Pixar promotes diversity through animated shorts

March 26, 2019 — by Emilie Zhou

In the summer of 2018, crowds piled into theaters, eagerly waiting to watch Pixar’s “Incredibles 2.” Audience members, however, were surprised to be greeted by Pixar’s new animated short, “Bao,” which was released and shown in theaters before the film.

“Bao,” directed by Chinese-Canadian director Domee Shi, is the first Pixar short written and directed by a woman. In addition, in celebrating Chinese culture, “Bao” has been an important step for Pixar’s diversity and inclusivity in their films.

“Something like 75 percent enrollment in animation schools is now female. That’s going to create a shift in the industry,” Shi said in an interview with Time magazine. “I feel like ‘Bao’ coming out is a signal of change — that such a big studio has gotten behind such a culturally specific short led predominantly by women.”

The short, inspired by Shi’s own childhood growing up with immigrant parents, also received the 2019 Oscar for Best Animated Short. With the help of other Chinese Americans on her team, such as production designer Rona Liu, Shi was able to capture specific details of Chinese culture and create a storyline based on their shared experiences.

“I think what matters when telling diverse stories is that those people are also the ones working behind the scenes,” senior Emily Zhou said. “‘Bao’ was the first short film directed by an Asian American woman and you can see how it has influenced the film.”

In the film, a dumpling miraculously springs to life and provides company to a lonely Chinese mother who is dealing with empty-nest syndrome after her son leaves her. The mother is given a second chance at parenthood as she raises the dumpling and watches the dumpling grow and mature. The two spend time going grocery shopping and buying Chinese pastries together, but as with any relationship between a parent and a child, the mother and her dumpling son face conflicts when he enters his teenage years and becomes increasingly more rebellious and independent.

And while the short is about a Chinese family, the messages regarding cultural clashes and family are universal and relatable to many.

“All children go through a period of distancing themselves from their parents, but that process for many children of immigrants involves rejecting aspects of the culture that they’d grown up with,” Slate Magazine writer Inkoo Kang wrote. “And while a greater appreciation of parental dedication is pretty much a universal experience, that realization can be more fraught for immigrant children, whose parents have often sacrificed an unknowable amount of themselves for the sake of their children’s futures.”

However, in a statement released to The New York Times, Rashida Jones, who had stopped her work in “Toy Story 4” because of creative and “philosophical differences,” said that “there is so much talent at Pixar [but] it is also a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.”

According to Pixar producer Becky Neiman, who produced “Bao,” the studio is trying to expand the kinds of stories they tell and the types of storytellers that tell them. As a result, “Bao” and other recent films, such as “Coco” and “Sanjay’s Super Team,” mark the progress Pixar has made in becoming more diverse as each film celebrates and shares the unique aspects of different cultures.

New releases focusing on different cultures, groups and communities have given opportunities to those who may be considered industry minorities and have been steps in the right direction for Pixar and the film industry.

“I pitched two ideas along with ‘Bao,’ not knowing if Pixar would ever go for an idea this weird but also this culturally specific, but those were the reasons they liked it,” Shi said in an interview with Cineplex. “I think they’ve really come to embrace, to really value stories from different backgrounds.”

More recently, Pixar has also released a short called “Purl” that explores diversity and acceptance in the workplace. In a male-dominated company, a ball of yarn named Purl is judged and ignored because she is the only ball of yarn in the office. Purl then tries to find a sense of belonging and inclusion by changing her appearance and behavior to be more like her coworkers. Not only does the film wrestle with ideas of being confident in oneself and the need for diversity in the workplace, but also the idea of having to give up one’s identity in order to be welcomed.

Pixar has also recently started its SparkShorts program to “discover new storytellers, explore new storytelling techniques, and experiment with new production workflows.” They are working with people of different backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities to bring their artistic visions to life or tell their individual stories. For example, “Float,” one of the SparkShorts that will be released later this year, is directed by Filipino-American director Bobby Rubio and will feature Filipino-American characters. Another one of the SparkShorts, “Loop,” will focus on the interactions between an autistic girl and her canoeing partner to reveal the importance of learning how others experience the world.

"I am proud to tell our stories and I am so grateful to tell our stories,” Rubio wrote in a series of tweets. “I know what it means to be underrepresented [and] I’m going to do my best to tell more!”

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