Behind Bao: A Conversation with Pixar’s Domee Shi and Becky Neiman-Cobb
Domee Shi and Becky Neiman-Cobb are the Director and Producer pair behind Pixar’s latest animated short film,Bao. Both Domee and Becky have been at Pixar for several years but this is the first time they are stepping into their respective roles for this particular project. Becky is a photographer and has worked on several projects including (but certainly not limited to) Ratatouille, Inside Out, and Up. Domee is a Story Artist and first woman to direct an animated short in Pixar’s history.
Interview conducted by Tiffany Chan
Edited by Catherine Harlow and Tiffany Chan
Q: What are your “origin stories”? How did you fall in love with animation?
DOMEE: I’ve always loved drawing and storytelling for as long as I remember. I grew up watching Disney movies and Japanese animation, but didn’t consider animation a serious profession until sophomore year in high school. My dream was to draw and create art for a living, and it’s so awesome that I get to do that!
BECKY: In college I studied Art and Sociology and after I graduated I went the Art route and became a graphic designer and photographer. Years later, I realized that my real calling was more on the Sociology side. I love people and being an artist felt isolating for me. I always feel like having the art background helped make me a more empathetic manager and producer.
Q: What were your professional path like (internships/schooling/apprenticeships)? How did you get to these particular jobs and how did you find your niche within the animated design field?
DOMEE: I attended Sheridan College’s Bachelor of Applied Arts Animation program. In my 3rd year, I applied to Pixar’s summer story internship—and got rejected! But I buckled down and worked really hard on my portfolio, tried again, and got accepted the following year! So after graduating school I did the story internship that summer, which was more like a fun, intense story boot-camp. Luckily for me, Pixar was hiring that year, and I was offered a full-time job as a Story Artist on the film Inside Out after my internship was done.
Q: What are the quirkiest side jobs you’ve ever worked?
DOMEE: I had an artist’s booth at the Canadian anime convention Anime North for a couple summers in high school, where I sold prints and bookmarks I produced myself, and did ‘interesting’ drawing commissions for anime and video game fans.
BECKY: When I was a photographer, one of the more ‘quirky’ jobs I had was shooting photos of Billy Bob Thornton for his CD artwork and cover (saying CDs now definitely dates me!) Little known fact: Billy Bob is a musician and has a band.
Q: What does a normal day look like for you? Can you describe your workflow for us? Who are the different teams that you work with on a daily basis and how do all the different teams fit together?
BECKY: As the Producer, I oversee the crew, the budget and staffing all to ensure that the director’s vision is met on screen. Part of my job is planning/scheduling – the charts and graphs stuff, and the other part is being a sounding board for Domee as we move through production. So, a typical day for me might include meetings in both areas. For example, I meet with our Production Management Team each morning to be sure that we have the crew that we need to tackle each project and touch base about our schedule. I’ll also meet with department heads to negotiate our artist needs and time requirements. On any given day, Domee will meet with different members of the crew to review their work, some days it can be with the animators reviewing the acting in shots, other days it might be with a lighter to see how a shot is being lit.
Q: What are the greatest rewards of your job in general and working at Pixar specifically?
DOMEE: As cheesy as it is to say, the greatest reward for me is to be doing what I’m doing right now, which is drawing and developing my own stories for a LIVING. That’s crazy! Another great reward is getting to work everyday with super talented, excited people (like Becky), who motivate me to keep improving myself and my craft.
BECKY: Ditto what Domee says!
Q: What are the biggest challenges in producing animated films?
BECKY: One of the challenges is being sure that everyone on the crew is on the same page and understands Domee’s direction. In animation, the crew is often spread out throughout the studio working on models or shots, independently and in isolation. Despite this, the short needs to look cohesive! Fortunately, Domee had a very clear vision, which translated to very clear storyboards, which becomes like a blueprint for the crew to follow! We also had an incredible creative leadership team that was in lockstep with Domee and worked with their individual teams to ensure Domee’s vision was being met.
Q: What are the things that inspire you? What motivates you/your storytelling?
DOMEE: I re-watch my favourite films and study them to see why I love them so much, and I try to watch new movies when I can to see what’s out there, what’s fresh. I also try to find inspiration outside of the medium I’m working in: travelling, café sketching, and just meeting new people and asking them about their lives—all are great ways to find nuggets of new ideas. Film is such a powerful medium that brings people together, and offers new perspectives on life, and I want to keep sharing unique stories with the world.
Q: What is your creative process like? Is it the same for each project you’ve undertaken?
DOMEE: I’m a very visual thinker, so sketching and doodling is essential for me to get my brain going. For the short, I had an image in my head of a mom smothering her baby dumpling with love, and as I started drawing it out, more ideas started flowing about who she was, who the dumpling was, what adventures they’d go on. For me, I can’t see an idea unless I draw it out, and that goes for most projects/assignments I’ve done.
Q: How and when did you know you were a capital-A Artist?
DOMEE: I’m still not sure if I am?? I think most artists I know are very self-deprecating. I’ll at least allow myself the title of capital-B+ artist.
Q: Were there ever moments throughout your career when you doubted yourself/what you were doing? How did those challenging moments resolve?
BECKY: All the time! For me, it has been really important to have good mentors and a support system, finding people that you can be truly vulnerable with. Whenever I get stuck, I find one of these people to help talk me through and I always leave feeling better, more grounded and grateful for these relationships.
Q: What is an/are unexpected skills that you’ve had to pick up “on the job”?
BECKY: For Bao, I learned tai-chi and dumpling making!
Q: What was the genesis of ‘Bao’? Why was this story in particular so important for you personally to tell?
DOMEE: I was inspired to do a Chinese take on the western fairytale The Little Gingerbread Man, with a dumpling instead of a cookie! And in Chinese culture, dumplings are a symbol of family—you make them with your mom and grandma during holidays or on weekends—so what better way to tell a story about family than with a little dumpling as the vessel. I also drew from my own life growing up as an only child to my Chinese parents. They always treated me like their precious little dumpling, making sure I was safe and I never strayed too far away. I used that experience to help tell this universal and bittersweet story of a parent/child relationship changing through time.
Q: From beginning to end, how long does it take to produce a short film? What is something you wish the general public knew about this process?
BECKY: Each short is a bit different, for Bao it took about 1.5 years to produce. For short films, we’re often strategizing how to staff and schedule a crew to work within the windows between feature productions. We’re like the scrappy indie wing of Pixar. We have small budgets and crews and essentially wait for artists/animators/technical teams to become available to join us after their feature work has wrapped. For us that would often times mean pausing production until people became available, which is why it took as long as it did.
Q: What is the funniest/snarkiest/most memorable response that someone has had to your work?
DOMEE: When I showed my mom an early version of the short, her one comment was: “If that main character is me, make sure you make her BEAUTIFUL.”
Q: Having worked on both feature films as well as shorts, what are the different challenges of each sub-type? What are your favorite aspects about each type?
BECKY: What I love about working on short films is the opportunities it gives us to try new things: new technology, new story ideas, new leadership. For example on Bao, it was Domee’s first time directing, my first time producing, it was our production designer and supervising technical directors first times in their roles. And since the shorts are on a smaller scale, we’re able to try these shoes on with less pressure than we would have on a feature. It also means that we’re free to take risks, try new things that we might not normally be able to do on a feature level. There’s a definite start-up vibe on the shorts.
Q: Some parents may discourage their children from following a creative path, out of concern for financial stability (or at the very least, worry greatly about their children). How would you address those parents/their concerns?
DOMEE: I was lucky that my parents were very supportive of me pursuing a creative path, but they also made sure I committed to it and practiced every day. I think it’s great for kids to pursue their passion, but I also understand parents’ worries. That’s why I chose animation—there’s more job opportunities than other forms of art, and there’s great studios like Pixar where you can thrive and be creative in a more stable environment.
Q: What advice would you give to your younger self/someone just starting in the field?
DOMEE: Stay motivated and keep practicing. Drawing and film-making is a muscle you have to keep working out. And don’t just watch the same top 10 films as everyone else—be curious about the world, and actively look for inspiration outside of your bubble of friends/colleagues/country. Foreign films were a huge revelation for me, and a wonderful resource of unique stories that Hollywood never touches.
BECKY: Do what you love! You’ll spend so much time doing that thing, that you want to be sure it’s something that you care about and that you’re passionate about.
Just for fun…
Q: Can you recommend a wine and cheese (any comfort food/drink combination) to us?
DOMEE: Potstickers and beer is a great combo. For some reason, it’s weird to me to eat dumplings with alcohol unless the dumplings are fried!
BECKY: My favorite is pork dumplings with a side of pickled onions. I think it’s just perfect.
Q: What do you do for self-care?
DOMEE: I try to make time to destress every day, whether through meditating for 5 to 10 minutes in the morning, or working out regularly/going on hikes with friends, or even video gaming (huge Nintendo fan). I also have an elaborate skincare regimen before bed that’s like a nice way to treat myself every night.
BECKY: Playing with my one-year-old brings me so much joy. Anything can happen during the day and to be able to come home and play with her, read books and giggle… for me, there’s nothing better for the soul. Domee, I need to know your skincare regimen!
Special thanks to Krissy Bailey and Chris Wiggum for helping us make this interview happen!