March 11th sees the release of Pixar’s first offering of this year, Turning Red. Directed by Academy Award-winner Domee Shi, the film centers on a kid named Mei, a diligent, studious, and sassy pre-teen who one day wakes up as a giant, fluffy red panda. It’s up to Mei and her support system of friends and her mom to help her navigate life as she enters her first phase of adulthood.
Murphy’s Multiverse were given the chance to attend the film’s press junket that had certain members of the production including Shi herself, producer Lindsey Collins, and their talented crew of production designers and animators. Here are a few things we learned from Turning Red:
Director Domee Shi wanted to create a Pixar film with a female protagonist that was different from the other films
Pixar films have always leaned towards the fantastical and otherworldly. Whether it’s about a superhero family trying to normal lives, a robot living in isolation a millennia later, or a journey through the afterlife, these films are usually far removed from what we recognize in real life. Turning Red seeks to upend that. According to director Domee Shi:
When I first pitched the film, I really wanted it to feel different and unlike any Pixar film you’ve seen before. This is going to be Pixar’s first contemporary teen girl protagonist and I really wanted the world to reflect her character: colorful, chunky and cute, bold and in your face just like Mei. The term I used a lot to the crew was ‘Asian tween fever dream.’ We really wanted a fun, specific backdrop to tell this coming-of-age story, so we decided to set it in Toronto, Canada in the early 2000s.
The decision to keep it contemporary goes beyond the surface. The culture and norms of the era play a big part in giving the film such a distinct vibe. Shi adds:
Not just because it’s when I grew up as a tween, but it was also the height of tween-of teen pop mania in the late 90s, early 2000s, you had those boy bands, pop idols. We also just wanted to avoid social media and just kind of tell this story in a simpler time of flip phones, CDs, jelly bracelets, and Tamagotchis.
Rosalie Cheng was originally the film’s stand-in voice actor and not the star
Rosalie Cheng had no idea she was going to be the star of Pixar’s next big film when she signed on for Turning Red. The plan was to have her voice the protagonist Mei to give the production crew a sense of the character while they were looking for the right talent for the job. As fate would have it, they eventually realized that Rosalie was the right person. Producer Lindsey Collins says:
In our earliest version of this film, we found this local 12-year-old girl right here in the East Bay to record our temp voice for our lead character. And over the next year, we tried to look for other actors to replace her in the final film. Frankly, nobody came close. Rosalie Cheng had become the main character Mei and there was no other choice in our minds.
During the junket, they showed me and several members of the press a heartwarming clip of the moment they told Rosalie she was starring in the film.
It’s a film about growing pains
Turning Red is a lot of ideas rolled into one. It’s about puberty and the confusing physical changes that come with it. It’s about transitioning into adulthood while honoring yourself in the process. It’s about navigating through the cultures of your immigrant family while assimilating in a world that feels alien. As director Domee Shi described it, all of these ideas are distilled into a mother-daughter story about “finally embracing change and all of its messiness even if it means saying goodbye to the relationship they once had.”
Expect some fourth-wall-breaking inspired by Lizzie Maguire and Ferris Beuler
Protagonist Mei is as sassy as they come and with that sass comes the opportunity to have one with storytelling. Turning Red opens with a fun opening sequence that has Mei breaking the fourth wall. The inspirations for that choice are unsurprising but are welcome nonetheless. Shi said:
I just wanted it to feel different, in every way. And I don’t think we’ve done a fourth wall breaking sequence yet in a Pixar film. And, you know, I grew up loving those classic teen movies like Ferris Bueller but also those terrible but awesome Disney TV channel movies, where they had very precocious, sassy fourth wall breaking characters, like Lizzy McGuire. I kind of wanted to just take that energy and put that in this movie. It also kind of sets it in this nostalgic time period as well.
Black Panther and Mandalorian composer Ludwig Goransson is doing the score
Producer Lindsey Collins set out to form the best team, from top to bottom, to make Turning Red as great as possible. That task includes hiring the right composer to breathe new life to the striking animation. Collins settled on Ludwig Goransson, a composer and producer who has worked with the biggest artists today and has scored music for the biggest films. Collins had this to say about Goransson’s work on the film:
He brought this perfect mix of traditional score and also a deep early 2000s pop knowledge to the movie. I will say that the leap Ludwig’s score took from early demos to final recording was mind-blowing. I think largely because he added so many unique sounds and tracks on top of the traditional musicians’ tracks, it just made the film pop for us in a way that we were just thrilled for.
Billie Eilish and Finneas wrote original songs for the film’s in-universe boyband, 4*Town
Just as they set out to hire the best composer with Goransson, the production team also had the undertaking of hiring someone to compose songs for Turning Red‘s fictional in-universe boyband 4*Town. The boyband plays a huge part in Mei’s journey and therefore needed to be a realized thing. With the help of her kids, Collins’ first choice ended up being the songwriting partnership of Billie Eilish and her brother, Finneas.
Billie Eilish was relatively unknown but adored by my kids in 2016, and her song Ocean Eyes was playing on repeat in our house. So when we started thinking about songwriters who could capture the early 2000s sound and bring something fresh to it, Billie’s name came up. After further research with the Disney music team, we had a better sense of Finneas and Billie and their influences, their style, and figured, you know, why not start with our dream choice?
To nab the biggest popstar and her equally successful producer of a brother, the production set out to make a notebook containing pictures, sketches, and diary logs – as if they were made by Mei herself – to convince them to board the project. The production was successful as Eilish and her brother said yes to Turning Red not too long after receiving the notebook.
Their songs truly brought 4*Town to life. Finneas actually even sings as one of the band members. He’s Jesse. In the end, they wrote three original songs for us.
4*Town was inspired by your favorite boy bands
Being a kid of the 90s, it’s unsurprising to know that Shi drew inspiration from that particular generation of pop culture. 4*Town is made up of a hodgepodge of boy band influences that spans Backstreet Boys and the present-day crazy of K-pop.
They’re definitely a homage to all the boy bands I loved growing up in the late ’90s and early 2000s: Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, O-Town, 98 Degrees. We really wanted them to also feel like multicultural and even though they are like a homage to the boy bands of that era, we wanted to bring like a little bit of a modern touch to them too. One of the boy band members, Tae Young, is a homage to the K-pop boy bands that I got into in-in college.
Anime is a big part of Turning Red’s DNA
Turning Red breaks the Pixar mold in a lot of ways, not the least of which is its distinct animation style that heavily draws from anime, a genre that Shi grew up loving. Animation supervisor Aaron Hartline revealed to the press the ways they sought to imbue a recognizable anime touch with Pixar’s signature hi-fi animation.
We wanted to tap into Domee’s passion for the two genres of animation that she loves, anime being the East and Pixar Disney animation being the West. Turning Red lives somewhere in between these styles. We took influences from both genres and merged them together. We 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. They even add hearts. Basically, anything to help the characters emote. In Turning Red, we wanted to use this same eye language. We added stars, highlights, shrink the pupils down to tiny dots and create crescent shapes for her eyes. Luckily, Domee had a really strong design sense. She would give us drawings for how the characters should look.Aaron Hartline
Turning Red premieres on March 11 in theaters everywhere and Disney+.