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The Making of Bao: Story, design inspiration, and more!

Bao is Pixar’s new theatrical short that will be playing this summer in front of the Incredibles 2. It’s one of my favorite shorts from Pixar and it goes without saying – the film is full of scrumptious designs and a heartwarming story that will have you begging for more. If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out our review of the film.

During my most recent trip to Pixar I learned some fantastic things about the making of Bao from director Domee Shi, production designer Rona Liu, and producer Becky Neiman-Cobb.

(Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

(Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

(Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

  1. Bao has two meanings in Chinese: steamed bun and to treasure something precious. Domee thought it would be the perfect title for a story about “a precious little steam bun.”
  2. Domee’s #1 obsession in life, outside of animation, is obviously food (and I don’t blame her – I think about food 24/7). “I love food, not just eating it, but drawing it as well.” Before the days of Bao, Domee was making art about food and posting it online. You might remember some of the food related gags and little food-centric comics from her My Food Fantasies
  3. Domee was also inspired by food folk tales because “they’re so cute and strange – like the little gingerbread man and that one song, there was an old lady who swallowed a fly.” With Bao, she was inspired to do a Chinese version of all those folk takes she loved.
  4. According to Domee, the first ingredient to Bao was obviously food and the second ingredient was what she knew best: growing up as an only child. Domee’s family was a small immigrant family that moved from China and lived in Toronto. Domee’s father worked a lot and because of that she spent a lot of time with her mom growing up. Her mom would hold her close whenever she could and treated her like a “delicate little dumpling.” When Domee started growing up and doing things on her own, it was hard for her mom to let go and she’d tell Domee,“I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I’d know exactly where you were at all times.” Domee even said, “It’s that creepy sweet love of a mom who doesn’t want to let go of her little dumpling that was the spark that became the heart of the story.”

    ©2018 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

  5. Domee wasn’t only inspired by her relationship with her mom, but she was inspired by her. She is a “dumpling Queen.” Food was how Domee’s mom showed her love for her and they formed a special bond making dumplings together over the years for numerous holidays and events. “In Chinese culture, food and family go hand in hand. When you want to show that you care about someone and that you love someone, you don’t say ‘I love you’ you say ‘have you eaten yet?'”
  6. Her mom was involved in the research for Bao. She’d come in to do “dumpling making demos” for the animators and effects and simulation artists.

    (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

  7. The third ingredient for this short was Chinatown, specifically Chinatown in Toronto where Domee grew up. She wanted to honor that setting and the equally vibrant Chinatown grannies. “I wanted to celebrate their bold colors, their keen eye when it comes to picking out the freshest produce, and their determination to get the best deals in town.”
  8. The style of Bao was inspired by 2D Japanese animation, especially the visual styles of My Neighbors the Yamatas and One Piece. Domee “loved how squishy the characters looked and how pushed their expressions were.”

    ©2018 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

  9. Though translating 2D designs to 3D was the biggest obstacle Domee and her team had to get past. Some poses and expressions didn’t translate as well when it was created with 3D software, since 3D itself is its own medium. Some of the design aspects Domee wanted to pull from My Neighbors the Yamatas or One Piece were going to be an challenge, like the mother’s massive head and exaggerated limbs, but there’s nothing that a little planning can’t solve, especially in animation production. In the end, after trial and error, they were able to combine 2D graphic design and 3D modeling, which gave Domee range to achieve what she wanted.
  10. Production designer Rona Liu “oversaw all the visuals in the film.” Her job was to work with the different departments to make sure the look was cohesive and adhered to Domee’s vision.
  11. According to Rona, Domee wanted the short to look and feel very, very cute. It was also heavily influenced by Japanese folk art. She loved the “simple and graphic designs and the fact that a slice of life was the main subject… she wanted to borrow some of that philosophy with Bao, while keeping focus on the characters as much as possible.”
  12. The patterns on the mother’s clothes supported her emotional journey throughout the film. When the mother is unhappy and lonely, Rona used muted colors. When the mother is happy, the colors were “bold and red and auspicious.”
  13. The environment also played a supporting role to the characters. The background designs used throughout the short are not perfectly straight; if you look closely at some of the sets in the trailer and even when you see the film this summer, you’ll find that none of edges actually meet perfectly together, lines are wibbly wobbly. The mother’s house in particular had to reflect that she was an immigrant, a “blend of East meets West.” Rona had decided all the built-ins in the mother’s kitchen would be Western, while all the things the mother buys would be Chinese. 
  14. According to producer Becky Neiman-Cobb, the pork filling was the hardest thing for the effects artists to figure out. “It took two months for them to master the look and feel of the pork filling for the short.” What made the food effects so challenging was that, “we’re all experts as to what food looks like.” And food is the star in Bao, so “if it didn’t look perfect or believable it would pull the audience out of the story.”

Make sure you save lots of room for dessert because Bao is coming to theaters June 15th!

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