In the film, which airs before The Incredibles 2, a Chinese mother is struggling to transition to life as an empty nester when she accidentally creates a giggling, cooing anthropomorphized dumpling. At first, the mother is delighted to be caring for another child, until the baby bao begins to rebel.
At just 28, Shi is the first woman to direct a Pixar short. She was initially worried that the film would be too dark or too culturally specific for the studio. But Pixar producer Becky Neiman says that the studio is looking to expand the types of stories they tell, and the sorts of storytellers that they hire. And everyone understands the idea of cooking and eating together as a family.
Shi and Neiman spoke to TIME about dumpling recipes, how Pixar is shaking off its boys’ club status, and specific details from her a Chinese-Canadian home that Shi snuck into the movie.
TIME: How did you come up with the idea for Bao?
Domee Shi: Growing up as an only child, I felt I was that overprotected, mothered little dumpling. My Chinese mom was always making sure I never wandered away too far, that I was safe. I wanted to explore that relationship between this overprotective parent and this child using a Chinese dumpling as a metaphor.
Was there a particular reason to use the dumpling as opposed to any other food?
Domee Shi: I really wanted to do a gingerbread man kind of fairytale but with Chinese food, and I grew up making dumplings with my mom on weekends and holidays around the dining room table.
Becky Neiman: She’s promised me though that the sequel can be about a matzo ball. That’s the thing: The story is so universal that everyone in our crew knows that experience of cooking with a parent. They would say, “That would be a matzo ball” or “That would be ravioli.”
There’s this looming idea of the parent eating the child. I thought of that Goya painting of Saturn devouring his son. Were you thinking of those darker themes?
Domee Shi: I love that painting. And yes, my mom would always hold me close when I was a fully grown adult and say things like, “I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew exactly where you were at all times.” I would think, that’s sweet but also kind of creepy. We all feel that way. Even when you look at something very cute, like a baby, it awakens something violent as well, like, “That’s so cute I could eat it!”
Becky, can you talk a little bit about why Pixar chose to do the short?
Becky Neiman: There was an open call to artists at Pixar to pitch shorts ideas, and Domee was one of the 20 people to pitch. She was hesitant because she thought it might be “too dark or too weird or too culturally specific.” But that’s exactly why Pixar chose it. We hope that this trend of telling different stories from different storytellers continues.
Domee Shi: Everyone in the world has been an overprotective parent who won’t let go of their kid or the kid who has left the nest. And they’re brought together by food at some point. We’re using that universal theme of food and family as a Trojan horse to introduce people to baos and Chinatown and what a Chinese home looks and feels like.
What are some of those details you wanted to include?
Domee Shi: The mom’s whole house is populated with these specific little props every Asian person can probably recognize: The rice cooker in the back of the dining room, the cheesy grocery store calendar that you get from a Chinese supermarket, the lucky cat on the shelf, the tinfoil covering the drip pans on the burners in the kitchen.
I really wanted to Rona Liu to be my production designer because she’s not only an amazingly talented artist, but she also grew up in a Chinese American household and knew all those details. It felt like a real Chinese mom’s house because Rona and I basically copied our Chinese moms’ houses.
How did you work with people on your team who weren’t necessarily familiar with Chinese food to Chinese culture?
Domee Shi: Rona and I would explain our choices to them, like we need to cover the drip pans with tin foil because it’s more practical to get rid of the aluminum foil than wash the drip pan. A lot of our non-Asian crew members asked, “Why is there a toilet paper roll on the coffee table?” And we’d explain it’s more practical to go to Costco and buy toilet paper in bulk. Then you don’t have to waste money buying Kleenex in boxes. They got it immediately.
Becky Neiman: We took everyone to Chinatown. We would go out for dim sum. We also flew Domee’s mom down to the Bay Area two times to do dumpling-making classes at Pixar. We would film her try to make dumplings. Nobody could do it well. It’s a fine art.
Pixar has lately been labeled a boys’ club. What have your experiences at the studio been?
Domee Shi: Something like 75% enrollment in animation schools is now female. That’s going to create a shift in the industry. I feel like Bao coming out is a signal of change—that such a big studio has gotten behind such a culturally-specific short led predominantly by women.
I worked on Inside Out and had a great experience and great mentors. The veterans of the industry have always been really generous and kind in their knowledge. Recently there has been way more female hires at the studio. I’m optimistic.
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