Turning Red's Domee Shi and Lindsey Collins Preview Pixar's Adorable, Awkward Epic

By Jenna Anderson
Next month will see the release of Turning Red, the latest film in the decades-long collaboration between Disney and Pixar. The film chronicles the story of Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chang), a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl growing up in Toronto in the early 2000s. Torn between staying her mother’s, Ming Lee’s (Sandra Oh), dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence, Mei’s world is further complicated when she begins to undergo puberty, which causes her to literally “poof” into a giant red panda when she gets excited or stressed out. Bringing the story of Turning Red to life is an impressive cast and crew, led by director and co-writer Domee Shi (Bao, Toy Story 4), who is the first woman to solely direct a feature film for the studio. Shi and an all-female leadership team — including veteran Pixar producer Lindsey Collins (Finding Dory, WALL-E) — injected Turning Red with all of the heart, humor, and universal awkwardness of growing up, while telling a unique story.
ComicBook.com recently got a chance to chat with Shi and Collins about what audiences can expect from Turning Red, and how the film’s development process accomplished paved so much new ground for Pixar.
ComicBook.com: You’ve both spoken about how heartfelt and weird Turning Red is, and watching the footage, it definitely got the quirkiness of being a tween girl down to a T. I know I had notebooks under my bed for all of the boys I had crushes on, so thank you for representing the girls who were like that. What can you say about the approach to being a tween girl in this film? It feels so specific and so universal at the same time.
Domee Shi: For us, it was just important not to shy away from all of the awkward, cringey moments and memories that we all had of being a tween. Moments of being under your bed and going into a lusty drawing spiral in your secret sketchbook, or of magical puberty hitting you in the middle of class of your classroom and your mom horribly embarrassing you. I think for us, if it could give us a visceral reaction in the story room, we knew we had to put it somewhere in the movie. I think, if the whole message of the movie is Mei embracing all of this messy change in her life, her body, her relationship with her mom and her friends, that meant we also had to embrace the mess in our childhood and adolescence as well.
Lindsey Collins: From the beginning, it was really important for Domee, and for all of us really, to not represent Mei as broken in any way. She didn’t need to get fixed. Who you meet in the beginning of the movie is a kid whose confident and dorky and comfortable in her own skin, and has her great relationships with her friends and her parents. So nothing is wrong necessarily, it’s just that when she hits puberty and she turns into the giant red panda, it just throws her whole world upside down.
So it was how she’s going to deal with it, and how it affects her relationship with her parents and stuff. I love that. It wasn’t about, “Oh, well, we’re going to take this broken character and fix her by the end of the movie, or we’re going to represent her in a way that feels maybe one-note.” She’s this great, complicated, funny, confident and super likable kid, that’s just going through something that every single [one of us goes through]. She just happens to be going through it in a very magical way.
For Lindsey — I love that Turning Red has Pixar’s first all female leadership team. How can you say that that impacted bringing the story to life?
Collins: I think in the same way we’re having this conversation and you’re like, “Oh, I totally get it.” That was very much the situation on the film. It was conversations about this character and about what she’s going through and all the painful and awkward moments. Those were all shared experiences at our level. So it was something that, I think, allowed Domee and our writer and the rest of the team to just be really bold, and to not second guess those choices in the story. When we were going through the massive iterations, we didn’t, by mistake, water it down internally. I think that’s really cool, that we had this very different tone of a film, and it was a tone that was totally supported by common experience, frankly.
For Domee, Bao totally pulled on my heartstrings when I first watched it, and it seems like Turning Red is going to do the same. Can you tease the emotion that’s at the center of the story, while also telling such a lighthearted and earnest story at the same time?
Shi: Yeah, I think with this movie, you are really trying to just highlight the struggle of a lot of immigrant kids and Asian kids and in Mei. She’s this kid caught between two worlds, east and west. But also, she’s at this point in her life where she’s going into adulthood from childhood. She’s caught between being a human and a beast. Just watching her navigate through the ups and downs of this magical puberty experience, hopefully people who watch it will remember what it was like for them when they were that age too. And also just know that there is no perfect relationship with your parent, and that’s okay. I think that’s something that she is going to have to come to terms with, and the red panda helps her understand that, that there will always be this messiness in her life.
Speaking of the red panda, what was the most interesting fact about red pandas that you learned over the course of this journey?
Shi: Oh, for me, it was that they are actually omnivores, but they just choose to eat bamboo because they’re so freaking lazy. And I was like, “Oh, I could relate to that.” That feels like such a teenager trait as well, that they just spend their entire days just eating junk food nonstop.
Collins: Yeah, I just love they’re lazy too. They sleep a lot and during the day — again, seems very teenagery. They’re super playful when they’re awake, but for the rest of the time, they’re literally lazy, just lying down in a tree and curled up and stuff. Watching them move and a lot of their mannerisms were really funny, and fun to echo in the animation to some degree. But also just some of these traits of — they eat junk food and they sleep a lot during the day. I love that.
For Domee, there are so many creative techniques used in the film that are so fascinating to watch, especially hearing that so many of them are firsts for Pixar. Were there any visual influences or sources of inspiration where you were like, “This is so specific, but I can’t believe we’re like making this work in this context”?
Shi: Oh yeah. I was really excited to do anime sweat drops in 3D, and I didn’t know what that would look like. It was really fun iterating with the effects team “What does 3D sweat look like?” We did a lot of trial and error, where the first pass they brought back to me literally looked like realistic water pouring down Mei’s face, like somebody held a hose to her head. And that was funny, but not really the style that we were going for. And then we figured out some way to really thicken the liquid on the actual sweat itself, and treat it more like glue, so that it could keep like a very appealing beaded shape when it rolls down her face. And then seeing it in the final shots, I think it was really successful and really funny.
For both of you, what are you most excited to see audiences respond to once Turning Red comes out?
Shi: I’m just excited to surprise the audience, and subvert their expectations going into this movie. Because I feel people probably think, “Oh, we’re good. We’re going on a cute ride with this cute girl turning into a cute panda and everything’s going to stay light and colorful and fluffy.” But we go pretty deep and dark at some points in the movie as well, because we are talking about adolescence and growing up, and we don’t shy away from more serious topics. I think people are going to be very surprised when they watch the movie, in a good way.
Collins: I think I’m excited for audiences to have those visceral reactions. It’s like, “Oh my God! I can’t!” Surprise is probably the right word. Shock? I don’t know. But that we actually go places that we probably haven’t gone before in Pixar, and that elicit the emotions of cringe or like, “Oh my God!”, embarrassing moments, and those visceral feelings. I’m not sure we’ve tapped into that in our audiences in the past, so I’m excited to do that on this film.
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Turning Red is set to be released on March 11th exclusively on Disney+.
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