In the Disney•Pixar short Bao, from director Domee Shi and producer Becky Neiman-Cobb, what started off as a dumpling springs to life as a little dumpling boy, soothing the empty nest syndrome that an aging Chinese mom is suffering from. Mom is happy to welcome Dumpling into her life, but when he starts to grow up fast, Mom realizes that Dumpling will not stay so cute and small forever.
At the press day for Incredibles 2, which the short will run with in theaters, Collider got the opportunity to sit down and chat with director Domee Shi and producer Becky Neiman-Cobb about paying tribute to the Chinese immigrant community in Canada, telling a story that will make audiences laugh and cry in less than 10 minutes, how they ended up working together on Bao, keeping each other motivated during the production, all of the thought that went into how the dumpling would look, all of the dumplings they ate for research, and where they’d like their careers to go next.
Collider: I loved Bao, and one of the things that I love about this short, and all Pixar shorts, is how in just a few minutes and with no dialogue, you can make an audience full of people laugh and cry. Is there a ratio for how many laughs to how many tears you have to have, in one of these shorts?
BECKY NEIMAN-COBB: We didn’t even know, at the start, that it would have the reaction that it’s had.
DOMEE SHI: I always knew that I wanted that ending, though. Because it’s a little bit disturbing and maybe a little bit shocking, I was like, “Well, okay, I’m gonna take the audience along for a really fun ride, to make up for the super surprising ending.”
NEIMAN-COBB: We work on this thing, and you tell a joke, but then you have to wait however many years before you can hear if people laugh. The crew all loved it and were all were behind it, and we knew it was different and emotional. It touched all of us, but it’s been really fun to see the audience reactions. There’s a roller coaster of emotion within one second. It’s really been fun for us to experience this.
You guys have both been at Pixar for a little bit, but this is your first time doing these jobs, and doing them together. How did you end up paired together?
NEIMAN-COBB: Technically, we worked together on Inside Out. Domee was a storyboard artist, and I was managing the editorial department. We hadn’t worked in a partnership way, but we knew each other. We like talking about this connection that we have, through the character of Sadness. I was the scratch voice, or temporary voice, for that character, as we were developing it, and Domee had a huge influence on how she looked and acted. She did a ton of her sequences. So, through Sadness, we had this bond. Domee worked on this short for quite awhile on her own, before it was greenlit. It wasn’t until then that I was asked to join, as a producer. So, Domee started on this in 2014, and I was added in 2016.
SHI: It was really fun! Production on shorts is more uneven than feature films. We had to do a lot of stopping and starting, and most of us worked full-time on our other jobs. I was full-time, as a story artist on Toy Story 4, for a lot of it, and Becky was also full-time on other projects, as well. We didn’t start working on this short, full-time, until about a year and a half ago.
NEIMAN-COBB: The actual production took about a year and a half, but there were still times, even within that, where we would have to pause, if animators were needed on something else. At the time, it was Coco. We would pause and wait until everyone was done with that. The shorts program is the scrappy, indie wing of Pixar. We’re just happy to be there.
SHI: Yeah, totally!
NEIMAN-COBB: At the start, we don’t even know what film we’re gonna be attached to, or even if we’re gonna be attached to anything, at all. So, this whole thing has been really exciting, for all of us.
Were there things that you guys did to keep each other motivated, during that whole time where you had to keep stopping and starting and waiting to finish this? Did you have to be each other’s cheerleaders?
SHI: I think so. It’s tricky because it took so long. You just have to get yourself motivated and excited, every single day. Because most of us had other projects, as well, for me, it was almost good to have two things going on, at once. If I got too mentally fatigued from one job, I could jump onto this job, then go back and forth. At least, I felt like my mind was feeling refreshed because it was switching between Toy Story and Bao, and toys and dumplings. It was just good for my brain.