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‘Turning Red’ director Domee Shi is a gamer

Her love of Nintendo helped influence the critically praised Pixar film

Domee Shi, director of Disney and Pixar's “Turning Red.” (Washington Post illustration; Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney; Disney/Pixar)
6 min

“Turning Red” director Domee Shi remembers the time she attended an anime convention after class and walked out into the halls of her high school wearing her cosplay outfit. She was dressed as Luffy, the main character from the pirate anime “One Piece.”

“I just thought, ‘Oh, I don’t have time to change. I’ll just change into my cosplay outfit,’ ” Shi recalled. “I walked out, and then people, they looked at me so weird.”

Years later, she remembered the looks people gave her, and remembered rushing into her mom’s car. These days, she said, celebrities like Doja Cat and Billie Eilish embrace Japanese comics, reflecting how nerd culture has gone mainstream.

“Nerd geek culture from the 1990′s and 2000′s have now become mainstream,” Shi said. “That’s cool. It totally wasn’t the case when we were growing up. Back then, I was vice president of the anime club [in high school]. … I was looked at as a weird freak.”

Growing up in Canada during that era, and experiences like the high school cosplay outfit, serve as the inspiration for “Turning Red,” a coming-of-age movie from Disney’s Pixar about a Chinese Canadian girl who turns into a red panda when she’s embarrassed. Released directly to Disney Plus on March 11, the film marks Shi’s directorial debut after she first rose to prominence with the Oscar-winning 2018 short film “Bao.” In Pixar’s 36-year history, she is the first woman to direct a film by herself.

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Shi, who wrote and directed “Turning Red” with a team led by women, imbued the film with references to nerd culture while being an avid gamer herself. She reminisced about watching anime episodes translated by fans and playing Nintendo games secretly after bedtime, and, now that the film has been released, looks forward to again taking up gaming in her spare time.

In “Turning Red,” which is set in the year 2002, 13-year-old Meilin Lee doodles manga under her bed, using imagery that’s inspired by Japanese comics like “One Piece” and “Sailor Moon.” She cares for a virtual pet Tamagotchi while doing schoolwork, and she idolizes a boy band with elements of Korean pop music.

Shi said she and production designer Rona Liu’s love of Nintendo influenced the look of “Turning Red.”

“Both of us just love that chunky cute aesthetic, and that was definitely fostered by playing Nintendo games, like ‘Pokémon,’ like ‘EarthBound,’ " Shi said. “There’s just something so appealing about how they are able to stylize their world in such an appealing, chunky, cute kind of way. When we were looking at the looks development for our movie, we looked at ‘Breath of the Wild’ and were like, ‘Wow, how are they able to make the world feel so beautiful and rich but are still able to simplify it?’ ”

She added that video games have been a big influence for her in animation “because a lot of video games take more risks that way, versus animated films, which stick to a more traditional kind of look.”

Shi was able to play these games growing up despite her parents being less than enthusiastic about her hobby. She would play Pokémon and Zelda games on handheld devices like a lime green Game Boy Color and Nintendo DS Lite so she could hide them under her pillow to play past the hours her parents allowed.

“[My parents] have pretty much the same attitude that a lot of parents did at the time, and even now, which is that ‘This is a waste of time. Are you obsessed with this? Go outside and get fresh air and exercise.’ ” Shi said. “They didn’t really understand it.”

“Turning Red” became embroiled in controversy in early March after a critic called it “exhausting” on Twitter and said in a review it felt like the target audience was “very specific and very narrow,” focusing on a Chinese Canadian teenage girl. After his review was loudly denounced on social media, the outlet deleted it, apologized and assigned it to another writer.

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“Puberty and growing up is exhausting, and good for you for not having an exhausting adolescence,” Shi said in response to the original review. “It seems very ideal, and, yeah, movies don’t have to be for everybody. But if the only reason why you don’t want to watch this movie is because it stars a character who doesn’t look like you, then you’re going to miss out on a lot of really cool and interesting movies, stories and video games, just in your life in general. They don’t have to look like you for you to relate to them. So give it a chance. And then you can bash it.”

Shi remembered drawing in her secret sketchbook while she was growing up, like Meilin Lee did in hers. She was known by classmates as the girl who drew people’s favorite Pokémon, and she would trade her drawings for things like Yu-Gi-Oh cards and yo-yos.

“If someone told 13-year-old me who was drawing Pokémon or Sonic fan art for dollars and weird trinkets that she could do that for a living and make a million-dollar movie about that, I think she’d be amazed,” Shi said. “I feel proud that I was able to put my experience up there for the world to see and to hopefully promote more stories from different cultures.”

In recent years, Shi has been playing games like “Metroid Dread,” “Super Mario Odyssey,” “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” and “Hollow Knight.” During the production of “Turning Red,” Shi bought a PlayStation 4 Pro to check out current video games. While she described herself as initially intimidated and “not a hardcore gamer,” she said she became immersed in games like “Red Dead Redemption 2,” “Ghost of Tsushima,” “The Witcher 3” and “Death Stranding.”

Now that the film has been released, she said she wants to play “Elden Ring” and try out “Pokémon Brilliant Diamond” and “Shining Pearl.”

“I’m really excited to get back into video games. I have a list of games I want to try,” she said.

Shi said the next thing she works on will likely be shaped by her personal experiences, just like “Bao” and “Turning Red.”

“Even if I tried to actively avoid it, I can’t help but put a little bit of myself in there,” Shi said. “I’m not 100 percent sure what my next project’s going to be, but it’s going to be very ‘me,’ whatever that means.”