Pixar Animation Studio’s 25th feature film, Turning Red, transports audiences back to early 2000’s Toronto, as seen through the eyes of 13-year-old Meilin Lee. The onslaught of emotions one feels in early adolescence can be a lot, but especially if it results in turning into a big red panda. When she learns that this trait is part of a long history in her family, Mei must learn to make due with it as best she can, especially in high pressure situations.
Pixar animators Benjamin Su and Bruce Kuei recently spoke with CAAM about how anime influenced the overall style of the film, as well as how they learned from director Domee Shi the power of keeping things simple and animating how something feels.
I know that you two have been with Pixar for quite a while now. How was it working on Turning Red compared to the previous films you’ve worked on?
Benjamin Su: It was super exciting. Just like you’d mentioned, like the anime style, I mean, part of my childhood was spent growing up in Asia. So I grew up watching a lot of Japanese cartoons, reading manga. So I definitely grew up drawing anime, manga style and watching a lot of anime cartoons. So to be able to sort of bring some of those childhood memories back and be able to put that style into the film was very sentimental and exciting for me.
Bruce Kuei: Throughout our years at Pixar, I would say, this is the first film where we’re kind of breaking out of the Pixar house style a little bit and trying something new. We did a little bit on Luca, but I feel like with Turning Red, we’re really just going all in and it’s not even just the expressions and how things are animated. I feel like even some of the humor too is very anime-inspired, like super zoom-in of just one frozen expression. And then the background, all of a sudden, turning into a different color. This is a movie where we have action lines. We don’t really do that in Pixar movies where the background would just be a series of lines to show action – that’s especially reminiscent for me for anime. When somebody’s saying something really important, you would see the background just turn into a bunch of lines.
I know that Pixar puts out, I think, roughly two films a year now, and so I can imagine there are a bunch of films in-progress all the time, probably even now as we speak. How did you two find yourselves in the position of working on this one in particular?
BS: I think at Pixar, you can always put in a request for projects that interest you. And for me, having a movie that represents my culture – and I’m also a Chinese comedian as well and I’m from Toronto as well – as soon as I saw an early screening on this, I knew right away I needed to be on this project. And yeah, I’m just glad that request worked out for me.
BK: I think I was still working on Soul when Domee showed the first five minutes of the movie; like just the introduction to me, to the whole studio, and none of it was animated. Everything was still hand drawn storyboards. As soon as I saw it, I went back to my desk and I told the animation supervisors, “I will do whatever it takes. I will get coffee for you, whatever, just get me on the film.” I even started doing little doodles and little facial expressions that they could try on the film, and this was still two years before they really staffed up for the [film]. I kept bothering the managers like, “Okay, please, please, whatever, I don’t care what I’m working on next, as long as it has to do with Turning Red.” And luckily, they put me on.
Can you talk about how you approached Domee Shi’s vision for this film, and also how it was working with her as the director?
BS: Oh, Domee’s awesome! She knows exactly what she wants, which just makes everyone’s job so much easier. So when you show her your work, she can tell you exactly how to fix it. And for us, that’s just great. It just makes things faster. She just has a great sense of humor, also really good at storytelling and just knows all the characters, all the characters’ personalities really well in the movie, and for her to communicate that clearly to the animators was huge. So we can all jump into the characters very early on and be able to bring them to life very quickly.
BK: Yeah. I have to say I’m a big fan of Domee. I wasn’t able to work on Bao, her short film, and I know you, Ben, weren’t able to. [She’s a] super amazing director, knows what she’s talking about. Very, very direct with her direction. I think one thing that I remember that was very important to keep in mind as we animated on the film, was she always said, “Animate how it feels and not how it looks” and just letting the portrayal of the emotion dictate how you animate the shot instead of, “Oh, but this is how you would realistically pick up a cup.” It’s like, “Well, instead of doing it realistically, there’s an emotion here. Can you showcase that emotion more, even if you have to exaggerate certain movements and certain expressions?”
That’s really interesting advice.
So I know that we touched a little bit about this already, that there’s a lot of anime influence in Turning Red. How was it working with that particular style for a Pixar film?
BS: Yeah, it was funny that, as I mentioned, I grew up watching anime, but then I stopped watching anime ever since I’d moved to North America. So I hadn’t really been following the current anime trend. So I think Domee gave us a list of anime cartoons to go watch.
BS: Oh, it was like Sailor Moon, Ranma. There’s still some current ones. Do you remember what they were, Bruce?
BK: Tokyo Godfathers was one. And The Girl… it’s one where it’s almost like Groundhog Day, right? Like she travels back in time. Shoot! I forgot the name of that movie.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time?
BK: Yes! The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.
BS: But yeah, and you can tell there’s so many elements of like… there’s this scene where there’s the mountain of all the 4*Town singers and she’s on top and then shooting lasers out of her fingers. That’s such a Sailor Moon thing to do. We try to put as much of that influence we can to the film and in our shots.
What was the most challenging part of animating Turning Red?
BK: I think just remembering [that] things don’t necessarily have to move. I remember there was this one shot – and this is already in the trailers – where Panda Mei is kind of pushing the girl back into the bathroom stall.
The first iterations of that shot, there was always a lot of physicality of how she would lean in and she would maybe take a couple of steps to fully push in. And it just wasn’t funny enough. Like we kept saying, “Well, why is it not funny?” And we kept stripping stuff out. So at the end it literally was just, let’s just keep her completely still, let’s just have her arm unnaturally extend. So if you notice in that shot, her arm is actually longer than it should be, but let’s just have her arm, almost like an elevator, just pushing the girl back into the stall. And that just made it a hundred times funnier. We can’t explain why, but less is more and keeping that in mind.
BS: Yeah. That’s a really great point, Bruce. I think I felt the same thing. There was one scene I animated. It was the girls. They see their crush Devon for the first time through the window at the mart.
And then they’re stacked on top of each other.
BS: They’re stacked on top of each other, and then they just come in as one cell. So when I was animating that, the way Pixar usually would animate it, you would separate the characters so that there’s some overlap and in terms of expressions, you have, at least, some keep alive in some of the expressions, but Domee just said, “Let’s keep it a hundred percent anime. It’ll just be all of them coming in together, one expression, the face does not move at all, and that way we get a clear read and it’s funnier that way.” And she was completely right. I just had to keep taking things out of my animation just to keep it simple and have [that] ability.
And the simpler the better because those two moments you described definitely stick out to me from memory.
So I know that Turning Red is making a lot of history in the fact that this is the first Pixar feature film with predominantly Asian characters. What does it mean for you to, not only have worked on this, but also to see yourself in the context of Asian Americans working in animation today?
BS: Yeah, to me it was so important. Like Bruce said, I missed Bao. My mom actually called me and was all mad that I missed it. [She was like,] “Finally! Pixar has a film that has Asian characters in it. Why did you miss it?” So I knew as soon as I saw this, I had to work on this to please my mom. It’s really important to see yourselves on film; whether it’s an animated film or live-action film. [It’s] also important to have a diverse crew working on the film to have proper representation as well, just to have that authenticity, to create authenticity in the film.
BK: I think for me, what stuck out to me was not just the fact that I get to see Asian Americans on film. It’s that I get to see them as just normal human beings, having normal problems, and dealing with everyday life, just like everybody else. And sprinkled throughout the film, having these little nuggets of authenticity like the mom bringing fruit for the kid and when they come home giving them food to eat, and being proud of doing really well in homework, and the kid working really hard at school and trying to get that A+. All those to me, I think, if it wasn’t for those little pieces of that made the film feel very authentic. I think what I’m trying to say is I’m just glad that not only are we represented visually through the story and how it’s animated and how it’s portrayed, we also get to see that we’re not just doing it for show. We’re actually doing a very relatable story that, hopefully, kids all over can look at this movie and feel like, “Wow! I feel seen.”
What’s a major takeaway for you from animating Turning Red?
BS: For me, in terms of the major takeaway is – I think Bruce touched on this earlier – is just I’m so happy Pixar is open to different styles of animation and I feel like we’ve been pretty consistent in terms of what we do and it’s very successful and it makes sense to continue to do it. But I’m so glad now that there are different voices in our studio that allow us to bring different styles into our studio. I think for me as an animator, that’s really exciting. So [instead] of doing the same thing over and over again, now we have something fresh. Just having that variety, it’s just exciting. Now that the door has opened, now we can try different things.
BK: Yeah. So on a macro level, I completely agree with everything Ben said. I think on a micro, personal level, I think what I take away from this film is that thing that Domee kind of hammered into us, which is, sometimes less is more; like don’t get in your own way. Sometimes you can overthink things and sometimes a shot needs to be funny. Just do what’s funny. Don’t try to think about, well, but it’s not moving realistically enough. Don’t just worry about the intent and do what you feel is right for that moment and not overthink things.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Turning Red will begin streaming on Friday, March 11 on Disney+.