Let’s face it, life can be hard at times. And when you are transitioning from childhood into adolescence, it seems that life is hard all the time. At least, that is the consensus of nearly everyone — boy or girl — during puberty. That includes Mei Lee, the lead character in Pixar’s latest 3D-animated film, Turning Red.
The movie, Pixar’s 25th animated feature, is a coming-of-age story. Indeed, it hasn’t been that long ago since the studio delved into this topic last summer with Luca, about two adolescents living a carefree summer of their youth on the Italian Riviera (see “Transformative,” CGW, July/August/September 2021). For them, facing the next stage of their life was relatively without drama — though the same could not be said about their efforts to hide the fact that they are sea monsters who turn human when on land.
When we first meet Mei in Turning Red, she is a very content, focused youngster who really seems to have her life under control (as much as possible for a person her age). She is a very confident girl — the mini version of her very well put together mother. She lives in Toronto, excels in school, and honors the Chinese customs and traditions of her family. Then, one day, everything changes. That is when her body begins to change…into a giant red panda! Suddenly, navigating adolescence has become all the more challenging.
Directing the film is Domee Shi, whose animated short film Bao, about an elderly woman adopting a dumpling, won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2019. According to her, she had been asked many times over why the little dumpling in Bao was a boy. The answer, she says, is because she only had eight minutes to tell that story. For a mother-daughter story, she would have needed much more time. Well, now she has an entire feature film to do so in Turning Red.
There is a lot of story parallelism between the creator/director and her subject. Born in China to Chinese parents, Shi and her family emigrated to Canada when she was very young. Like Mei Lee in the movie, she is an only child and was very close to her parents, particularly her mother.
“We did everything together,” says Shi. “We commuted together to work and to school in downtown Toronto. We went on mother/daughter bus trips and vacations together.”
And then, adolescence began, and like most children, Shi started to grow up — and change.
“I started getting into anime, comics and hanging out with my friends more and more, and less and less with my mom. She didn’t understand why I was obsessed with these fictional characters with huge eyes and colorful, spiky hair. And she definitely didn’t understand whatever this was [that was happening],” says Shi. “I was being pulled in one direction, but my duty and loyalty to my parents and my mom were pulling me in another direction.”
As Shi notes, Turning Red was inspired by this universal struggle of growing up and trying to figure out how to honor your parents but also staying true to yourself. In a way, it is an “East meets West” story, as well.
In the film, this struggle starts when Mei one days turns into a giant red panda — which, unbeknownst to Mei, is a blessing/curse bestowed on the female line of her family.
“That sets off this internal conflict within herself. Because up until that point, Mei thinks she has it all figured out, like we all did before we wake up one day and realize all of a sudden we’re covered in body hair, we smell funky, our emotions are all over the place, and we’re hungry, like all the time,” says Shi.
To this end, the filmmaker is using the red panda as an adorable metaphor for the scary, unadorable, awkward and cringy changes we go through during this age.
“More specifically, we wanted to explore the nuances of Asian parent/child relationships, and dealing with change and all of the intergenerational conflict, and how it shapes who we become. Turning Red is quirky and surreal, but at its core it is a mother/daughter finally embracing change and all of its messiness, even if it means saying good-bye to the relationship they once had,” Shi explains.
From the start, Shi wanted the film to look and feel different from the typical Pixar film — for one, it features a contemporary teen girl protagonist. As such, she wanted the world to reflect that character: colorful, chunky and cute, bold and in your face, just like Mei. This is a big departure, even for Mei’s short, Bao. As she notes, Bao was more intimate, inspired by fairy tales, so the world is softer, rounder, cuter. In contrast, Turning Red’s protagonist is a spunky, energetic 13-year-old girl, so the world is less cutesy and childlike, with a certain grittiness. For instance, as Mei walks down the street in Chinatown, you can feel all the details on the pavement and in the shop windows.
Shi and the crew describe the film’s aesthetic as “Asian tween fever dream.”
Turning Red is set in the early 2000s. “Not just because it’s when I grew up as a tween, but it was also the height of tween/teen pop mania in the late ’90s/early 2000s, when you had those boy bands and pop idols,” she says. “We also just wanted to avoid social media and just tell this story in a simpler time of flip phones, CDs, jelly bracelets and Tamagotchis.”
Additionally, the multicultural aspect of the city was particularly appealing to Shi, and this is reflected in Mei’s band of friends, who are far from perfect. As Shi notes, they reflect a teen’s typical group of friends: “dorky, sweaty, sometimes gross, but ultimately loving and supportive of each other.”
These are all great concepts and ideas, but Shi and the filmmakers had to find a way to present them using stylized 3D animation, which is a “super challenging task,” she points out, because 3D’s default is hyperrealism.
“How do they abstract the world enough to feel unique, while also rich enough to feel immersive, like you’re actually in the Lei family temple or there with Mei covered in thick, dense, smelly panda fur?”
Those are questions Shi presented that had to be answered.
Make no mistake, this is not a typical Pixar film. “On this show, we wear what we want, say what we want, and we will not hesitate to do spontaneous cartwheels if we feel so moved,” Shi stated in a video while assembling the team. As a result, the crew started bringing in their old middle school yearbooks and shared stories of their awkward moments in middle school. Those who are currently parents also shared their bad parenting moments (writer’s note: we all have them).
“As a team, we just really tried to be real with one another about our daily failures and our daily successes. It was an energy I hadn’t experienced before, frankly, on a feature film,” she adds.
The assembled team, in fact, is just as atypical as the style of the film. It includes Pixar’s first all-female-led production team, including Lindsey Collins as producer (Wall-e, Finding Dory), who pioneered Pixar’s SparkShorts program.
“I felt as if we were making history on this show,” says Shi.
Collins agrees. “I have worked with a lot of amazing women at Pixar for many, many years in different ways, but I think this [project] in particular allowed us to be a little bolder in our choices for our filmmaking — in the performances, the lines, the script, but also aesthetically in the choices we made about the stylization,” she says. “There was something intangible about having a lot of women who were very supportive of those choices and really understood why the choices were happening.”
Along the way, this women-led team joined Shi in challenging their inner 13-year-old selves and their collective personal experiences to bring this story to life, including their recollections of teen pop and early-2000s movies and culture during the time period presented in the film. The group wanted to incorporate all of the things they loved at that age: best friends, boy bands, punky music videos and glitter accessories.
“We talked about uncomfortable moments — and boy bands,” says Collins about the group’s many discussions. There obviously were men on the show, too, and they quickly got comfortable with these throwback discussions. “They had no choice,” she adds with a laugh.
Turning back the clock
As it turns out, the filmmakers watched a lot of anime movies and TV shows during their tween years and wanted to mix in that chunky, cute design sensibility, expressive character designs, and poppy color palettes. As Shi explains, the group chose a colorful, soft, fresh pastel color palette for the film, inspired by ’90s Japanese anime due to how expressiveness and colorful it was.
“And then we thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we exaggerated the setting around Mei? Like when she’s feeling these strong emotions, when she’s really embarrassed and feels like the whole world is staring at her,” Shi explains.
The challenge, though, was how to exaggerate and push and abstract the world to make the audience feel what Mei feels on the screen.
“That was the biggest influence for us in terms of the look of the film,” Shi points out.
To achieve that, however, took an army of dedicated and talented artists and crew. And the direction/description repeated throughout the various departments: “Asian teen fever dream.”
That, along with a lot of iteration. In fact, Shi credits the lighting team for actually cracking the code on the style.
“We were looking at a lot of anime for reference, and lighting was doing these tests to find how we could replicate the super-soft vignetting around the edges of the frame — and do that in 3D without making it look cheap or like a cheap filter,” she says.
But, it really took a village to translate this style into the film.
“Every department had to hold hands; if we were going to stylize this movie, then every single step, every single piece, had to be stylized,” Shi says. “You can’t just have realistic skin shading but a very pushed character design. That’s going to clash in some weird way. So every single aspect, from the camera, to the editing, the sets, the shading, the textures…everything had to be tweaked so it fit with every other piece of the movie.”
Influencing the aesthetic
The term “Asian tween fever dream” may not mean much when it comes to creating the overall aesthetic, so the filmmakers broke that down further for the team. One of the terms they used was “cute chunky” in regard to the characters, environments and other elements. In addition, there was a good deal of reference that was more graphic and 2D-ish, a nod to anime in various places. The filmmakers then had to find a way to wrap that into their normally very three-dimensional “throw a lot of detail at it” world.
“Instead of those details being more realistic, they w ere [made] into more of a chunky cute, bubbly kind of form,” says Danielle Feinberg, visual effects supervisor. “For instance, instead of having what you might say is realistic dirt, now [it's] suddenly these more graphic shapes.”
Feinberg notes that creating this unique world was not just the director’s taste, but rather it sets the story.
“If you think about Mei as a chunky cute 13-year-old, it sets the tone for who she is. In the world, she’s dorky and unapologetic, and doesn’t care that she has fat ankles. And that’s the whole spirit of the movie and the character in many ways,” she says. “She’s figuring out who she is, and it’s very messy.”
The film world needed to feel recognizable and at the same time have a similar aesthetic as the characters. The artists studied the architecture of the city’s Chinatown to make sure they included as much specificities as possible. And then they turned it chunky in proportion. For example, if the building had five windows, they would design it with three.
“Even though we’re going for a squatter scale to fit our character designs, we’re still keeping believability and structure and construction," says Rona Liu, production designer. "We’re reducing complexity, so it’s never diverting attention away from our characters, but everything that you see functions as it would in the real world. We created a fantastical Toronto and tweaked the real world to fit our design needs while still keeping the city instantly recognizable. One of the things we constantly said to ourselves was that instead of going for photorealism, we wanted to go for believability in all aspects of our designs.”
It was then up to Feinberg and her team to translate the design into CGI, to make sure the artists had the technology and the know-how to create it in the computer.
“With those hopes and dreams being an entirely new look, it was a little bit of a challenge. The biggest part of that challenge for Turning Red was that the inspiration was coming from a very two-dimensional place with very graphic references, like anime,” says Feinberg. “How could we take that inspiration and marry it with our typically very-complex, detailed, three-dimensional world? It wasn’t like we wanted to use our 3D computer graphics tools to make an anime film. That would be like using oil paints, or something, to try and make a watercolor painting, which would just be kind of silly. So it was more about what elements we could incorporate to make something new.”
According to Feinberg, the goal became more a matter of figuring out how to use the tools in this way, as oppose to using all new ones.
“It was less about the pipeline and instead about a lot of creative decisions,” she says.
Going back to the dirt analogy, when the studio typically creates dirt on an object, it looks realistic. The artists use a specific pattern and build up many layers. For Turning Red, they were not building up a lot of layers, and the result was not realistic.
“It had this other graphic bubbly pattern, and a lot of it was more about creative choices. That’s not to say we didn’t make changes to some extent, but it was less about big technology and big pipeline changes,” says Feinberg. “It became more about thinking deeply about creativity, and how to incorporate some of this 2D graphic elements into a world that feels opposite of that.”
East meets West
The animators wanted to tap into Shi’s passion for the two genres of animation that she loves, anime being the East and Disney/Pixar animation being the West. Turning Red lives somewhere in between these styles.
“We took influences from both genres and merged them together,” says Patty Kihm, animation supervisor.
Part of that anime influence: big eyes with elements like stars in them.
“We were looking at anime in terms of extreme face poses, rounded mouth shapes, and really expressive big eyes, along with tiny pinpoint eyes at times,” says Aaron Hartline, animation supervisor.
According to Kihm, the group often referenced anime eyes on this film. And one of the great things about anime is that it’s not afraid to push the characters’ designs to the extreme. The character’s eye shapes can be drastically different depending on the mood of the character. You can see this in how much the eyes change size and shape.
“In Turning Red, we wanted to use this same eye language,” explains Kihm. “We added stars, highlights, shrink the pupils down to tiny dots and create crescent shapes for her eyes.”
While teams struggled to integrate a 2D aesthetic into a 3D world, there were some instances when actual 2D found its way into the film. According to Shi, the group did not want to replicate the look of 2D in order to stylize the movie.
“I always feel like that’s chasing that dragon you’re never going to catch,” she says.
Her take: You have these powerful 3D animation tools, so utilize them and don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole. The filmmakers looked at live-action movies and photography to examine the use of stylized images within the camera. They also looked at lighting a great deal. In the end, the film does incorporate a small amount of 2D into some of the effects intended to be particularly graphic in style. A sprinkling of it, just enough to make certain moments and effects pop, but not so much that it would be super noticeable when watching it.
“Our goal was to integrate it into the style as seamlessly as possible,” Shi says.
One example of when 2D hand-drawn graphics were composited into the 3D is in the effects shots when Mei is standing on so-called Man Mountain with her and her friends’ obsession — the boy band 4Town.
“We wrote a little piece of tech that could take a 2D-drawn element, turn it into 3D geometry that the special effects artists could then use in (SideFX’s) Houdini to drive things if they wanted to. Lighting could use it to generate lights,” explains Feinberg. “[In the Man Mountain scene], when Mei had lightning bolts coming out of her hand, that was actually casting light based on geometry built from those 2D elements. We had a 2D artist who spent half his time in animation and half his time in effects, and he was generating elements all the time that were either being used to inform what the movement of the effects might be, but also something using the straight-up elements in their compositing.”
For the animation team, working toward the desired aesthetic meant pushing the style to go really big. But there were times, says Hartline, when they had to actually bring it down for emotional acting, too.
“It was taking those two extremes and trying to find the right times to put them together,” he says.
As Hartline points out, the concept of 2D is very graphic, with a more cartoon-like feel.
“But we merged it into a 3D world, with a balance. That’s because you just can’t take concepts or tricks used in 2D animation and plug it in. It doesn’t quite play,” he says.
That’s because 3D is hyper-realistic and very detailed by nature — the computer is really good at drawing very precise frames on the screen.
“So, you end up naturally gravitating toward these realistic moments with really subtle acting and animation, Hartline says. “Finding a way for the 2D world to fit in without it feeling like it dies or goes too still on the screen, and the character feels dead almost, was very tricky for us.”
As a result, the animation team spent a lot of time in preproduction, conducting a multitude of tests to find the right balance of 3D melded with 2D style to make the combination of styles work.
Character creation and animation
Like Mei, each of her “ride or die” besties are distinct, with their own personality. In addition to those characters, there is Panda Mei, which symbolizes all of Mei’s intense feelings as she turns into this giant animal. She feels cute, but also gives the vibe that she is messy and doesn’t have it all together in this very unusual form. Artists made Panda Mei, who plays a prominent role in the film, round and chunky as well.
“We have to craft every inch of her in every pose,” says Kihm. “It’s very time-consuming, and she is very hairy. There’s hair everywhere, so any kind of touching and interaction was difficult — and she grabs her tail often for comfort. That’s a very expensive thing to do in the computer.”
According to Kihm, Panda Mei was the most difficult character to animate, taking about a year to build her and ensure everything was working in how they needed her to move. The character has a number of fat rolls that had to be constructed, and the movement does not come free, she adds.
Panda Mei’s fur is ultra-fluffy, but also clumpy in areas to show that she’s not perfectly groomed. Her whiskers are uneven and crinkled. And to give the vibe that she is a magical red panda, she has a little swirl on each arm. She also exhibits red panda-like behaviors in the way she walks, sits and so forth.
“Mei Panda needed to feel visually trapped in this body that she’s not comfortable in, and we needed to make her look like she doesn’t actually belong in the house, so we did these early tests for scale to make sure that she’s actually too big for her home,” says Liu.
Panda Mei’s ears graze the ceiling, and she can’t fit through the doorway. Besides creating a big, furry panda for the movie, the group knew that Shi and the animation team were going to want the ability to push Panda Mei’s expressions to the extreme. But how? The solution was found in something called profile movers, which was just coming together within Pixar, but had not made it into feature production yet. Feinberg, however, made a critical decision and decided it was worth the risk to try the brand-new technology that had not yet been proven and see if it could be used for Turning Red to help push Panda Mei’s expressions to the extent Shi wanted.
As Feinberg explains, something that might take 20 or 30 controls to move a body part, now could be done with five controls using profile movers. Instead of the artist finessing the points, the computer solves for the points.
“It doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it made our process a bit easier and the results a lot cleaner," says Feinberg. "The rigger adjusts the curves for the profile they want, and the computer figures out how to get the model shape to match the curve. So you are thinking more about the shape of things and less about the tedious movement of points for each articulation control.”
Initially, profile mover was intended just for the face, but the team ended up using it for the entire body. The profile movers were a great success, and enough so that they are now being used in most characters on future Pixar shows, as well as starting to make their way into hair and cloth.
“That’s even cooler in a way because if you are doing cloth, all you have to do is say, well, here’s the curve of the profile I want that to hit,” says Feinberg. “There’s all kinds of cool things you can do. It’s so exciting.”
In keeping with the film’s aesthetic, the animation team incorporated exaggerated movement that supported Mei’s awkwardness and other traits. For instance, in a particular scene she is breakdancing and believes she is crushing it, even though she doesn’t exactly stick the landing.
The animation group studied a good deal of hand-drawn cartoons, where artists would cycle the same few drawings repeatedly. For this film, the animators took that cycle animation technique and applied it to Turning Red’s 3D characters. They also leaned in to more graphic 2D style by showing Mei’s face more in profile, as opposed to what they are trained to do at Pixar — showing both eyes on screen since that the audience looks for emotion. The group also went against the grain using isolated motion.
“Never, ever, have we had a director ask for this specific type of motion,” says Hartline. “As animators, we are trained that when animating a character, that motion doesn’t come from a single point.”
For instance, when a character usually moves, it is through the body core, which affects the shoulders, neck, head, hands. It’s all connected. With isolated motion, the character is completely still while only one part of them moves.
“This gives Turning Red its really fun, unique, really pushed style,” adds Hartline. “However, that took a lot of untraining of our animators. Breaking them away from wanting to animate a person how they naturally see it every day, and instead leaning into more of a stylized, isolated motion. Saying, ‘No, we’re going to simplify the motion. We are going to take out all the extra poses and just do one pose, or we’re just going to move a hand and nothing else moves; the body’s going to be completely still and just one hand will move.’ That’s fine for one animator to learn that, but when you have 70 to 80 animators coming onto the show and we have to learn this style together, that was a challenge, but a fun challenge,” he says.
There are a lot of phrases used to describe Turning Red: “Asian tween fever dream,” “chunky cute,” “East meets West,” but one word sums it up best: unique. Unique for Pixar for leaning into a very different graphic style as opposed to realism. Unique in that it had women in key positions, including director.
The filmmakers made a bold decision to utilize a tool that was not tested before in a feature production. They also took advantage of a new crowd pipeline, enabling thousands and thousands of characters to be loaded into the computer for big crowd scenes with less slowdown than they had ever experienced before. Also, the movie contains a good deal of simulation, which is not obvious, but there is a lot of hugging and touching between Mei and her mother, and a lot of petting involving Panda Mei.
Yet, all those challenges are hidden underneath a story that is, well, dare I say “unique.”
For many years now, Pixar has proven its strength in the animation industry, giving us films that tackle some of the industry’s most challenging tasks: realistic hair, water and so much more. Now the studio is showing it can do so much more and go in a completely different direction, and in the process, widening its storytelling.
“I don’t know if it’s easier or more difficult — it’s just different,” says Hartline. “I think we’re always going to be looking for ways to challenge [ourselves] and look for unique style. Sometimes we might have those tools. Sometimes we might not, and we’ll have to write something for it. But it’s another thing you have to add in your toolbox.”