‘Turning Red’ Blazes a Trail for Female Animators and Storytellers

Pixar has changed the way we see animated films since they released Toy Story, their first theatrical feature, in 1996. But, while they have made great strides to change the visual and narrative language of animated cinema, the studio has also affirmed its commitment to be more inclusive and deliver content that reflects the world we live in today. That’s why shorts like Sanjay’s Super Team and films like Coco and Soul are crucial because those films feature people of color in lead roles as real people with real stories that authentically reflect their lives and not cliched characters.

But Pixar’s desire to foster a more inclusive culture wasn’t just happening on screen. It was happening behind the scenes as well. In 2016, the studio hired Britta Wilson as vice president of inclusion and outreach to help bring more diversity to the studio’s hiring and storytelling. In 2018, they launched Sparkshorts, a program designed to explore new storytelling techniques and experiment with new production styles through a series of shorts. Many of these shorts are directed by women and people of color.

And Pixar’s upcoming film extends the studio’s push to foster more diversity on and off the screen. Directed by Domee Shi, who also helmed the Academy Award-winning Bao, Turning Red centers on a confident Chinese-Canadian 13-year-old girl struggling to balance honoring her mother and navigating the complexities of adolescence. But one day, she discovers that whenever she gets too excited or stressed, she turns into a giant red panda.

As more and more studios embrace diversity within their staff, audiences are starting to see stories from different perspectives. These stories reflect the world that we live in now, but they allow key audience members to see themselves in the film on the screen. So not only is it essential to have these stories, but it is also essential that it comes from an honest place. And for Pixar’s Turning Red, it does that. It is the first of the Pixar films to be directed by a woman and the first to have an all-female leadership on a feature film.

For Shi, she knows how meaningful it is to be among the first to blaze a trail for future Asian storytellers working in the industry. “I just think, you know, we’re just starting to see big Hollywood Studios kind of embrace stories from different sources, which is awesome,” she said. “And I think for Pixar to you know, they’ve always kind of been at the forefront of pushing storytelling, ever since Toy Story. They came out with this buddy comedy, CG movie when the trend was, you know, animated Princess musicals. And I think, you know, Pixar has always wanted and strives to tell different meaningful stories. And I think now they’re tapping into different kinds of storytellers. And I feel very honored to be one of many to come.”

FRIENDS FOREVER – In Disney and Pixar’s all-new original feature film “Turning Red,” 13-year-old Mei Lee, a confident-but-dorky teenager with a tightknit group of friends who are passionate about a boy band called 4-Town. Featuring the voices of Rosalie Chiang, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan and Hyein Park as Mei, Miriam, Priya and Abby, “Turning Red” opens in theaters on March 11, 2022. © 2021 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

But the significance of being the first woman and woman of color to direct a Pixar feature doesn’t stop there. Turning Red’s entire leadership is comprised of an all-female team. “I’ve been surrounded by incredibly talented women throughout my career at Pixar, so it’s not surprising that we landed a team of women at the top, but it was also incredibly exciting,” producer Lindsey Collins said. “Once we assembled the team, we all had to learn how to embrace the awkward and awesome 13-year-old versions of ourselves. And the truth is that I cannot say for certain if being led by an all-women leadership team had a quantifiable effect on the movie or how we made it. Because, after all, we’ve all worked on several movies here. So it’s not really tangible or explainable.”

Despite not being able to put a quantifiable effect on having an all-female led team working on the Turning Red, Collins sees how much of an impact it has had on the film’s production for the past four years. But I do know that working on this movie every day and looking around our production process. “That kind of indescribable spirit of pride and excitement and fun. It just shines through in the movie. And you’ll eventually hopefully get to see the whole thing. And feel that same feeling on the screen,” she said.

So while Turning Red breaks those barriers and shatters the glass ceiling, it also paves the way for marginalized storytellers to pitch their stories and for studios to embrace diversity fully. It’s a significance of dual importance for Shi. “It’s an honor. And again, hopefully, we are one of many female-led film teams to come,” she said. “I wanted to make this movie for the, between me growing up not just for the subject matter, but also just to show girls and, and kids that, you know, that women and women of color can lead big feature film productions and it be successful. And I think that’s super cool.”

Turning Red launches exclusively on Disney+ on March, 11, 2022.