Domee Shi used to hate pitching her stories. She wanted her drawings to stand for themselves, to tell the story themselves. But storytelling is meant to be engaging, to connect with an audience in an effort to both show and tell. Storytelling is meant to provide the audience with opportunities to reflect and broaden perspectives. Domee Shi knew she needed to learn to champion herself in order to advocate the stories that she wanted to tell.
So began Shi’s professional transformation from story artist to an Oscar-winning director. “I’m always trying to identify areas that I’m weaker in and I’m trying to constantly get better,” she says of her personal transformation journey.
Transformation themes are common in art and culture. These types of stories illustrate how change and evolution are normal parts of our lives, how they have the potential to unlock new opportunities, and how—without growth—we stay stagnant. They allow us to reflect and turn inwards, to pause, reflect, and see ourselves in the stories on the screen.
Wielding these tools, the 33-year-old Chinese-born Canadian Shi became the first woman to solo direct a feature-length Pixar film—2022’s Turning Red, which grossed $20.1 million USD. Set in Shi’s hometown of Toronto, a place where she not only received her formal education growing up (Sheridan College) but also fell in love with animation, the film details the story of a Chinese-Canadian tween girl torn between meeting the expectations of her immigrant parents and the changes experienced by North American adolescents. It’s a film that feels like a love letter to her community, her culture, and herself.
On-screen representation hasn’t always been considered the imperative it feels like today. In 2015, activist April Reign began using the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in an effort to illustrate how the Academy of Motion Pictures (in its nominees, award recipients, and attendee list) had been centering whiteness. This set off a firestorm across Hollywood’s Black, Asian, and queer communities who began demanding to have their stories told. Soon after, movies like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings were released, proving the cultural (and financial) impact that diverse storytelling could have at the box office.
Since #OscarsSoWhite, the film industry has seen a transformation in how it brings representation to the silver screen. The gap, however, has been a lack of culturally relevant stories that understand the lived experiences of immigrant communities and diaspora, dispelling monolithic tropes in favour of more nuanced conversations. With her Oscar-winning animated short, Bao, Shi was able to thread the needle between telling a story that felt real to immigrants and also had broader appeal. The change the main character makes seems small in scale but has massive implications for her life.
Shi feels like she’s in constant transformation, whether big or small, having embraced change in all aspects of her life. “It’s all about figuring out who you are,” she says. “It’s an ongoing journey throughout your life.”
This truly hit home for the filmmaker as she sought to advance her career despite a strong dislike of public speaking and pitching her work (and consequently, herself.) Knowing she had to overcome this, she chose to strengthen her skillset by saying “yes” to every speaking opportunity presented to her. Shi acknowledges that her approach has helped. “I’m still nervous when I pitch, but I’ve gotten much better. Anything that feels like a weakness, I throw myself into the deep end and try to get better at it.” By improving her ability to pitch her ideas, Shi has also learned to trust her intuition and better understand when she should advocate for herself and her ideas rather than listen to naysayers.
Shi confronting seemingly outsized challenges is not dissimilar from Chihiro in Spirited Away, a movie that has played a large role in influencing her career and worldview. This was the first movie the filmmaker marvelled over. “I didn’t know movies could be like that, that protagonists could reflect their audience and real people versus fantastical, perfect heroes and heroines.” She also cited other attributes of Chihiro, including her childlike chubby cheeks and clumsiness as markers of her humanity. The impact of these influences can be seen in the characters Shi has created over the years, especially with Turning Red’s main character, Meilin.
Despite Pixar’s first feature film being 1995’s Toy Story, Turning Red was its first feature directed by a solo woman. While that achievement is a long time coming, Shi admits that the gravity of the milestone didn’t hit her until the movie was being shared with the world. In addition to Shi’s helming of the project, most of the creative leadership was women-led, a deliberate choice that would support her vision of creating characters that felt authentic and lived in. Meilin, a 13-year-old girl straddling childhood and adolescence, was the direct manifestation of this.
Making these types of leadership and creative decisions is something Shi traces back to opportunities she was given throughout her career. She also cites the importance of allies who encouraged her and helped harness her creative voice. “Just be aware that when you bring on new female hires, people of colour, or minority hires, you’re not just tossing them into the deep end. [There needs to be] a support system helping new voices thrive and shine.”
A direct line can be drawn between the influence Spirited Away has had on Shi and the characters she creates. They’re not destined heroes, they’re messy and imperfect. You can feel the reverence Shi has for characters like Chihiro. “She wasn’t a ‘chosen one’ kind of character. She just worked really hard and persevered; I thought that was really, really inspiring, and I related a lot to her story.”
Her desire to create characters that are authentic help draw the viewer in and influence our views of the world, especially with a medium like animation, which she says is a mechanism to deliver otherwise difficult messages in a softer, more approachable way. Further, stories that are considered to be outside the mainstream expectations can help marginalized communities see themselves in art, potentially influencing a whole new generation of storytellers.
With much of her work centering on themes of transformation and growth, Shi sees how this is relevant to her own narrative. She doesn’t feel as though she’s driven by one specific mission; instead, she wants to continue to explore what her mission is by telling meaningful stories in creative ways so that she can continue her journey of self-discovery. “Animation is such a powerful tool to explore dark themes, but in a kind of abstract and entertaining and colourful way that creeps up on you.”
Everyone wants to see themselves reflected in art and culture, but capturing the specific nuance of experiences is a true art form—one that, if done well, evokes feelings of empathy. This is why stories of transformation are timeless. Much like Shi’s protagonists, we all face challenges that present the opportunity to grow and evolve. Whether through the eyes of an immigrant mother or a teenager (who just so happens to turn into a giant red panda) coming of age, the common thread between her characters remains the same—we are all on our own journeys of transformation and change. The path to self-discovery is rarely a smooth one. Rather, it’s a clumsy, stumbling, and uncomfortable experience that is defined not by the end result, but by the decisions made along the way. It’s a reflection of Shi’s own experience and the stories that she’s putting out into the world.
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