“That was the format that built all my fondest memories of animation,” Shi continues. “Just watching it at home, rewinding to my favourite parts, pausing and trying to sketch Aladdin’s beautiful face. But, yeah. I had mixed feelings.”
It was arguably the first notable flicker of human sexual attraction in a Pixar film – and in Turning Red, much more was to follow
Iger, the Disney chief executive who had commissioned the film – and who once called the acquisition of Pixar his “proudest , just before the international launch of Disney+. Did the late shift to streaming feel like a corporate rap on the knuckles from the new regime, who might look less kindly on creatively risky projects?
Shi looks pained. “It feels like, right now, films have to be seen as an event to be in cinemas,” she says. “But I have hope that all kinds of movies will still get to be seen in theatres. You just don’t know what the market or the future holds.”
Shi’s own cinematic debut came in 2018, when her short film Bao – about a sentient dumpling who gets eaten by its overprotective mother – was picked by Docter to play before screenings of Incredibles 2.
“When I shared the idea with Pete, I didn’t even see the short being made at Pixar,” Shi recalls. “But he was always into the shocking ending – how different and quirky it was. He’s always been appreciative and supportive of all of us weird kids, maybe because he was a weird kid himself. I’m sure that Enrico [Casarosa, the director of Luca] feels the same way. It’s kind of great to have a champion in your corner when you’re pitching your stuff to, like, Disney.”
Towards the end of a decade in which almost two-thirds of Pixar’s films had been sequels, Bao was a welcome blast of originality and cheek, and seemed to herald the arrival of an exciting new voice.
Shi’s first job at the studio was on the Inside Out story team: she came up with the Imaginary Boyfriend Machine, which sits in Riley’s subconscious, pumping out tousle-haired Harry Styles lookalikes
This was all on Docter’s orders. Shi was one of a number of animators the newly promoted Pixar chief had earmarked as directors-in-waiting: Collins explains that the studio is currently in the process of getting “about six pretty exciting and impressive first-timers to the starting line” on features that have yet to be announced.
When work began on the film, Shi and Collins assembled an all-female leadership team – a first in the traditionally male-dominated world of studio animation – which Collins says encouraged a frankness around the film’s intimate themes. Mei openly drools over her favourite boyband, 4*Town, and stashes amorous doodles of the teenage corner-shop assistant beneath her mattress.
“We just wanted to be as honest as possible about what a teenage girl goes through,” Shi says. “She gets her period and gets horribly embarrassed. She goes down find sugar seattle lusty drawing spirals under her bed. She sweatily ogles and objectifies boys with her friends.” (Like Mei, Shi is a mid-noughties Toronto kid: she was born in Chongqing, in the southwest of China, and emigrated to Canada with her parents when she was two years old.) “And the fact we were able to just sit around, this group of women, trading stories about all of these things in this completely matter-of-fact way really helped.”
Collins is unsure. “Having been at Pixar for 25 years, sometimes I was the only woman in the room, or maybe one of two. And when you’re in a minority, you naturally shy away from raising subjects that might be too uncomfortable for the others. And this was…”