Turning Red: Inside Pixar's Adorable and Groundbreaking "Asian Tween Fever Dream"
In a little over a month, audiences will be treated to Turning Red, the latest film to hail from Disney and Pixar's collaboration. The animated film, which is set to be released on Disney+ in March, tells the story of Meilin "Mei" Lee (Rosalie Chang), a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl growing up in Toronto in the early 2000s. Torn between staying her mother's, Ming Lee's (Sandra Oh), dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence, Mei's world is further complicated when she begins to undergo puberty, which causes her to literally "poof" into a giant red panda when she gets excited or stressed out.
From the second Turning Red was announced, it was clear that it would be something special within the world of Pixar, especially with Domee Shi — the writer and director of the Oscar-winning Pixar short Bao – at the helm. Shi directed and co-wrote Turning Red (making her the first woman to solely direct a Pixar movie) and brought the film to life with the help of an all-female leadership team and an all-star team of animators. The end result is deeply nostalgic — for the colorful "simpler time" of the 2000s, for old-school anime and Western animation, and for the awkward, unforgettable time of becoming a teenager. But at the same time, Turning Red also feels incredibly revolutionary, representing a chapter of adolescence and a diverse group of characters who haven't always gotten the spotlight in animation, all while incorporating animation techniques that were the first of their kind or the studio.
ComicBook.com recently got to preview footage of Turning Red, as well as attend a virtual presentation from Shi, producer Lindsey Collins, and key members of the film's crew. Read on to find out what we learned about how the self-described "dorky", "quirky", and "different" Pixar film came to life.
The film is loosely inspired by Shi's own relationship with her mother, and how their close bond evolved as she grew into a tween obsessed with anime, comics, and her friends. According to Shi, certain elements of the film — down to Mei's secret notebook filled with mermaid-esque drawings — were homages to her own experience growing up. While the film does include those incredibly specific moments, it also aims to evoke the universal emotions that surround being a tween girl.
"With my short film Bao and I think with a lot of stories and a lot of art I make, I just draw all the inspiration from my own personal experiences," Shi explained. "I just feel like that's where you can find a lot of juicy universal truths and themes if you just look within yourself. And from here, I just was really passionate about telling a coming-of-age teen girl story. All three ideas I pitched were all about girls around this age, going through big changes in their life. And I just really wanted to make a film that I would've wanted to see when I was Mei's age, just to help guide me through the tumultuous experience of adolescence and puberty and just to tell me that everything's gonna be okay. That it's gonna be messy this time of your life. It's gonna be awkward, it's gonna be embarrassing, and you don't quite know who you are or how you fit in this world. But you're gonna make it out alive on the other end and it's gonna be great."
Shi also spoke to the importance of the film's take on the immigrant experience, and presenting a familial dynamic that is more complex and heartfelt than what's traditionally portrayed in media.
"I think that's just a challenge that a lot of immigrant kids, especially a lot of Asian kids, go through when they're growing up," Shi revealed. "How do they make their parents proud? How do they honor their parents? But how do they also develop their own independent thought and likes and dislikes? When I was making this movie it was important for me to tell this nuanced story. It's not your typical militant parent crushing the dreams of their kid who just wants to break free. I feel like we see that a lot in different movies. But this is very specifically an immigrant kid's struggle, where the lines are a little bit blurrier. Mei genuinely loves her mom. She sees her as this perfect goddess that she wants to impress. And she wants to bask in her mom's love and adoration. She loves spending time with her mom, taking care of the temple, too. But at the same time, she's growing up. She's changing. She's being pulled into this other, new, more Western world. And she has to come to terms with letting go of some of the things that she loved to do with her mom, and it's a genuinely hard choice for her. There's no clear black or white, right or wrong answer, which I think is more true to life and how a lot of immigrant kids deal with their parents and their independent life."prevnext
"East Meets West"
The animation style of Turning Red — and to an extent, the undercurrent of the entire film — is described as a mix of "East meets West". This includes both the Western pop culture touchstones of the 2000s like boy bands and glittery accessories, and the Eastern influences of anime movies and TV shows.
"Disney and anime was the steady diet that I fed myself on in my teenage years and well into my college years," Shi explained. "I just love how expressive anime is and how characters can just change expressions on a dime. It can go from really, really angry to really, really sad or cute. It's just so expressive, and I feel like they utilize the animation medium in such a cool and bold way. I was really inspired by that when making this movie. I wanted to put a lot of those quick expression changes, those bug eyes, exaggerating the colors and the lighting and the background, to kind of reflect how the character's feeling in the moment. Like, Mei is put under the spotlight, so we literally put a spotlight on her. It was a challenge, for sure, translating 2D graphic, abstract, symbols and animation, and trying to figure out 'What does that look like in 3D?' Like, what does a character who, the sweat is pouring from their face, how does that translate into 3D without looking like she's just leaking? Or is that funny, that she looks like she's leaking water? It was a fun challenge for the crew to figure out."
For production designer Rona Liu, the anime influences — as well as the overall idea of seeing the film through the lens of a 13-year-old girl — led to an aesthetic filled with vibrant pastel colors in the day, and "dreamy" nighttime sequences. The expressiveness of anime characters also influenced how Mei, particularly in human form, shows emotion.
"She gets excited when she sees something cute, and she cries with laughter, and she freaks out from time to time," Liu explained. "And we look towards anime for inspiration for her multitude of expressions. Stars in her eyes when she amazed, giant droplets of tears when she's sad, and pupils that can shrink down to a dot when she panics."
That "East meets West" ethos did push the boundaries of the 3D animation that Pixar is used to, but was able to come together with some unique aesthetic decisions, including adding more textures and literally "pooling" colors to create a more dynamic effect.
"As the look of the world and the characters started to come together, it felt like we were capturing some of the things we loved from the reference," visual effects supervisor Daniele Feinberg explained." But by its nature, chunky cute doesn't include little, fine details or some of the interesting intricacies of other films. And because inspirations from anime are more 2D and graphic, it felt like we were missing some of the richness and detail that shows how much love we put into our films at Pixar. So, the question became about how to add that back in without it just pulling the movie back to a more standard place."prevnext
At the center of Turning Red is Mei's accidental transformation into a giant red panda, an animal that Shi chose for a number of reasons.
"I chose the red panda because it's not a super popular animal in a lot of stories, even though it should be 'cause it's so freaking cute," Shi revealed. "It's native to China, close to the Sichuan province, which is where my family's from, which was a really cool little detail that also drew me to the red panda. And I think we wanted to make up our own mythical creature. I think we wanted the space and the room to come up with a whole legend and a mythology behind it. So that's why we chose a character that was a little bit less common in a lot of Asian folklore. And it's just so cute. Look at it. Come on."
On an aesthetic level, the crew wanted the red panda version of Mei to represent the intensity of her feelings — cute, but messy. This was reflected in Panda Mei's overall character design, down to making her whiskers "uneven and crinkled", as well as in her relationship with the space around her, with early tests being done to make sure that she would appear too big within the space of her family's home. The crew then helped take the animations of Panda Mei's expressions to their most extreme point, utilizing new digital technology to make her movements as natural and outrageous as possible.
"It did take a lot of untraining of our animators, breaking them of wanting to animate a person [how] they see naturally move in everyday life and instead leaning into a more stylized, isolated motion," animation supervisor Aaron Hartline said of the film's animation techniques.
The crew also studied red pandas with trips to the San Francisco Zoo, in hopes of analyzing the ways that the animals behave. This ended up leading to one of the most adorable and true-to-life visual quirks of Panda Mei.
"One really interesting thing that we learned is that when a red panda is startled, like it immediately it puts its hands up in the air," Hartline explained. "It's so weird and super cute and odd. I mean, we had to use this. So, anytime Mei is startled or scared, her hands go immediately up."prevnext
One of the anchors of Turning Red, particularly as Mei's red panda transformation starts to take place, is her "ride or die" friend group — "tomboy" Miriam (Ava Morse), "passionate" Abby (Hyein Park), and "super chill" Priya (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan).
"They are all different and distinct," Collins explained. "One of the very early parts of the script that was developed was the desire to have Mei have this really strong friend group, but more importantly that they not feel as though they're lacking individuality. We wanted each of them to represent a different kind of side of Mei, or a different kind of support for Mei. You have Abby, who's just passionate and will back her up no matter what. It doesn't even matter. She's ready to go. She's like 'Oh, you wanna go? Let's go.' She has no fear. And then you have Miriam, who's the friend that encourages you to break the rules a little bit, or tries to kind of push against the relationship you have with your parents, and kind of is egging you on to do something that's maybe outside your comfort zone. And then you have Priya, who's super chill, even-keeled, cool, but also is just matter of fact like 'Hey, we got you.' You don't ever question like whether or not she's on board. When we showed this movie early to some kids and some audiences, one of their favorite parts of the movie was the fact that we represented this posse of girls who were just super supportive of one another. It wasn't this kind of typical teen, mean girl kind of dynamic."
The close-knit nature of the friend group was taken a step further in some visual ways, including having the four of them literally move across the frame as a singular unit in some key sequences. The animation team also took the significance of each of Mei's friends and married it on an aesthetic level, picking individual elements of each character to always accent, regardless of whichever emotion they're showing.
"Miriam, we always wanna show off her dorky braces," Hartline revealed. "Abby always has angry brows. Even if she's happy, those brows are down and intense. And Priya, she always has half lids. We would have discussions in the film, 'Can we just raise it a little bit?' No. It's always half lid."prevnext
In addition to telling a unique story of growing up, Turning Red serves as a love letter to the boy bands of the 1990s and 2000s, with Mei and her friends being obsessed with a group called 4*Town. The fictional group is both inspired by the likes of the Backstreet Boys, N'Sync, and Westlife, as well as the contemporary fandom around K-Pop.
"I feel like boy bands are often ridiculed by media, as most things that teen girls are obsessed with are," Shi explained. "And with this movie, we really wanted to pay tribute to this cultural phenomenon and not just make fun of it. We make fun of it a little bit, but we also honor it as well. So many girls' and boys' lives were shaped by their very first musical obsessions, and boy bands represent, for many girls, their first foray into adolescence, into music, fashion, pop culture. They offer a safe, soft, and non-threatening introduction to subjects like love and relationships."
The music for 4*Town is provided by Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas O'Connell, with O'Connell also voicing Jesse, one of the members of the band. In order to pitch Eilish and O'Connell on the film, the team made a physical scrapbook filled with doodles and cut-outs, in an attempt to convey the tone of the film. Ultimately, it paid off, and Eilish and O'Connell penned three original songs that play off of different boy ban tropes — one that is a stereotypically hit song, one that is a "love ballad", and one that functions as a "confidence booster".
"They're animation fans — Billie, especially," Collins explained. "She's an anime fan. So they instantly got what were going for and pitching and were kind of instantly engaged. We walked them through what we looking for and, in theory, when we'd wanna be playing these songs. So, we would send them clips, early clips, storyboards of the scenes that showcased the songs. And they were great."
"It's not as though they grew up with these songs. But as musicians, I think that they have a big love for these songs, so they kind of knew the sound and the vibe we were going for. And then in recording with them — it was right during the pandemic, so we had to bring these five guys together into a recording stage, and we built them, actually, these weird little houses that had windows. Each of them had their own hut, and they sat in there and sang and could see each other through the windows of their hut, and we got to record them at least in the same space. We actually ended up kind of increasing the amount of time we were playing their music, because we loved their songs so much. So, we were always like, 'Can we play it in this scene, too?' And, 'What if the girls are singing it here, too?' So we tried to take advantage, as much as possible, of the songs that they delivered."
Turning Red is set to be released on March 11th exclusively on Disney+.prev