On this episode of Unlocking Us
I’m smiling from ear to ear about this conversation with Domee Shi, a Chinese-born, Academy Award–winning Canadian animator, storyboard artist, and director for Pixar. With Bao, Domee became the first women to direct a short film for Pixar, and with Turning Red—which was released on Disney+ in March 2022—Domee became the first woman to direct a feature-length project for the animation studio. It was so fun to connect with her about creativity, learning, curiosity, and her incredible, groundbreaking work. Also, she may have inspired my new life motto.
Listen to the episode
Brené Brown: Hi everyone. I’m Brené Brown and this is Unlocking Us. Oh my God, I have the best conversation for y’all today. I’m smiling from ear to ear. I am talking with Domee Shi who is a Chinese-born Canadian animator, a storyboard artist, and a director for Pixar. I’m talking about her creativity, her work, and this film is so great. Her directorial debut on Turning Red. And if you have not ever done a deep dive into the Pixar shorts, like those short animated, seven-minute films, you’ve got to do that, you can thank me later. But she also directed Bao. And when she did that, she became the first woman to direct a short film for Pixar. Bao won an academy award for best animated short film, and a ton of other awards too. So I am talking to Domee today about creativity, about learning, about curiosity, and about her film Turning Red, so good. I’m glad y’all are here.
BB: Before we jump in, let me tell you a little bit about Domee. She 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, come on, me and Inside Out, that’s just enough said right? Since then she has worked on the feature films, the Good Dinosaur, Incredibles 2, and the academy award-winning Toy Story 4. In 2015 she began pitching ideas for short films and soon was greenlit to write and direct Bao, which won the academy award for best animated short film. In her role as a creative VP, Domee is involved in key creative decision-making at the studio and consults on films in both development and production. She most recently made her feature film, directorial debut on Turning Red, which was released on Disney+ in March of 2022. Domee graduated from the animation program at Sheridan College, where she was fueled by her love of anime, Disney, and Asian cinema influences that can be seen in her work today. I’m so glad that y’all are here for this conversation. It’s amazing. I mean, Domee was born in Chongqing, China. She resided in Toronto, Canada for most of her life. She lives in Oakland now, and she also tells us that her love of animation is only rivaled by her love of cats. Here we go.
BB: Okay, Domee welcome to Unlocking Us.
Domee Shi: Good to be here. Hi.
BB: Hi. You are just one of my newest, most favorite storytellers.
DS: Thank you. That’s a huge compliment coming from you.
BB: Yeah. I mean, I love a good story, I love a really good Act 2, with a lot of vulnerability. So no one does that in the same way you do it. You’ve got a really singular voice around some things, and I want to get into it, but I want to start with tell us your story. Do you mind?
DS: No, of course not. Yeah. So, I’ve always loved drawing ever since I was little. My dad, he’s a painter himself and he taught art in China before we immigrated to Canada when I was two. So I’ve always been surrounded by paints and canvas and charcoal. And he was like my first art teacher, but he didn’t want me to get into art because he struggled a lot to find his footing in his career in Canada, in the west. But then I discovered animation. The very first VHS my family ever owned ever was Aladdin.
BB: Oh, you’re kidding.
DS: No, and I just re-watched that tape over and over again. And I was just amazed at how these drawings could come to life and be so funny and emotional. And I was also weirdly attracted to Aladdin too. It was a lot of questions, [laughter] a lot of confusion, but I was just very excited and I just wanted to do that after watching the movie and there throughout elementary school and middle school, and high school, like I was always the shy kid, but drawing was my way of connecting with people. That was how I made friends. For boys, they would pay me a dollar to draw their favorite Pokémon. And for girls, they would pay me a dollar to draw them with their crush. And I would sneak them the drawing in class.
BB: You’re kidding.
DS: No, that was my first taste of, “Oh, I could get paid to do this.” And I wanted to chase that feeling of connecting with people with art. And I found out that there was this really great animation school that was just outside of Toronto, Canada, where I lived, Sheridan College. And I applied. Me and my dad worked on my portfolio together. We’d go to life drawing classes together…
DS: Almost every week, father and daughter, drawing naked people for hours.
DS: Yeah. But he didn’t give up on me. And I worked really hard on my portfolio. And I got into Sheridan and yeah, I’ve just been chasing that passion of just wanting to draw for a living somehow and getting paid to draw for a living. And I think it’s kind of led me to this point where I get to do that.
BB: So, tell me what your experience was like at Sheridan? Was it what you expected?
DS: No, but it was even better. I feel like I found my tribe almost at Sheridan.
DS: Yeah. For the first time, it wasn’t just me and one or two other people that were really into anime and animation. In high school, it was like me and a handful of other kids and we formed the anime club at school that no one ever went to. Even though we put up posters all over the hallways at school.
BB: But no one showed up.
DS: No one showed up, but at Sheridan, everybody was interested in animation. Everybody loved comics and animation and anime. And all of a sudden, I was surrounded by people that liked all the things that I liked and got all nerdy and passionate about the same stuff that I was passionate about, so that was awesome. I didn’t expect that.
BB: So, a sense of belonging, a sense of community.
BB: How did your craft change? Or did it? During those years?
DS: It changed a lot, I think with every stage in my life, like going to Sheridan but also coming to Pixar, at Sheridan for the first time, I felt like for a while in high school and middle school I was like that big fish in a small pond. I was that kid in school who could draw and there weren’t a lot of us around, but then all of a sudden, I’m thrust into this program where everybody was that kid who could draw in middle school, and high school, and all of a sudden, I’m in a big ocean, and it was intimidating because there were so many amazing artists who were my age or younger. And there was this sense for the first time that I was out of my comfort zone in a good way, but I was like, “Oh man, I have to really step up my game because everyone here is really, really good,” and immediately… I put a lot of pressure on myself, but in a good way, and I think that’s how I grew so fast in that environment too.
BB: So, then you go from Sheridan to…
DS: To Pixar. From Sheridan all the way to Pixar.
BB: Yeah. Well, you can’t skip over this. Tell me, was that like, “Oh my gosh, I really hope I end up at Pixar,” and you did, or was it a long shot or was it like, “Of course, the next step is Pixar.”
DS: Oh man, yeah, in third year, I applied for the internship program at Pixar, they have an internship program every summer for a bunch of different departments, like art, animation, story. So I applied for story, and I made the short list, but I didn’t get picked for the final group, and I was so disappointed because I just felt so close, I was like, “Why did they even tell me that I made the short list.” That just feels even more…
BB: That’s so much worse. Yeah.
DS: I know, you should have just said, “Sorry.”
BB: “You weren’t even in the running.”
DS: “Yeah, you weren’t even in the running,” exactly, and I was super discouraged, but then I remember using that as a fuel to really focus my next year, my last year, at Sheridan into really honing in on my student film and my portfolio, and I just remember I really worked my butt off, but then one thing that I did differently in going into my final year too, was for almost my entire experience at college, I had this tunnel vision, of “I’ve got to succeed, I’ve got to make sure my parents didn’t waste their money investing in their only child going into animation.” And I had some friends, but I never had the urge or the interest to look outside of this tiny little friend group that I’ve created, I didn’t go to parties, I didn’t do anything.
DS: But then on my last year, I don’t know like something switched in me, I think it was because I got rejected from Pixar that was just like, “Oh, screw it. I mean it’s my last year, I’ve got to try stuff and do stuff, but also, I have to work on my portfolio as well,” it was funny, I knew these people, these classmates for three, four years already at the time, but I didn’t know them, know them, so I actually started making more friends and talking to people and going to parties… All that stuff. And somehow I think I tried again, I worked on my portfolio again, this time, I really tried to focus on honing it in, but at the same time, I showed it around, I asked for advice, and I got in. [chuckle] So I got the Pixar internship in my fourth year, at Sheridan. And that was pretty amazing.
BB: Wow. Congratulations. Yeah, it’s a big deal.
DS: Thank you.
BB: Can I ask a weird question? I don’t know if I’m going to word it the right way, but I know that you’ll track. Do you think there was a connection between opening your heart and opening yourself to experiences and building connection and that project that you sent that got you that internship?
DS: Oh, definitely. I feel like I learned so much even practically too, because we were all hanging out and working in this one big studio space, each student gets their own desk where you’re working on assignments, but there’s also computers and everyone’s working in there on their own stuff, but they’re working beside each other, and at some point I was like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know how to use this program.” And then I remember a classmate going like, “Oh, ask so and so he knows he is an expert at this editing software,” and then for the first time I was like, “Oh hey, I’m Domee. Could you help? Could you show me how to use this?” And that’s honestly how I was able to finish my assignment, because the school only teaches you so much, but a lot of the important skills that I learned, it was through talking with and getting help from other students and also helping them too, and that was how I was able to finish that short. It was such a crazy year.
BB: Wow it’s almost like you were in your own Act 2.
DS: Yeah, it was totally that. Then there’d be nights because we’d have to pull all nighters at the studio and stuff where… To finish our work, where people would be like, “Hey, we’re going on a convenience store run,” because there’s one convenience store that’s open 24/7 that was close to the school and then, “Does anyone want anything?” And I just got more involved. Like I felt like it became more of a communal… Like a community in fourth year, I think first year, second year, you’re kind of like your own little island and stuff, third year, it was crazy as a whole other thing, but then fourth year was kind of like, you’re all working on your own films, but you’re all kind of like… I don’t know, it’s just something about that environment that made us all start to kind of lean on each other and help each other, because we’re like, “Oh, we’re all in this together.”
BB: God and we’re all in this together is when I watch it’s a big theme for you, in the stories you write in the stories that you animate.
BB: Tell me about Pixar.
DS: Yeah, that’s funny you mentioned… Yeah, that feeling definitely carried through, when I went to Pixar, we’re all in this together. Yeah, when I first got hired at Pixar, that was in 2011, and I was a storyboard artist on Inside Out, that was my first time working on a feature film, working in a big studio. Yeah, I just felt so lucky to be able to work with Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen on the movie about going into the mind of a 13-year-old girl. I was like, “Yes, I don’t know anything. I’ve never watched Star Wars, but I know what it’s like to be a 13-year-old girl.”
DS: That’s the only expertise I have coming into the industry when I’m 22. And it was such an inviting, friendly environment where I felt comfortable raising my hand in a room and suggesting stuff, and I really owe it to the leadership on that show that kind of created that environment for me. And I think at the time too, even though I was working on such an amazing project, I still had that feeling, that itch of wanting to make something and do something on my own, and that’s when I started working on a little project on the side that eventually became Bao.
BB: Stop it, stop it. Let’s just take a pause for a moment. I want you to listen to the podcast, but if you have not seen Domee’s short, Bao, you need to stop, push pause right now. Get a hot tea, sit down, and watch it because… Oh, Barrett, did you cry? Yeah, my sisters and I cried and cried. I was the mom; I was the dumpling. I was the kid, I was the girlfriend, Bao. Okay, so did you just say, “Hey, I’m going to keep working on this stuff with all of you on this team, but I’d like to run a side project of my own work?” How does that work?
DS: Well, at the time, I was just thinking, “Oh, I’ll just make Bao kind of on my own as just a side project. I just wanted to keep being creative and kind of working that muscle as I worked on Inside Out and other feature films full-time during the day. But then as I started working on it, I realized, “Oh, I kind of want to recreate that feeling that I had at Sheridan.” That feeling that you have at school where everyone around you is kind of making something cool or you’re motivated by everyone’s energy, so I started sharing just the small little doodles that I had, the outline… The super rough outline that I had for Bao, I started pitching it to people, to fellow story artists, other artists, just to get their feedback, like, “How can I make it better?” But also, “Oh, maybe this is something that they’d be interested in, and they’d want to help me make for free on the side.” And I remember the very first collaborator I found was Rona Liu, who ended up being the production designer for Bao, but also Turning Red, but it was just… We came into Pixar around the same age, we had similar taste in movies and animation, and she was working at the time as just a sketch artist. But I knew that she also wanted to do something creative, as well.
DS: So I shared with her the story and she got really excited about it, and I was like, “Great, you should production design it, I don’t know how we’re going to make it, but it’s just a cool thing to work on outside of our day jobs. ” And we even went on little field trips to China Town together, we got dumplings, we took photos of it, we were both so proactive in making it even before it was an official project. But that was really cool because getting other people involved gave me that motivation to keep working on it. And then at some point, Pixar… They don’t do this anymore, but they put out this open call for pitches for the next theatrical short, so any employee at the studio could sign up, pitch three ideas for a theatrical short and then kind of go through the gauntlet of directors, producers, execs until finally, one person’s idea is chosen. So I immediately signed up for that and I pitched Bao along with two other ideas for a short film. And I remember when I was working on my pitch to pitch to Pixar, I had gotten maybe just one or two pieces of feedback that made me doubt the ending of Bao, where… Spoiler alert, the mom…
BB: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got it.
DS: Eats the dumpling. Yeah. And so I chickened out, I changed the ending before I pitched to Pixar and I rewrote it, and I redrew the boards, it was a happy ending. It was… It was just kind of a random ending that now when I look back, it doesn’t even mean anything anymore, it’s just a cute little ending where the dumpling runs away and then the mom is really sad. And then in the morning she wakes up and more dumplings have come to life and she’s happy, because she’s like, “Oh now I have a house full of dumplings.” Anyway, so I pitched that version to the creative brain trust at the time, and they were like, “Oh, that’s cute.” But then I remember Pete Docter stood up and he was like, “Hey, that’s not the version you pitched to me a couple of weeks ago,” because I had pitched to him earlier the original version.
BB: Oh shit.
DS: Yeah, because at the time I was like, “Oh, I just want Pete Docter’s input.” This was before I was going to pitch it to Pixar as an official theatrical short. And so I changed it, I pitched it to the team, and then Pete was like, “Hey, I really liked your original ending,” and then he turns to the brain trust group and he’s like, “Her original ending is really cool and weird and crazy, can she come back next week and pitch the original version?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah. Just give me a couple of days. And yes, I’ll come back and I’ll pitch,” and they were like, “Okay.” And I did, I went back and I brought back the original ending, the shocking ending that the short is known for, and I pitched it and then it got chosen, that version, and it was because of Pete, but also because I luckily pitched to him the earlier weirder version a while ago, that just stuck in his head, so phew thank goodness I did.
BB: Yeah, but how smart of you to… So often, for myself as a creative, other creatives, everything stays tight. Everything stays right next to me. Everything stays tight. I’m not pitching, I’m not looking for advice, I don’t want your input. This is sacred, I won’t change a thing. And then… You don’t have the moment like you had where someone says, “I love that original thing that you pitched.”
DS: Yeah, yeah, I’m like you most of the time to keep things pretty close, but then I realized you have to remember why you got excited about this idea in the first place, because you could go down such a crazy…
DS: Path with notes and feedback and you just… And then you start to lose track of, “Oh yeah, like why I was excited about this story?” And really it was because I wanted to shock people with that ending. That was one of the first images that popped into my head because it was based on my real-life experience of my mom, even to this day, holding me and being like, “Oh, I wish I could put you back inside my stomach so I knew where you were at all times.”
BB: I know. I’m telling you. I was the dumpling, but I was also the mother. It’s so beautiful and hard, and good and real. The ending was real. If I could just… I would, I know.
DS: I know, yeah. I have that feeling with anything cute too. I have this feeling of [laughter] violence bubbling up in me, where I just want to like… Just want to take a bite.
BB: I know. The other day I saw this baby and its thighs had the forty-five dimples, and I was like, “Ooh, I could just eat that.” And the mom was kind of scared a little bit because I didn’t look like, “Oh, that’s cute.” I looked like hungry. So, I get… It’s just…
BB: Okay. So Bao, I need everybody to watch it. It’s just incredible. Turning Red.
DS: Yeah, that was a natural progression.
BB: Okay, tell me.
DS: After Bao.
BB: We’ve got to talk so much about it.
DS: Yeah, I’m so grateful that I got the experience to make Bao because I think it really helped me step into this feature film director role with Turning Red. And that whole experience too, with changing the ending before I pitched it, but then getting a second chance to pitch the original ending and really helped build my confidence, I think too, in believing in and standing by my quirky and weird ideas. So, I think I brought that into Turning Red, into pitching a feature film, because at that point I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to go weird, as weird and as authentic as possible, and I can always reel it back, but I will never censor myself before I get feedback.” I’m never going to try to guess what people are going to react to. I’m just going to go for it. [chuckle]
BB: Yes. Oh my God, the guessing what they want and trying to do that is the devil’s work.
DS: It is, yeah. And so, I kind of had that mentality when I pitched Turning Red because I knew I wanted to do a coming of age story with a teen girl. Again, I pitched three ideas to Pixar, but Turning Red was the most personal and I think the weirdest too. It was always this Chinese-Canadian girl, thinks she has her life together, and then boom, magical puberty hits and she poofs into a giant red panda, which is totally an allegory for her getting her period and puberty and everything. All of that was in the original pitch, and all of that, I think was the reason why they picked it. It was because it was so…
DS: Honest, specific, but also universal at the same time because I think in that really specific story, everyone on the brain trust could see, they could relate to that experience at one point of waking up one day and not recognizing the body that they’re in, that they’re covered in hair, that their emotions are all over the place. Everyone has gone through awkward puberty. So that was kind of my way in, and it’s been a crazy four years. [laughter]
BB: So, it took you between four and five years to make it, is that right?
DS: Yeah, so I pitched it in October 31st, 2017. That’s when it was picked. And then it wrapped, I think November 2021. So yeah, four years.
BB: Give us a high level… I’ve been lucky enough to be inside Pixar and kind of see how it works and a little bit but give us a high level understanding of that process.
BB: Do you draw every frame? How does that work?
DS: Oh, no, animation takes a village, a mighty and amazing village at Pixar. Animation is like film making in slow motion, basically. You start, like with any live action film, you start with the script, and then from there, you story board it out. So, you get a team of storyboard artists and they put up the whole movie in storyboard form, because that’s the cheapest and fastest way to iterate, make adjustments, try out ideas. You have an edit team that cuts all the boards together with temporary music and sound effects and temporary dialogue, and then you just kind of work on that for a long time. So at Pixar, we have at least eight screenings throughout the entire production cycle.
DS: So we’re putting up the movie eight times, at least, every couple of months. And we’re showing it to people. They give us feedback. We go back to the drawing board, and we tweak the script, we rewrite it, we blow things up, we try new ideas, and we’re just refining it and re-doing it eight times until it’s the right story. But then at some point, like halfway through, maybe between screening three and four, we have to start solidifying and locking certain scenes for production. We have to start making it. So then at some point, it just… Things are overlapping each other, and that’s when it gets really crazy, like when you’re re-writing the script, but you’re also looking at animation, you’re recording voice actors, and you’re finagling shots. You’re working on every single level of the movie.
DS: All at once, near the end.
BB: And not in a linear way, right?
DS: No, no yeah. By the end, by the last year, things are all kind of stacked on top of each other, and I think that was the hardest for me, because I work in a very linear tidy kind of way, like do this, and then this, and then this. But then, by the end, it was like blah! Everything was happening all at once. [laughter]
BB: Okay. So, tell me what part… Is it the story boarding where you understand what the protagonist looks like, what her friends look like, what their names are, what the panda is going to look like? How squishy it is. How does that all work?
DS: Yeah, that’s a good question. It all starts with the script, and then all from there, you go into story, and then with the character designs, that’s art, so that’s the whole art department they design the world, they design the characters, but then you actually have to build it in 3D, so that is another department, it’s a character’s department, and then the sets department. They actually have to build all of the sets, like the sky dome, like the temple in 3D in the computer, and then of course there’s like other departments too, there’s lighting.
BB: Oh my God.
DS: The movie has such a beautiful color and palette…
BB: God. It’s gorgeous.
DS: All of that is lighting, that’s a whole other department too. And then, of course like camera is a whole department as well, we call that layout in animation. So they are like our digital camera men and women. They’ll just go in there, with an actual camera and they’ll be shooting in the 3D space.
BB: Oh my God.
DS: Yeah, and I guess even crazier there’s a simulation department, like hair, clothing, all the panda fur, that’s a whole department, and that’s just a bunch of very very talented sim artists who I’m so thankful for, and I made their jobs very very difficult on this movie because there’s a lot of fur.
BB: I mean there’s a lot fur, there’s a lot of movement of the fur.
BB: Okay, let me go back to my little friends. Did you name them and describe them, how did you get this little friend group together of these adolescent girls? Is that you?
DS: Oh yes, I mean, Mei, the protagonist is definitely me when I was Mei’s age, she’s a little bit more confident and over the top than I was but… I was definitely that dorky, perfectionist tween who was really close with her mom, but also fighting with her every day, and her friends are definitely based off of friends that I’ve had growing up, I think a lot of us have had growing up.
BB: Yes, I was like how did she know these were my friends, I mean Priya, is it Priya?
DS: Priya, yeah.
BB: Priya, I had a friend like that. Who was just always like, “No, yes, no, yes.”
DS: Yeah, like super deadpan.
BB: How did you know these were our friends?
DS: I think a lot of it had to do with working with a lot of female collaborators in this movie. There was Julia Cho, our screen writer, but also Lindsey Collins, our producer. A lot of our story sessions are just us sharing memories from our middle school days, and I think that way you can find a lot of similarities and overlap, and I think it really helps too that that main character comes from a personal place, I could draw from personal experience and put that into the movie.
BB: How did you get the panda idea?
DS: Oh, I knew that I really wanted her to turn into a giant red panda, because red pandas are just so cute and…
BB: Oh, God so cute.
DS: And I thought it could be such a funny and unique metaphor for puberty that I haven’t seen yet. I have seen Teen Wolf, I’ve seen the Incredible Hulk, but then I haven’t seen a cute awkward version of that type of transformation story. Especially with a female protagonist, it just popped into my head super early on, and I knew that was the animal that I wanted her to turn into because it’s also… It’s Chinese and so that was perfect, but also because the story takes place in Canada too. I thought it was perfect that the Panda’s red and white, I was like, “This panda can be a mascot from both like China and Canada” in my head. [laughter]
BB: Yeah, you know it’s so funny because I kept thinking to myself, the whole ancestry story…
BB: Was so beautiful. But then I kept thinking to myself, “Oh God, if this mom turns into a panda, it’s not going to be a cute panda.” And I kept thinking of the panda as… The Panda was complicated, and it was complicated like puberty, and it was complicated like confusion, and it was complicated like shame, and it was complicated like perfectionism, and then… I don’t know, I just thought it was so smart.
DS: Yeah, I’m so glad you say that, because all of that we found up until the last minute, the story was shifting and evolving and it landed in a really cool place, but yeah, I think that the metaphor for the Panda, I think evolved as we were writing the story. I think it started off when I first pitched it as, yeah, it’s a wacky metaphor for puberty. I think it became just a metaphor for all the messy kind of… All the messiness in life that just gets so complicated when you come of age, when you start feeling all of these feelings, and it became a really interesting vessel to tell this story of intergenerational trauma in a family and just looking at not just my family, but just a lot of immigrant families and how each generation deals with messiness in a different way.
DS: And that when we were writing the back story of Mei’s Grandma, and her aunties as well, and the whole decision at the end for them to not keep their Pandas but also not for the audience to not pass judgment on that, was our attempt to show how they had to deal with their messiness in a different way in the past when the world was less accepting or when they had to do that in order to survive. But Mei has what they didn’t have, which is her friends, and a support system, and hopefully a better world that she can live in and be herself where she doesn’t have to do what her mom and her grandma and her family had to do, so that felt like a really cool, and powerful choice for me to make at the end.
BB: I thought the complexity of that was astounding. I thought really, I thought… and no judgment around them choosing to go through… To go through and leave their pandas.
BB: Because I thought about my mom for one and we’re white and middle-class Americans.
BB: So, she had far left, but her own trauma, a lot of addiction in her family. And I thought a lot of my choices to keep my Panda are given to me because of the people who couldn’t.
BB: And so, the aunties were like, come on. I mean, I was like… My sister’s laughing.
BB: These were not cute characters. I mean, if you thought they were cute characters, you didn’t get it because these were like, if things got bad and there was a street fight, I’m going with the aunties, like…
BB: Do you know what I mean?
BB: These were tough, incredible women.
DS: Yeah. Yeah. That was our goal. It was just to yeah, pay tribute to all of the tough opinionated…
DS: Women that raised us, who can be harsh sometimes, but then when an emergency happens…
DS: Or when they’re needed, they will drop everything to help you. Which is what I was really inspired by.
BB: Is the intergenerational trauma… God, it was such a smart movie. So beautiful. And so, but also, so furry and good.
BB: I mean you could just…
BB: I felt all the feels.
DS: Yay. [laughter]
BB: Yeah. You know, and I have a big battery of feels to feel so [laughter] as you can imagine, I felt all of them. Is the intergenerational trauma not only cultural racism, is it also how that drives perfectionism? Is it also shame…? How would you identify the trauma?
DS: Yeah. I think you see a lot of similar experiences with immigrant families especially because the parents or the older generation sacrificed so much and went through such hardship to…
DS: Come to a new country. So place a lot of pressure on the next generation to make sure that their sacrifice was not in vain.
DS: But at the same time, this new generation they’re growing up in a different environment than the older generation and that’s where there’s conflict, because it’s like, we moved to a new place, but you still want me to think how you guys think, but I can’t help but think and want things, want different things because you’re raising me different than how you were raised. Yeah. So I think that’s where a lot of the tension is with a lot of…
DS: Yeah. Immigrant parents and their kids.
BB: Immigrant. Yeah.
DS: Yeah. But also, I just think the older generation, a lot of them have just been through so much more than… I mean, we’ve been through a lot too, like war.
BB: Violence. Yeah.
DS: All kinds of crazy stuff. And that kind of hardened them because that toughened them up and they had to be that way in order to survive and they passed those traits on or those life skills on to the next generation. But then the world is no longer as crazy or as cutthroat as the world that they used to live in. But then, this new generation of kids is inheriting all of these [laughter] maybe outdated or…
BB: The trauma responses.
DS: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
DS: That they don’t necessarily need anymore. And that’s also, yeah. That’s where a lot of those issues lie as well. So, it’s all very interesting stuff.
BB: Yeah. But it’s also, it’s so beautiful. I mean the way you tell the story, it’s incredible. I have to say that the crushes, the boy bands, the drawings underneath the bed.
BB: I know my armpits were sweating.
BB: Yeah. Like when she found those, like the Mermen…
BB: I swear to God I drew that.
BB: Yeah. Did you draw that?
DS: Ah, Mermen? Yes.
DS: And Mermaids, but yes. I think like a lot of women, a lot of people like have had like a Mermaid phase. [laughter]
DS: In their tween years.
DS: I don’t know. Is it The Little Mermaid, but I think it goes beyond that too, but yeah.
BB: Yeah. I’m older than that.
BB: But yeah, but I do think it was like, I just remember the first boy I had a crush on besides like Donny Osmond or like a famous person.
BB: But it was Leif Garrett those people that were on the cover of Tiger Beat magazine, but it was a lifeguard, and I could put his face on anything, like a giant, a merman.
BB: And I had spirals and spirals of it.
BB: And it was so private and kept so far under my bed and in a shoebox. And then when she bends down there, I was like, “no, no, no, no, no, no.”
BB: I almost had to turn it off. I was just… It was… I have to ask this question because it felt important. Is it true that all the people in key leadership positions on this film were women?
BB: Yeah. I felt so seen. Yeah.
DS: Yeah. I think those scenes like that scene and the incident with the pads at school.
BB: Oh God. Oh God.
DS: All the cringy moments. I think because a lot of the key leadership on the show were women. Anytime that any of us was like, “I don’t know, you guys is this too much?” We just had a chorus of women going like, “No, go for it. You remember what it’s like, go hard.” We almost encouraged each other just to lean into that because we all just had that feeling.
BB: Yes. And the feeling with your girlfriends, it was like, “It’s just us against the world and we’re going to go see this concert and screw whatever happens.” And you’re like, “This is the girl that goes to the concerts, not the woman who leaves.”
BB: Like this was a thing.
DS: Yeah, it was. And I really wanted to just capture that it is life or death, the stakes in our movie are life or death.
DS: But that’s specifically for a teen girl.
BB: Oh man. And let me tell you something. My parents did not turn into pandas.
BB: But I was busted one time and it was… And in front of people, my mother could have been a 400-foot panda tearing the roof off the Astrodome.
BB: In front of all of Houston. I don’t know. I just want to say thank you.
BB: You know, one of the greatest… People always ask me about shame and kids and shame and teens. And the thing that I always go back to over and over again is normalize, normalize, normalize. The way bodies act, smell, respond, those crazy feelings that you get, normalize, normalize. And this story was so normalizing in a cringy, relatable, beautiful way. I loved it.
DS: Thank you. Yeah, that was my goal, because any time I have memories of… And any time I would think back to that time in my life in middle school or high school, I would cringe just so hard, so, so hard. [laughter] And I was like, “Oh, man. I can’t. If I would make everyone cringe with me, maybe it won’t feel as mortifying.”
BB: It’s true.
DS: I saw this funny meme on Twitter where someone took Mei as a panda and they placed her on top of this serene mountain and the caption read, “I am cringe, but I am free.” [laughter] And I was like, “Yes, that’s what I want, that’s how I feel.” It’s like, if I could just get all of this out, all this stuff that has been buried in the back of my subconscious that would come out involuntarily when I’m brushing my teeth or about to go to bed, you just get it out and encourage everyone to kind of share and cringe. And if we could all just cringe together…
BB: That’s it.
DS: Then we are free. And then nothing can ever embarrass us ever again.
BB: That’s it. That’s it. That’s it.
BB: I am cringe, but I am free. There’s something about a critical mass of cringers makes cringe bankrupt by definition.
DS: Yeah. We take the power away from cringe.
BB: We take the power away from cringe.
DS: If we all just like… If we all double over together. [laughter]
BB: It’s true. It’s true. And now my whole thing is at work, I can just look at my sister and be like, “We’re minutes away from Panda time, like minutes. So whatever we do here, proceed lightly because we’re heading in that direction.”
BB: Okay. You have time for some rapid fire questions for us?
DS: Yes. Let’s do it.
BB: All right. Let’s do it. Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…
DS: Vulnerability is bravery. [laughter]
BB: Yeah, I love it.
BB: Okay. You are called to be very brave, but your fear is real, you can taste it in the back of your throat. What’s the very first thing you do?
DS: I’ll run towards it without even thinking. [laughter]
BB: I can see that. I can see that.
DS: Yeah. I’m just going to go for it and then stumble along the way but I can’t think. If I think too much about it…
BB: You just go.
DS: Yeah. I’m just going to go, just have to go.
BB: Okay. Last TV show you binged and loved.
DS: Ooh. Succession.
BB: Ooh God, that’s tough.
DS: That was crazy.
DS: It was tough, but I loved every moment of it. There was cringy moments in there for sure.
BB: Oh my God.
BB: Okay, favorite movie.
DS: Favorite movie, Spirited Away.
BB: Oh my God. I reference that in a lot of my books. I talk about death by paper cuts. God, it’s so incredible.
DS: So beautiful, such a great story.
BB: Why is that such a good story? It’s so good.
DS: It’s so real. But it’s also just beautiful and just it’s like comfort food… I love just turning it on, just watching it.
BB: Yeah. I do too. It’ll really sweep you away.
DS: Yeah, totally. And then every moment too, I could just jump in at any time and just watch the scene…
BB: Yeah. It’s poetry.
DS: It is.
BB: Yeah. A concert you’ll never forget.
DS: Ooh, Outside Lands. A couple of years ago, I saw… It was my first music festival and I saw a bunch of artists. I bought the three-day ticket.
BB: Oh, yeah.
DS: And it was exhausting. I was pressed together against everybody else. But it was awesome. I think Tom Yorke played.
DS: And it was like, “Oh, man.” At that moment, I forgot how tired I was, that I was standing for hours. It was just like, “This is really, really cool.”
DS: Yeah, totally transported. That was amazing.
BB: Favorite meal.
DS: My mom’s dumplings. [laughter] I know it’s very predictable of me. But it’s so good. And she refines it every time, too. Every time I go back, she adds something a little different, but she’ll make the dumpling wrappers from scratch, too.
DS: Yeah. And homemade dumpling wrappers, I feel like they taste the best because the dough is a little thicker and she makes them the perfect size. I can just eat it in one… Just in one bite. Yeah.
BB: One bite.
DS: It’s the best.
BB: Okay, weird question. What’s on your nightstand?
DS: Ear plugs.
BB: Oh, yeah?
DS: Yeah, because I started wearing them during the pandemic because there would be a lot of fireworks that would off in my neighborhood. But now that I’ve moved, I feel like I still have to wear them because I find a… I don’t know, it’s weird, a comfort in complete silence.
BB: No. No one tells you they’re addictive. I started wearing them in hotels, but then I got used to the little warm ears and then no ambient sounds. Yeah.
DS: It’s just… It’s like I’m in a cocoon of complete silence. Yes.
BB: Snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that gives you real joy.
DS: This is going to sound silly, but if I have a good, random, spontaneous conversation with somebody, I’ll just bump into them in the hallway and then it’s nice and it’s short, and I feel like we both got a lot out of it, and then we part ways because I get a little anxious when I talk to people, and that was a good moment, I do a little mental high five with myself, like, “Yeah. That was good.”
BB: You’re like boom.
DS: “Yeah, boom we did it.”
BB: “Connected and got out.”
DS: Yeah, exactly. I was like, “Oh, that was good. It was great talking to them.”
BB: I love that.
DS: I feel really satisfied. [laughter]
BB: I love that. Okay. Tell us one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now.
DS: Oh gosh, everything, that I got to and I still get to tell stories with amazing people for a living.
BB: I know we’re grateful that you get to tell stories with amazing people for a living, so…
DS: Thank you.
BB: All right. Are you a millennial?
DS: Yes [laughter], yes, yes.
BB: Yes. I think so. I was looking at your five songs and I was like, “Mm-hmm.” Okay. Okay. We asked for five songs you couldn’t live without for our mini mix tape on Spotify, here’s what you gave us, “It’s Gonna Be Me,” by NSYNC.
BB: “Gold Guns Girls,” by Metric.
BB: “Paper Planes,” by M.I.A. “The Phantom of the Opera” … This was very interesting. Which version of “Phantom of the Opera”?
DS: The 2011 version at the Royal Albert Hall, I think it was the 25th anniversary.
BB: Oh, the big production one.
DS: The big production one with Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess.
BB: Yes, okay.
DS: Yeah, that’s my favorite one.
BB: And then “The Sound of Music,” by Julie Andrews.
BB: Like the song song like, “The hills are alive.”
DS: Yeah. Yeah, that’s one of my comfort movies. Actually, if I watch that opening, I get teary eyed. [laughter] That’s how emotional…
BB: I’m the same.
DS: Yeah, especially the second verse where she’s, “I go to the hills, but my heart is lonely,” I’m like, “Me too.” [laughter] “Me too girl, same.”
BB: I actually walked down the aisle to, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” when I got married.
DS: Really? [laughter]
BB: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Okay, so you’ve got to tell me, this is going to be a trap. But you’re storyteller, so you’ll be able to do it. In one sentence, what do these five songs say about you?
DS: Oh, gosh.
BB: Domee Shi, one sentence.
DS: One sentence, what do these songs say about me? I’m a go-getter, but I’m also very dramatic.
DS: Because I’m like… The first half is yeah, energetic, confidence boosting, and then the second half are just music…
DS: Sweeping, ballad but powerful musical numbers. So yeah, I think that’s me.
BB: You are a highly orchestrated go-getter.
DS: I guess I am.
BB: And we are grateful for what you’re going to get so thank you so much for your work and thanks for being on Unlocking Us with us, it was such a delight to talk to you.
DS: Yeah, it was good talking to you too. Thank you.
BB: And thank you… And wait, wait, what’s next?
DS: What’s next? Oh…
BB: Can you tell us?
DS: I can’t say right now.
BB: I didn’t think so.
DS: But I’m back in development. I’m working on my next project now at Pixar.
BB: No, I know they lock you down over there, yeah. Even when I came to visit, I was like, dang!
DS: But it will be go-getting and dramatic [laughter] like the playlist.
BB: Oh good, I love that. I’m all about it. Thank you so much Domee, I really appreciate and I love your work. You’re just such a gift.
DS: Oh, thank you Brené. You too, it was good talking to you.
BB: You too.
BB: Okay y’all my new motto is, I am cringe, but I am free. Does that say it all? How great does that align with awkward, brave, and kind? I am cringe, but I am free. I love her, I love her films, I love her honesty, her creativity, her truth telling, you can watch Turning Red on Disney+ and Bao there as well. We’ll have a link to everything we talked about today on the episode page on brenebrown.com. I’m so glad you’re here for this. Don’t forget, we are cringe, but we are free. Y’all stay awkward, brave, and kind.
BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
© 2022 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.
Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead podcasts, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.
You are welcome to share an excerpt from the episode transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include proper attribution and link back to the podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
What’s Not Okay
No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Brené Brown’s name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Brené Brown from her Media Kit page or license photos from Getty Images, etc.