‘True growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum’: Domee Shi Discusses Directing, Drawing, and More

Photo courtesy Disney/Pixar

Pixar Animation Studios Director Domee Shi, who won an Oscar® for her short film “Bao” — a SIGGRAPH 2018 Electronic Theater selection — sat down with us to kick off our monthlong quest to profile amazing women in computer graphics and celebrate Women’s History Month. Shi, whose first feature “Turning Red” hits Disney+ this month, is forging a path as a directorial voice for identity and expression through transformation, first through food and now through animals. With her newest project about to reach audiences, hear what Shi had to say about the career journey she’s taken.

Photo courtesy Disney/Pixar

SIGGRAPH: Share some background information on your career. What brought you to computer graphics/animation?

Domee Shi (DS): The very first film my family owned was Disney’s Aladdin on VHS. I remember watching it on repeat as a kid and being mesmerized by the drawings coming to life and wanting to tell my own stories with drawings. Throughout my teenage years I was obsessed with anime and manga, and would draw endlessly in my sketchbook. Drawing was my way of making friends, of communicating ideas and feelings to people, and I absolutely loved it. I was determined that whatever I was going to do for a living had to involve drawing in some way, and animation seemed like the obvious choice.

SIGGRAPH: What is the best career advice you’ve ever received? Who gave it?

DS: The best career advice I’ve ever received was from Pete Docter. Before working with him, I had a very narrow view of what a director was supposed to be and never thought I could be — someone who had all the answers, who was loud, aggressive, commanding. He taught me that there isn’t one kind of director, that you can lead successfully with curiosity and respect and not have all the answers but be open to discovering them with your crew.

You can lead successfully with curiosity and respect and not have all the answers but be open to discovering them with your crew.

SIGGRAPH: What excites you most about your work? Where does your passion come from?

DS: I’m most excited about taking audiences on a journey and getting them to laugh and gasp and cry when they watch our work onscreen. There is something so cool about commanding the attention of an entire room for 90 minutes with your work. I was always very socially awkward and shy, so drawing and filmmaking became my way of expressing my ideas and reaching people.

SIGGRAPH: What’s one thing you keep at your desk that you can’t live without? Or that inspires you?

DS: This may sound narcissistic, but I always keep a mirror by my desk. It’s really helpful when I’m trying to draw a specific facial expression on a character and I need a quick reference. I also need to keep a sketchbook/notepad and pen handy at all times for doodling/jotting down ideas.

SIGGRAPH: Share 2-3 resources you frequent for inspiration.

DS:

  • Instagram for finding amazing artists and illustrators [follow Domee on Instagram!]
  • Coffee shops for café sketching, reading
  • Books Kinokuniya for art books, manga, magazines
An Animation review on “Turning Red.” | Photo courtesy Disney/Pixar

SIGGRAPH: What did it meant to you to be part of SIGGRAPH and win an Oscar in the same year?

DS: It was such an amazing experience for our short film to be recognized by the Academy. On top of that, to travel with my crew to SIGGRAPH and geek out about the making of process and acknowledge all the incredible work everyone has done, was an absolute JOY.

SIGGRAPH: What advice do you have for the next generation of women entering computer graphics/animation?

DS: Community and allyship are huge. Find trusted people who will be your confidants, your cheerleaders, your friendly rivals, and your toughest critics. True growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You need other people around to push you.

True growth doesn’t happen in a vacuum. You need other people around to push you.


For more content spotlighting women in computer graphics, click here. If you are an animation or visual effects professional and have a new project to showcase, don’t miss your chance to share it with SIGGRAPH and join professionals like Domee as a contributor to Electronic Theater excellence. SIGGRAPH 2022 Electronic Theater submissions close on 22 March.

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