filmmaker who’s telling a very different type of story—all of those things are so invigorating and exciting.


So Turning Red went into production right as the pandemic was beginning?

LC: Yeah, I think we were in editorial—no joke—on the day they were like, “Alright, we’re shutting it down,” as we were trying to launch the very first scene, which was when Mei goes to the Daisy Mart for her crush. We were trying to get that into animation and to start our very first scene, and it was like, “Okay, we’re going home…but maybe for a few days!”

How did that change your roles as director and producer? Do you think this context shaped the movie in any unexpected ways?

LC: Yeah, I do. I think, in a weird way, it was great that, in a sense, nobody knew what they were doing. Whether it was your first film or your 15th, we were all trying to figure it out. Nobody was an expert anymore on anything—especially when you’re making a film about vulnerability and how you deal with the mess that is life. Meanwhile, behind our screens, kids were running around, dogs were fighting, people were muted and not intending to be muted, so there was so much messiness that was part of working from home. That, I think, in a weird way just really brought the crew together. We had a really strong kind of crew that really loved this movie because it brought a lot of joy to them as they were making it.

YouTube video

One common trapping of coming-of-age movies, particularly those reflecting the lived experiences of a creator, is that they tend to flatten parental characters and make them valuable only as they pertain to the teenager’s experience. How did you ensure Mei’s parents were full characters in their own right and not just accessories to the story?

DS: I think we realized that that was part of her journey. In order to come of age, grow up, and mature—that’s something that you learn about your parents. They’re not just a barrier or a jail warden. They’re humans, and they were once you. They went through the same struggles and fears and anxieties that you went through. That came a little later because when I first pitched the idea for Turning Red, the mom was a little bit more one-note. She was kind of the antagonist whose mind needed to be changed. She was that wall for Mei.

But, then, the more I dug into my own relationship with my mom—and I think a lot of immigrant kids and their parents—it’s not so black and white. You’re actually really close with your parents, and they’re not the enemy. Me and my mom were really close, but then puberty hit. I started changing and we started fighting all the time, but I still wanted to be her good little daughter. It’s a more nuanced and complicated internal struggle. That was important for us to put in the movie because we wanted the film to feel specific to this character.

It was a turning point in the story when we wrote that that scene near the end with Mei meeting her mom as a teenager. We realized that that was the missing piece to Mei’s journey. Yes, she’s emancipated from her family and free, but that last step into adulthood is empathy for that person who you thought was like an antagonist this whole time.

LC: For Jin, in a weird way, you know you have a character right when everybody wants more of that character. We were getting a lot of notes along the lines of, “Why isn’t he in more? Why doesn’t he say more?” When we screened it for a test audience, Jin was one of their favorite characters. It was really the confidence of Domee that I talked about to be, “No, no, that is his role. He doesn’t talk a lot, but when he does, it’s the very thing that needs to be said at that moment in time to get his wife and his daughter where they need to be. The impact of his words will only be that forceful if we are restrained.” There were very kind of conscious and nuanced choices being made throughout to try to land that plane.


Particularly in mother-daughter stories, it feels like the father rarely gets to play such a pivotal emotional role. Do you remember the genesis of the moment between Mei and Jin bonding over the video camera footage of her dancing?

DS: Yeah, it felt natural that he would be the person to give Mei those words of advice. Because he’s been watching them the whole time and being supportive on the sidelines. He’s not just off to work. If you watch the movie again, he’s helping pick up all the objects and stuff that Ming and Mei are knocking over when they’re fighting with each other. He’s cooking for them and making sure they’re fed. He’s been watching and listening and understanding what’s going on, but he knew this was something they need to work out on their own. But in this moment, he sees his daughter is shut down. That felt true to real life too. I feel like anytime I had a fight with one of my parents, the other one kind of played the mediator.

LC: I love the fact that Jin actually really loved it. He likes that part of Mei. This whole time that she’s been like, “It’s horrible being the panda!” He was like, “She was amazing!” It felt also like this really great, slightly romantic moment that he’s sharing about her mom with his daughter and a different perspective on it, which was nice.

Turning Red strikes me as a lovely companion piece to Inside Out as both Mei and Riley ultimately learn to embrace the messiness and contradiction of growing up, in ways that perhaps their parents or ancestors have not. Is that just a coincidence or is there thematic contagion that migrates across projects at Pixar?

DS: Oh, I don’t think it’s a coincidence! I feel so grateful that I was able to work on Inside Out as my first feature film at Pixar. Being on a film that actively encouraged me to go back to being 13 and unpack what was happening in my head at the time, I think that inspired me and prepped me for this movie. Seeing how well it did, too, was also very inspiring. People want to see this! People identify with these types of memories and stories and characters that I kind of brushed into the back of my brain. It’s funny, I worked on Inside Out for two or two-and-a-half years, and I feel like all of the weird ideas and gags I pitched that Pete rejected I just put in this one. I’m pretty sure I probably had Riley drawing mermen or something like that, and Pete was like, “Hmm, I’m confused. I don’t know what that is.”

Having been through the process of sharing Turning Red with the world, how do you feel about the idea that “the best way for our company to bring about lasting change is through the inspiring content we produce?” Can movies change hearts and minds?

LC: Yeah. For sure. We don’t presume to be making things that last, but it certainly is a responsibility that we feel. All of us grew up watching Disney movies all the way through our youth. They were these formative stories that we tap into as we make our own films, but also just as memories of kids growing up. We don’t presume that that we’re always going to make something that lands in that category, but if it does, we need to be responsible for what it is that we’re putting out there because we all have those memories of these films growing up and how they changed us or introduced us to things that we hadn’t seen or done before. We don’t make them to not have impact. We make them with the hope that they do, and therefore there’s a huge responsibility that comes with it. So, yeah, I think they can change the world.

DS: I think a lot of it are like a lot of it comes from the people that make these films. I think it’s very admirable to go into a project being like, “I’m going to change the world!” But I have so much excitement and hope for the future from seeing companies like Pixar really investing in and bringing up this new generation of filmmakers from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences. I think that is the best way for a lot of companies, including Disney, to change the world. To invest in these creative people and just trusting them to tell their stories. I feel lucky that Pixar has done that for us and for Turning Red.

Marshall Shaffer

Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based film journalist. His interviews, reviews, and other commentary on film also appear regularly in Slashfilm, Decider, and Little White Lies.

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