Pixar’s Turning Red is a film unlike any other. Directed by Domee Shi, the film centers on Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang), a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian girl torn between being the dutiful daughter to her mother (Sandra Oh) and navigating the chaos of adolescence. But her life gets turned upside-down when she discovers she turns into a giant red panda if she gets too excited.
Though the story may be fantastical, the real-life mother and daughter dynamics help ground the film. And the contrasts between fantasy and reality make for a great metaphor to tell audiences about the experience of becoming an adult and the messiness of the parent-child relationship.
The Nerds of Color joined their fellow journalists to watch the first 30 minutes of Turning Red. Then, after getting the sneak peek of the film, we all sat in on a virtual presentation with Shi, producer Lindsey Collins, and several other department heads to talk about Shi’s vision, the visual language, and the anime influences seen in the film.
Turning Red marks a significant landmark for Pixar Animation, as it is the first film to be directed by a woman of color. But it wasn’t the first time that Shi broke the glass ceiling in that studio. She was also the first woman to solo direct their shorts – the Academy Award-winning Bao. However, while Bao offered a glimpse of a small slice of life animated short of an empty nester mother coping with the absence of her son, it had an eight-minute runtime. But for a mother-daughter story, Shi would need an entire film to unpack that.
“I was soon given the opportunity to do a lot of unpacking when Pixar asked me to pitch some ideas for a feature film. And when you go into development at Pixar, you are asked to pitch three ideas,” Shi said. “So you’re basically not putting all of your eggs into one basket. And all of my ideas were coming-of-age teen girls stories because that was something I was super passionate about telling. And at the time, it wasn’t something that I saw a lot in media and animated films.”
But out of all three ideas, Turning Red was the most personal to Shi because it’s based on her own relationship with her mother. That slice of life story is a familiar experience to many parents and children and allows the audience to connect to the characters on screen. The cultural specificities also enable us to see the emotional and psychological development from a Chinese Canadian teenage girl’s perspective. The authenticity allows for a more engaging story, while the red panda transformation makes it weird and a fun metaphor for transitioning from adolescence to adulthood.
Born in Mainland China and then immigrating to Toronto, Canada, at the age of two, Shi was an only child and very close to her mother since her father was always at work. They did everything together, from commutes to work and school to going on bus trips and vacations. But as Shi started to get older, her interests began to change. She began to get into anime and boy bands, which her mother couldn’t quite understand. That story of the universal struggle of honoring your parents and staying true to yourself serves as the beating heart of Turning Red.
Though the coming of age story is timeless, Shi set Turning Red in early 2000s Canada. Shi wanted to steer away from the current news of the pandemic and social media and focus on “the height of teen pop mania in the late ’90s, early 2000s,” which was full of boy bands, pop idols, flip phones, CDs, Jelly bracelets, and Tamagotchis.
Shi was also drawn to the multicultural aspect of Toronto. She wanted to celebrate the mosaic of different cultures, languages, and traditions in one city. By having Mei as the lead, Shi brings authenticity to her experiences of being a Chinese-Canadian teenage girl and a reflection of the world that we live in today. “We wanted them to reflect the diversity I saw in my friend groups at school. I was lucky to grow up surrounded by many immigrants and Asian kids like myself. Maybe because I’m an only child, I always managed to find a group of girlfriends who became my support system, like Mei with her friends,” she said. “And we really want Mei and her friends to feel real and reflect kids and friends that you had growing up. Dorky, sweaty, sometimes gross, but ultimately loving and supportive of each other.”
But Turning Red represents something more significant to those who feel underrepresented in media sharing these stories with rich cultural specificities. “I made this wanting a movie like this when I was Mei’s age, when I was 13, to try to help me navigate through this tumultuous time in my life growing up,” Shi said. “It’d be cool to point to a film or a piece of media that goes like, ‘Hey, this part of your life is going to be messy. And it’s going to be scary and funny and awkward and embarrassing, but it’s going to be okay. You’re going to survive. Oh, we’ve all been through it, and it’s going to be okay.’ So that was kind of my inspiration for making this film.”
But characters and dynamics were one thing. Getting the look and feel was another. “In order to achieve our Asian tween fever dream look, we had to figure out how to stylize 3d animation, which is a super-challenging task, because 3d is default is hyperrealism,” Shi said. “How do we abstract the world enough to feel unique while also rich enough to feel immersive? Like you’re actually in the Lee family temple? We’re actually there with me covered in thick, dense, smelly panda fur.” This would prove to be quite a challenge for Pixar since it would use a visual language never seen before in a Pixar film. Luckily producer Lindsay Collins started to assemble a team of talented artists to achieve the desired look.
20-year Pixar vet Collins’ producing credits that include Wall-E and Finding Dory. After stepping away from that position to become Vice President of Development at Pixar and pioneering the Sparkshorts program, Collins was eager to return production. And she found herself back in that role with Turning Red. “I saw this as a real opportunity to bring my experience to a first-time filmmaker who had a very distinct and unique point of view, while also rethinking kind of all of Pixar standard approach to filmmaking,” Collins said.
To capture that friendship and teen spirit, Shi came up with the idea to record videos of themselves to inspire Turning Red‘s intro and general vibe. This also helped Mei’s friends feel distinct and to have their own personalities so that audiences felt they all brought something special to the friendship.
Shi described the video as “dorky and funny” and reminiscent of the chronicles of teenagers with attitude. The video would also give an idea of the energy and vibe of Turning Red. In it, we see her speaking to the camera, talking about her lack of filter, making people laugh, and doing spontaneous cartwheels 24/7 365. But, of course, that was juxtaposed with the reality that they were adults and had to comply with union and labor laws which made it nine to five and 261.
The video project also inspired the crew to bring their old middle school yearbooks and share stories of their awkward moments in middle school. “As a team, we just really tried to be real with one another about our daily failures and our daily successes. And it was an energy I hadn’t experienced before, frankly, on a feature film,” Collins said.
After the crew was assembled, Pixar needed to find their Mei Lee. At first, East Bay’s Rosalie Cheng was a temp voice for the character. However, Cheng proved that she was more than perfect for the role as the year went on. “Nobody came close,” Collins said. “Rosalie had become the main character Mei, and there was no other choice in our minds.”
Miriam, Abby, and Pyria make up Mei’s circle of friends. As aforementioned, they also reflect the multiculturalism that exists in Toronto. They also happen to be based on Shi’s childhood friends. Newcomer Ava Morse voices Miriam, who is described as the coolest best friend anyone could have. The team loved her “cool tomboy vibe” and praised her awesome singing voice, which they needed considering the characters’ love for boy bands. Abby, voiced by Hyein Park, is the friend you want by your side. “She’s not afraid to throw a punch in defense of her bestie,” Collins said. “She’s like the muscle of the group.” And then there’s Pyria. Voiced by Never Have I Ever‘s and fellow Canadian Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. According to Collins, Ramakrishnan captured the goth girl vibe through an “intentional monotone performance.”
But when it came to finding the voice for Ming, Mei Lee’s mother, Sandra Oh was an obvious choice. “We couldn’t imagine finding someone better. She’s Canadian, first of all, but most importantly, she brings a warmth and humanity to Mei that we found was so important,” Collins said.
It was also essential to bring the authentic mother experience to the film. Collins also had the responsibility of representing the moms who have experienced what Shi is trying to say through Mei Lee and Ming. “I was actually probably one of the few people representing a mom of a teen, I have three so at the moment, so I was kind of both relating as a former 13-year-old girl myself, but certainly relating to kind of the issues now coming from the perspective of a mom,” she said. “I’ve been talking with Domee, the writer and story team, it was always kind of coming from a place of like, okay, ‘well, we’re kind of being too harsh on the mom.’ I mean, I think they don’t necessarily always know what they’re doing. And, you know, I was always kind of bringing my own daily experiences of having certainly two girls who are right in that same age range.”
While the story resonates with many parents, the producer wanted to ensure that Shi’s voice shone through the film. So not only does Shi’s experiences add authenticity to the story, but it reflects in Mei’s arc. “I think that’s kind of baked into the premise of the of the story, you know, like this is specifically about this Chinese immigrant kid and her struggle with being kind of caught in the middle between two worlds, east and west, animal and human, her friends and her mom and her parents,” she said.
Shi saw the importance of telling this story from the perspective of an immigrant child being pulled by two worlds from different sides, especially when it comes to the kids who do all they can to impress their parents. “This more nuanced kind of story that is not a more typical story of a militant parent putting the pressure on a kid who just wants to break free,” she said. “I think for me, her struggle is very unique and specific to a lot of immigrant kids, a lot of Chinese kids and that she genuinely loves her mom. She looks up to her mom, this perfect goddess woman that she’s scared of but also loves and wants to impress. She genuinely wants to keep the relationship close. Still, she’s realizing throughout the movie that it’s becoming impossible because she’s growing up in this Western environment in Toronto with her friends. She’s growing into a different person from her mom, and that’s the kind of thing she has to come to terms with.”
Those cringey moments in Turning Red are drawn from Shi’s real-life experiences, which we can all relate to in one form or another. In the very first trailer, we saw how Mei’s mom, Ming, not-so-subtly hovered over her child from outside her classroom. Though she tried to stay hidden, her classmates instantly spotted her and started to pass notes alerting her that she was behind a tree. Later on, we would see a security guard who forced her out of hiding. Of course, this only made things worse for Mei, as she started to make a scene. “I definitely had a similar moment to me on my first day of middle school, when, you know, walking out of school with my newly found friends. One of them taps me on the shoulder and whispers, ‘Who is that lady hiding behind a tree with sunglasses on staring at us,’ Shi recalled. “And I look up, and it is my mother. And she kind of locks eyes with me and sheepishly steps out from behind the tree, and goes, ‘Oh, hey, tell me just wanted to check in on you, play with your new friends, I’ll just watch you from back here.’ It was very lovely, and yes, then I had to include that. Again. You know, I’m unpacking stuff in this movie.”
Shi learned a lot from those real-life moments that make their way into Turning Red, and she hopes that both teens and parents can understand that growing up is messy. “It’s not always going to be fun and roses, it’s going to be cringey and awkward and embarrassing, and it can get scary sometimes too, but it’s gonna be okay. You’re going to be okay. You’re going to make it out alive,” she said. “On the other end. Things will be different. You’ll have to let go of some things that you grew up loving, but that’s just okay.”
Collins echoed Shi’s sentiments. “My hope is that it’s a bit of a recognizing the difficulty on both sides so that kids can look at it and be like, ‘Oh, I can see why this is hard for my parents,’ and parents can remind themselves, ‘this is really a tough time for kids too.’