|Directed by||Domee Shi|
|Produced by||Becky Neiman-Cobb|
|Written by||Domee Shi|
|Music by||Toby Chu|
|Cinematography||Patrick Lin (camera)|
Ian Megibben (lighting)
|Edited by||Katherine Ringgold|
|Distributed by||Walt Disney Studios|
Bao is a 2018 American computer-animated short film written and directed by Domee Shi and produced by Pixar Animation Studios. It was released with Incredibles 2 on June 15, 2018. The film is about an aging and lonely Chinese-Canadian mother, suffering from empty nest syndrome, who receives an unexpected second chance at motherhood when she makes a steamed bun (baozi) that comes to life. The film won the Oscar for the Best Animated Short Film at the 91st Academy Awards. 
In Toronto, Canada, a Chinese-Canadian woman, whose husband is busy at work, makes a steamed bun that comes alive. She raises the steamed bun as a child, feeding it meals. Eventually the child wishes to play soccer with the other kids, despite his mother's protection. As her son ages into a teenager and a young adult, he increasingly wants independence, while his mother wishes for more attention from him, feeling ignored. When the steamed bun introduces his new fiancée and announces his intentions to move out of his mother's house, his mother protests. The mother tries to stop the steamed bun from leaving, but he pulls free. In a fit of anger, the mother eats the steamed bun, after which she cries over what she has done. Later, the mother lies in bed, and her real son enters the room, revealing that the whole sequence was an allegorical dream. The son, resembling the steamed bun, is told by his father to apologize to his mother, as she ignores him. He enters the room, offering the same treat the mother gave the steamed bun, and as they share it, they both cry. Afterwards, the whole family, including the son's fiancée, make steamed buns, as they sit at the table watching television.
Bao acts as a story about food and family and how the two come together to form a “potent emotional resonance”. Considering the empty-nest syndrome presented by the mother character, Shi had to relate her own experiences as a daughter of Chinese immigrants. In making the mother the main character, Shi places herself in her mother’s shoes to show her emotional journey as she dedicates her life to raising a child who is now gone. She comes to coddle her steamed bun child who has to grow up. Shi presents the idea of a primal love where you would destroy something so that it won’t go away. Here it is the mother loving something so much, she doesn’t want to let it go anywhere, even outside her own body.
The short is also culturally significant for its authentic portrayal of diverse characters. Shi, as a Canadian Chinese artist with exposure to many different styles of art, animation and film, as well as Chinese immigrant communities, portrays very diverse characters. As this a very Canadian Chinese story regarding its food, characters and themes, Shi tells the stories of the people around her.
Bao was directed by Domee Shi and produced by Becky Neiman-Cobb. Bao was the first of 35 Pixar shorts to be directed by a woman, made more significant because of Pixar’s stigma as being a “boys’ club” as well as the fact that the animation industry is male-dominated as whole. Shi first began working on Bao as a storywriter on the film, Inside Out, and says she wanted to work creatively on a project on her own. The earliest sketches of Bao date back to January 2014, when Shi began work on it as a side project, drawing inspiration from classic fairy tales and her experience as an only child. It began as a brainstorm of different steamed bun ideas and characters with Shi recalling, “This image popped into my head of this mom nuzzling her little baby steamed bun to death, and I had to draw it down." Having been an only child while growing up in Toronto, she identified herself with the metaphor of the “overprotected little steamed bun.” Shi worked on Bao alone for 2 years before bringing in a crew.
Animation being a visual device, it was decided early on in production that Bao would be a project with no dialogue. As a story that needed to be understood universally by audiences, Bao needed to relate it with acting, emotion and actions, but no language, which was true to the Chinese culture, in which love is expressed through actions and not words. The only recorded dialogue in the short film is a scene in which the Father is watching TV. The Mandarin dialogue in the details of that scene is an homage to old Cantonese soap operas that Shi watched with her mother growing up.
The Mother character eating the steamed bun was one of the first choices made when creating the film. She wants to keep the steamed bun character to herself so bad that she eats it, though she regrets it immediately. This was itself based on something Shi’s mother would say: “Oh I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew exactly where you were at all times.” Shi herself had frustrations while growing up about being coddled so she talked to her mom as well as other parents to see the other perspective. Shi very much uses the short to step outside of her own point of view in order to identify with the mother who is the main character. It was told with the theme of primal love, as Shi explains, "the type of love you would destroy so it would not disappear and go away."
One of the main reasons Shi wanted to tell the story of Bao was her Asian influences combined with a lack of Asian-American media. Having growing up watching Studio Ghibli films and having always been exposed to Asian cinema and animation, she draws from many Asian influences. And although not typical Pixar fare, Shi found that executives were very receptive to her ideas, getting behind a story that was very Asian-Canadian and Asian-American specific. This was rooted in the view that though the film was culturally specific there were universal themes of parents learning to let go of their children as well as families being bound together by food. Shi herself had doubts regarding the short: she was worried about the cultural specificity and that the ending was too dark and would be out of place for a Pixar film. While Shi almost changed it be a watered down version, she pitched it to Pete Docter, a mentor of Shi’s as well as an executive producer on Bao. He pushed Shi to pitch the darker one and stay true her original weird idea and storytell in the style she wanted to. “Don’t be afraid to push it, be as culturally specific as you want it to be” Staying true to her vision, Shi notes that Bao turned out exactly as it would have if she did it on her own.
Although Shi did go with the darker ending that she had anticipated, there were multiple different drafts of the way that the ending would be properly executed. She wanted to portray this idea of the mother eating her steamed bun child, but in a way where it was both viscerally appropriate for children and with a clear motive. Shi claims that earlier drafts of the scene contained more disturbing images. One draft in particular showed the Mother actually chewing on the steamed bun for a couple of moments while crying before swallowing her son. Shi explained how she would show this particular version to others and “they would be really, really upset by it.” Shi took this feedback and created the final produced version that made it into the short in which the Mother takes the steamed bun and swallows the son in one gulp without chewing, in order to show “a quick crime of passion” rather than a more prolonged moment that focused on the action itself.
Domee Shi went on to say how Bao was an example of a children’s story that involved darker elements and themes that she believed were important. The short film itself was Shi’s modern-day interpretation of some of the darker themed folk tales that inspired her, stories such as The Gingerbread Man and other Asian fables about finding babies in food like peaches. She wanted to experiment with these idea since she “always loved how they play with light and dark elements. These little characters are so cute, but the world wants to eat them.” Shi believes that children’s films need to introduce more of these themes and show them as equally as these lighter elements of storytelling. She wants children to be able to understand how common dark elements are in day to day and equip them with the tools they need for the real world.
Although Bao was greenlit in 2015, Shi knew it would be a long and uncertain journey, equating shorts films to an indie wing of Pixar, which would have to borrow people who are free for a couple weeks at a time in between feature films. Bao thus had to be worked on more slowly, creatively and flexibly, with the production only finding out that it would be paired with Incredibles 2 a year before release: a fitting match as they remain thematically similar in celebrating moms. The short film format also acted as a challenge for Shi, having to fit an 8 minute time frame. This forced her to be economic as opposed to presenting excessive shots of food. More importantly, Shi emphasizes the importance of diverse stories across all mediums, including animation. Filmmakers and artists need to continuously push and challenge themselves creatively and tell unique stories. In order to tell unique stories, Shi says you can’t draw from the same wells, which Studios, and especially Pixar and Disney, understand. This leads to valuing utilizing talented, diverse employees and filmmakers to be “ahead of the curve” and to “tell unique stories”.
Bao as a short film also signifies the shifting climate of the animation industry and the interest in telling more stories of diversity and other perspectives. Shi believes that the 2015 short Sanjay’s Super Team and the 2017 feature film Coco, both animated Pixar films about different cultures, paved a way for her short film to be released and paired up with Incredibles 2.
In order to research the cuisine presented in the short (many of which were inspired by favorite dishes that Shi’s parents made), the crew took many steamed bun and Sichuan restaurant trips in San Francisco and Oakland’s Chinatown. Shi’s mother even acted as a consultant, as she was a creative immigrant woman who made her own recipes and steamed bun shapes. She came in twice to Pixar to hold steamed bun-making classes for the crew, which also provided video reference for kneading dough and making wrappers for the opening shots of the film.
While the final product looked appetizing, animating the food proved particularly challenging for the FX artists involved. The food is organic and squishy, which made it difficult to render. The kneading and wrapping were some of the most expensive and complicated shots of the film, and the steamed bun shot with pork filling took an entire two months to complete, as getting raw pork to look tasty was tricky.
Animating the food involved similar principles to food photography: exaggerating and emphasize things that are not there. Colors had to be saturated and bigger chunks of carrots and onions had to be added. It was difficult to get the physics and consistency of fillings right, as if it became too watery, it would look strange like paste or hummus. Another complicated shot involved the folding of the steamed bun itself. The filling has to collide with the wrapper in a realistic way and fingers have to pinch the wrapper closed.
The overarching style and look of the film is a very organic style of animation. The animators were given cartoon-like Japanese animations as reference, with extremely pushed expressions. Steamed bun the character is made out of dough so the animation was made to highlight his squishy and organic qualities. This can be seen in his extremely flexible mouth which opens both very big and goes very small. His limbs stretch out and he is bouncy. “Squishy and round and simple” was a principle that applied to the film as a whole, including the humans, the world and the set design. Everything was set think and very low to the ground, while the produce in Chinatown was oversized. No edges in the film are completely straight. “We wanted there to be this perfect imperfection in the world to feel more handmade and personal and warm.”
Shi explains how she worked with a good amount of female supervisors on her team for Bao. In particular, one person that Shi mentions to be a big help on this project was her production designer, Rona Liu.
In addition to being a strong female voice on the project, Liu also helped Bao be more authentic towards Chinese culture. Rona Liu, a Chinese American, took charge of the design, art and look of the short, and she and Shi both drew heavily from their personal lives. They took photos of their parents’ houses and took the research to Chinatown in San Francisco and Oakland, as well as many dim sum and Chinese restaurants. Even the crew were forced to go to Chinatown and were specifically told of locations to shop and eat at so that they could authentically create the world of Bao. Shi made Toronto the setting for Bao to pay homage to her hometown in Canada. Grounding it in a real place gave Shi the feeling that it was more real; it also made it easier for the art department to create setting because they had something to reference. To further capture this authenticity, production designer Liu helped keep track of little cultural details, such as tin foil covering the burners on the stove, as well as tchotchkes on the television, the rice cooker in the background, soy sauce bottles and more. Some details, such as the toilet paper on the kitchen table, faced some confusion from non-Asian crew members. This is a common practice amongst immigrants because it is more practical than buying two kinds of paper, and Shi ensured that this was included.
The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 21, 2018, and subsequently accompanied Incredibles 2 in theaters. Prior to the Christmas holiday in 2018, Pixar made Bao freely available to stream on YouTube for a week, the first time that the studio has offered a short in this manner.
In The Verge's review of Incredibles 2, Tasha Robinson described Bao as an "extremely emotional little film" and a "perfect complement" to the main feature. Inkoo Kang of Slate called the film a "moving encapsulation of the Asian-immigrant experience". Jess Lee for Digital Spy said that the film "hit extremely close to home", but added that the story has "universal themes which should resonate with most cultures".
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