Shi doesn’t look like other Pixar directors — just 28 years old, she’s not white, nor male — but her short “Bao” fits beautifully into the studio’s oeuvre, and the company’s so-called Brain Trust so loved one of her other original ideas that they’ve invited her to develop it into a feature.
Not bad for a semi-recent Sheridan College grad who was selected for a 2011 story internship at Pixar, then hired on to work as a story artist on “Inside Out.” You can see her contributions in the scenes where Joy drags Sadness through the mind, and when the characters first meet Bing Bong.
Two years into the job, Shi started developing “Bao” as a possible hand-drawn, Miyazaki-style short she intended to made on the side. At one point, Shi approached “Inside Out” director Pete Docter for advice, and he encouraged her to pitch “Bao” as an official Pixar short, insisting that she fight to keep the twist.
“I wanted to do a modern fairy tale, like ‘The Little Gingerbread Man,’ but a Chinese version,” says Shi, who was inspired by her upbringing as an only child raised by immigrant parents in Toronto. In “Bao,” a mother wrestling with empty-next anxieties hatches a fantasy in which one of her handmade dumplings comes to life. “Food is how my mom expressed her love to me. In Chinese culture, you don’t say, ‘I love you.’ You say, ‘Have you eaten yet? You look skinny! Eat more!’”
Even after the project was greenlit, Shi spent her days doing storyboards for “Toy Story 4,” devoting nights and weekends to working on “Bao.” The short premiered last month at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be attached to “The Incredibles 2” in June, but Shi is already hard at work on her next project: Last fall, she was invited to pitch three feature projects. One got the go-ahead, putting Shi on the path blazed by Peter Sohn, who went from making “Partly Cloudy” to directing “The Good Dinosaur” at Pixar.
Shi credits Docter (who executive produced “Bao”) with being her champion at what has proven to be her dream job. “He’s been kind of like our fairy godfather,” Shi says.
— Peter Debruge