“Bao,” the title of the Pixar short film that precedes Incredibles 2 in theaters, has two meanings, according to its director, Domee Shi: Depending how you pronounce it, the word “Bao” can mean either “steamed bun” or “treasure or something precious,” Shi told journalists on a recent visit to Pixar.
Starring a very precious steamed bun, Pixar’s latest short film fits its title perfectly. Like many of Pixar’s shorts, it contains no dialogue and is animated with a unique art style not seen in the studio’s feature films. In Bao, a Chinese woman’s homemade dumpling sprouts limbs and a face, and she treats it like her son–until the dumpling grows up, and the inevitable happens.
Shi started thinking about Bao when when she was working as a story artist on Inside Out. She was feeling the itch to make something on her own–a side project–but after pitching Bao to Pixar during an open call for short film ideas, it became the official next Pixar short in 2015.
Shi said Bao has three main ingredients from her life: what she loves (food), what she knows (growing up as an only child spending lots of time with her mother), and what she admires (the culture of Toronto Chinatown). “Bao was inspired by a few of my favorite things in this world: food, cute things, and old Chinese people,” she said.
She had been doodling cute, crudely animated web comics titled “My Food Fantasies” in her spare time, and through those she realized she loved drawing food. “I felt like it was a very universal pleasure that everyone can relate to, much like stories about love or family,” she said. Whatever she was going to spend years of her life working on, it would have to revolve around food.
“In Chinese culture, food and family go hand in hand,” she said. “When you want to show you care about someone, or that you love someone, you don’t say, ‘I love you.’ You say, ‘Have you eaten yet?'”
But Shi’s love of food was only one part of what inspired Bao. Another main ingredient was her mother’s love of her.
“Ever since I was little, she’s always treated me like her precious little baby dumpling, always watching over me, making sure I was safe, making sure I had a good education for a good college in the future,” Shi said. “We did everything together. We ate together, we commuted to work and school together, we even vacationed together, like mother-daughter Chinese bus tours all over the east coast.”
Shi’s mother is also “the dumpling queen,” and she came into the studio to give the Bao team personal demonstrations. She has a cultural consultant credit on the film.
Bao was personal for its production designer, Rona Liu, as well. Liu lived in China until she was 10, and she said Bao’s visual aesthetic is heavily inspired by traditional Chinese folk art. Shi added My Neighbors the Yamadas and One Piece to that list.
“Working on Bao was extremely special to me, because it gave me the chance to express my experience as an immigrant through color and design,” Liu said.
The last piece of the puzzle was the setting itself, and the way it informed the characters. “Chinatown is such a vibrant, lively nostalgic place for me, and I wanted to honor that setting in my short,” Shi said. She and Liu took field research trips to immerse themselves in Chinatown culture, especially noticing the bold fashion choice and unique exercise habits of a certain group.
“I wanted to honor the equally vibrant and awesome residents of Chinatown: the Chinatown grannies,” Shi said. “I wanted to celebrate their bold colors, their keen eye in picking out the freshest produce, their determination to get the best deal and to mow down anybody in their way.”
The story changed just a bit during development. In the original version, the mom crafts an entire miniature food world for her dumpling. At the end, she rampages through it, destroying everything in her path. The final ending is significantly different–“more digestible” to viewers, Shi said, laughing at the pun.
Ultimately, it all goes back to Shi’s mother. “When I started to grow up, it was hard for her to let go,” Shi said. “In fact, she’d often hold me close and say, ‘I wish I could put you back in my stomach so I knew exactly where you were at all times.’ And that creepy, sweet love of a mom who learns to let go of her little dumpling was the spark that became the heart of the short.”
Bao is playing now in theaters preceding Incredibles 2. Read more about why Incredibles 2 took nearly 14 years to make, whether Incredibles 3 will take as long, the records Incredibles 2 has broken so far, why Incredibles 2 puts its female star in the spotlight, why Incredibles 2 begins exactly where the original left off, how Jack-Jack got so many powers, and the challenges of making Incredibles 2 in a post-Avengers world.