Disney Pixar Short Film Bao: Meet the first Female Director at Pixar

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I previewed the Pixar short film Bao at a press media event that was covered by Disney Pixar.

original Bao short film poster Disney Pixar

The very first activity (besides taking pictures of Pixar of course!) was to watch the new Pixar short film Bao and meet its director (Domee Shi), producer (Becky Neiman), and production designer (Rona Liu). In fact I ate dinner with these amazing ladies and it was so inspiring! I learned so much and even they learned things about each other that they didn’t know while I was chatting with them!

Domee Shi is Pixar’s first female director which is an awesome accomplishment! With a deep love of anything at all related to food and fairy tales, she was inspired by her mom’s journey through the empty nesting years to create Bao. (the Gingerbread Man is a favorite food folk tale for Domee!)

What does the word “Bao” mean?

In Chinese, the word Bao actually has two meanings. It means “precious treasure” or “steamed bun” depending on how it is used- both of which fittingly describe this Pixar short film.

What is Bao about?

I love Pixar short films because they are so simple yet have such deep meanings. The newest Pixar short film Bao, perhaps, made me reflect the most and really touched me! The director, Domee Shi, loosely based Bao on her mother who was a recent empty nester. She wanted to draw out the emotional journey of a mother and the story of Bao is told from a mom’s point of view. Children grow up and parents have to accept that change through each phase of life – but it doesn’t mean it’s easy! Bao, the star dumpling in the film, starts out as a cute cuddly dumpling that grows up but then grows into his own person and continues through life leaving mom struggling to let her son go.

FUN FACT: Chinese art is not concerned with perfection. Bao creators left no perfect edge or line in the short film.

The Creation of Bao:

The creators of Bao spent 4 years working on this Pixar short film which was loosely inspired by Domee’s own life (technically her moms life!). Domee Shi started working on Bao in January 2014! She ties in her Chinese heritage in a weird spin on a Chinese version of a fairy tale. I love that she wove in her cultural roots to share with the world.

original Bao short film clip Disney Pixar drawings
Photo credit: Disney Pixar

Domee wanted to celebrate Chinatown grannies – an unsung hero! Many trips were taken down to Chinatown in San Francisco where she observed people at the markets. What did they wear? How did they shop? Were there kids? How were babies carted around by their moms? She spent a lot of time sketching Chinatown grannies as she called them and noticed that many of them work comfy shoes and floral shirts.

FUN FACT: Domee’s mom, who the short film Bao is loosely inspired by, actually came into Pixar to make dumplings for the Pixar artists to watch.


original Bao short film clip Disney Pixar drawings
Photo credit: Disney Pixar


Integrating Chinese culture:

Rona Liu was in charge of overseeing the look of everything in the new Pixar short film Bao. This included the set, color, cohesiveness, etc. She was heavily impressed by Chinese folk art and noticed that Chinese folk art often omitted joints and necks on figures to make characters look rounder and cuter. She also recognized that houses in Asian art also make the smaller things in life the focus, so she kept the backgrounds in Bao simplified to magnify what was important. With Chinese art you often have the basic essence of houses but with 1/10th of the detail.

Challenges in Moving from 2D to 3D Animation:

Bao short film clip Disney Pixar animated
Photo credit: Disney Pixar

There are always challenges when converting a 2D drawing into a 3D animation. After all you can’t make hair move fluidly in 2D or dough squish. There are three specific areas of challenge below that the Pixar team faced in creating the Bao short film.

Cartoony Eyes:

Domee really wanted large cartoony eyeballs but they looked funny while transitioning from 2D to 3D. They were too sunken, too scary, too popped out…..it took a lot of time to find the right fit! Pixar artists spent a lot of time just getting the right type of eyes for the granny in Bao. Cartoony exaggeration vs. believability was a narrow line to straddle when it came to making the Bao animated short film.

Dough Shape Changes and Light Reflections:

As you might imagine it took an incredible amount of work to animate not only the shape of dough but the right texture, shading, softness, and squishy changes as you knead dough. The Pixar team used light and shadows to show the mom and dumpling growing apart which was incredibly clever and subtle. In the scenes where mom and dumpling are close it’s nice and bright. When the dumpling begins to grow older and further apart from mom the shadows start to creep in and cast over the scenes.

FUN FACT: It took 2 effects artists almost 2 months to get the pork filling right! Imagine spending TWO MONTHS JUST on creating pork filling!

Pixar short film Bao film clip Disney Pixar animated
Photo credit: Disney Pixar

Pork Fillings:

I’m not kidding! Pork fillings ate up almost 2 months of the Pixar artists time to perfect! Everything looked gross, too textured, not enough texture, the colors all wrong – the team wanted to make the pork filling look as good in the film as it tastes in real life! It was no easy feat!

Once the artists were able to nail down some of the tougher details of the film they got to work on filling in the images and background. They really wanted to bring out a mom’s practicalness in life with subtle touches like aluminum foil covered burners on the stove. You’ll even spot a toilet paper tube roll on the table! The Pixar artists even debated about how many water droplets to add around the onions! It was created to be a realistic portrayal of stepping into a Chinese household.

Disney Pixar short film Bao
Photo credit Disney Pixar

About the Pixar Bao Creators:

the creators of Disney Pixar short film Bao
From left to right: Becky Neiman, Rona Liu, Crystal Rapinchuk (me!), and Domee Shi

About Domee Shi:

Food is a universal pleasure and after making animated web comics she moved into her work on the Pixar short film Bao. Domee is obsessed with food and really loved food folk tales (like the Gingerbread Man!). In her Chinese culture the way you show that you care about someone is to ask if they’ve eaten yet. Food is a central focus. She lived in Toronto after her family immigrated from China and has a very special connection with her mom making dumplings. After watching how hard it was for her mom to let her go after growing up she was inspired to create a short film around this important phase in a mother’s life.

Pixar was her first gig out of school and she told me that she wasn’t even interested in art until she was about 16 years old! It just goes to show that talent can surface at any time! Her number one obsession was (and still is!) food. Eating food, drawing food – if it had to do with food she was all in.

FUN FACT: Domee was also working on Toy Story 4 while she was working on the Bao short film.

About Rona Liu:

Rona is the Production Designer on Bao. She lived in China and moved to the USA when she was 10 years. Bao was her first production designing project! She has worked on The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory and Coco while at Pixar and has a fierce love for her chickens!

About Becky Neiman:

Becky is the producer of Bao. For this short film she worked on visual effects like car sparks, ocean splash, fireworks and pork filling. She had her hand in the making of Cars 2, WALL-E, Ratatouille, Up, Inside Out, various Incredibles, Finding Dory, and Coco. Before her career at Pixar which started in 2004 she worked in the music industry.

Pixar short film Bao reception Pixar short film Bao reception

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