The Story and Women Behind Disney•Pixar Short “Bao”

During our trip to San Francisco in April, we had the opportunity to watch the Disney•Pixar short film “Bao” that will play ahead of INCREDIBLES 2 in theaters beginning Friday. We sat down with Director by Domee Shi, Producer by Becky Neiman-Cobb, and Production Designer Rona Liu and were able to learn a bit of background and how production went for the animated short.

“Bao” is a heartwarming story of a mom dealing with her empty nest. I will tell you that I was emotionally invested in the “Bao” characters at the end of this short. Laughs were had and tears were shed. It was beautiful, emotional, and sweet.

Fun fact: Bao means little steam bun or treasure in Chinese. Pronounced /bou/.

BAO filmmaker: Domee Shi (Director)at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Marc Flores)

“Bao” is bound to become a family favorite animated short because of the content and meaning behind the film.

Director Domee Shi

Director Domee Shi began as a story intern at Pixar Animation Studios in June 2011, and was soon hired as a story artist on the Academy Award©-winning feature film “Inside Out.” Since then she has worked on the feature films “The Good Dinosaur” and the upcoming “Incredibles 2” and “Toy Story 4.” In 2015 she began pitching some ideas for short films, and soon was greenlit to write and direct “Bao.”

Domee decided to make an animated short outside of Pixar so that she could let out some “creative steam.” What would it be about? First, she loves eating food and drawing it as well so she started making food-related animated webcomics. This gave her a place to express herself and create food-related stories. She says that “food and family go hand in hand.” 

After she pitched in 2015 and the story was greenlit through Pixar, she worked evenings and weekends until 2017 making beat boards – single images that capture crucial story points. Once she had an outline, she would expand on that and draw images. That’s how she would get ideas down on paper quickly.

“Bao” is a different style of animation for Pixar and Domee wanted to balance the cartoony characters with believability. It’s a story that all children and parents can associate with – “Children growing up and parents accepting that change.” It’s a universal issue and one that emanates from every frame of this short.

3 Ingredients for her short

  • Incorporate her love of food
  • Use her personal experience growing up as an only child in a small immigrant family from China, living in Canada.
    • “Mom always treated me like her precious dumpling. We did everything together. When I was growing up she had that ‘creepy sweet love’ of a mom that wants to keep you with her forever.”
  • Chinatown is vibrant and lively and I wanted to honor the equally vibrant “Chinatown Grannies” from Toronto Chinatown where we went shopping for groceries on weekends.
    • Shi went to Chinatown and sketched lots of Chinatown Grannies. “I wanted to give mom authentic Chinese mom details that I love so much. Things that made her feel real: her comfy athletic shoes, her floral shirts, her mannerisms. Things that make her so real that you empathize with her.”
Bao Mom Concept Art
BAO concept art by Domee Shi (Director). ©2018 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Bao Dumpling Demo

About those Dumplings

Domee brought her mom in to make dumplings for the crew and give demos on how to make the dumplings. She even made her mom a cultural consultant on the film.

“My mom was the dumpling queen. She’d always make dumplings from scratch and we would make dumplings together over holidays.” – Domee Shi

BAO concept art. ©2018 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Domee’s Mom’s Super Delicious (Approximate) Recipe for “Bao”

Click on images to enlarge.

BAO filmmakers: Domee Shi (Director), Becky Neiman (Producer) and Rona Liu (Production Designer) at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Marc Flores)
Rona Liu
BAO filmmaker: Rona Liu (Production Designer) at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Marc Flores)

Production Designer Rona Liu

When Rona Liu introduced herself, she mentioned that she lived in China until she was 10-year-old and that she expresses herself as a Chinese immigrant.

As a production designer, Rona oversees the look of everything from sets, characters, color, animation, and other departments. Rona says that it was her job to make sure that the “story is cohesive.”

She says that Domee “had a clear vision” for this animated short and that Domee’s storyboards were the “jumping off point” for the art. Both Rona and Domee were influenced by Chinese folk art. They appreciated the simplified approach to Asian art, for example, eliminating necks to have them look rounder and cuter.

Bao Dumpling Concept Art
BAO concept art by Rona Liu (Production Designer). ©2018 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
Bao Dumpling
DUMPLING BOY ©2018 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

It’s all in the details

  • Make the characters the main focus and keep the background simplified.
    • They wanted to make dumpling “as adorable as we can make him.” If you look at the images above, he’s like a little dumpling – round, squishy, and squeezable. I think they hit their mark.
    • On paper, Dumpling has a wide range of movements, but in 3D his arms can’t even reach his mouth! Dumpling needed to feel squishy and delicious, and they worked on texture. 
  • Mom’s clothes
    • The colors and patterns she wears show her evolving emotions in that part of the story. Muted colors when she’s feeling low and bold colors when the family is together.
  • The sets play a supporting role
    • Because characters are chunky, the sets needed to be chunky as well as simplified.
    • There are no perfectly straight lines.
    • No edge meets up perfectly in the short.
    • House needs to be a balance of East meets West.
    • Kitchen has earthy tones to sit in the background. Warm and cozy colors would help with the storytelling.

“Nothing you see is ever by mistake.” -Rona Liu

Rona ended her presentation with the biggest takeaway: “We want everyone to feel like they are with their mom.”

MEASURING UP ©2018 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

BaoProducer Becky Neiman-Cobb

Becky Neiman-Cobb (Producer) joined Pixar Animation Studios as a production assistant in 2004. Since then, she has worked as a graphic designer, production coordinator, and departmental manager for a number of feature films including the Academy Award©-winning “Ratatouille,” “WALL•E,” “Up,” and “Inside Out.” Neiman-Cobb served as the production manager for “Finding Dory,” and most recently as the producer of the original short film, “Bao,” set to release summer 2018 in front of “Incredibles 2.” She is currently the associate producer for an upcoming feature film.

“Bao” producer, Becky Neiman-Cobb says that she was strategizing how to work on the short in between the feature productions. She worked with Domee on “Inside Out” and with Rona on “Finding Dory,” but this is the first time that they have all worked together creating an animated short.

Becky has a personal connection to this short while creating “Bao” she gave birth to her own baby “Bao”. She says she because she became a mom, she became an expert on all things baby – baby sounds, baby noises, etc. She could work and then go home to “cross check” the noises.

Bao Dumpling Demo

What issues came up?

Visual effects

  • Ground Pork
    • It took two effects artists nearly two months to create good looking ground pork.
  • Food is soft and organic. The dough is variable.
    • Artists studied Domee’s mom when she was making dumplings to get the images just right.
    • Food is the star in these scenes so they spent extra time creating the right look.
GROWING PAINS ©2018 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

What goes on behind the scenes to create the animated shorts?

Here’s the order for production of “Bao.”

  • Story Boards
  • Art Design
  • Set Design
  • Set Modeling
  • Production Design
  • Set Shading
  • Graphics (signs – on bus and in street)
  • Character Modeling & Rigging
  • Character Shading Artists, Tailoring, and Grooming
  • Layout
  • Animation
  • Visual Effects
  • Simulation Artists
  • Lighting
  • Sound Design
  • Music
    • The score does a heavy load of storytelling as there is NO DIALOGUE in the short. Did I mention that? There is not a single word spoken and there is so much heart in “Bao.”

“Bao” opens in front of INCREDIBLES 2 this Friday. That’s your reminder to be in your seat when the lights go down because you do not want to miss this heartfelt short that is bound to become one of your favorites.

“Bao” Clip

Pre-sale tickets now available!


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