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How ‘Turning Red’ Avoided Chinatown Clichés

Production designer Rona Liu talks ”staying true to just what we see and what we find inspirational“

One of the aspects of Pixar’s “Turning Red” that the filmmakers are most proud of is the movie’s depiction of Toronto’s Chinatown. Not a Chinatown full of offensive cliches or dangerous stereotypes, but the type of Chinatown that feels real and lived in and true to its real-world counterpart. Director Domee Shi recently spoke about how much this aspect of the film meant to her. And it’s easy to understand why Shi is so proud, especially given the painful representations of Chinatown in the past. TheWrap spoke to production designer Rona Liu about Chinatown in “Turning Red” and how the team was able to capture it so beautifully.

If, incredibly, you haven’t seen “Turning Red,” which debuted on Disney+ last spring and is up for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, it tells the story of a young girl named Mei (Rosalie Chiang) who lives in Toronto in the early 2000s and discovers that she turns into a giant red panda when she’s excited. Her transformation is connected to an ancient family curse and, on a story level, serves as a wonderful for the awkwardness of puberty.

While it’s Shi’s debut feature, Liu had worked with her before – on Shi’s Oscar-winning short “Bao” and alongside her on Brad Bird’s “Incredibles 2.” Not that Liu’s involvement in “Turning Red” was a foregone conclusion. “They want the opportunities to be open to everybody,” Liu said about Pixar’s process. “There’s an interview process for every leadership role. Then there’s always getting my portfolio ready, delivering it, and then going through the interview and wondering, Oh gosh, I hope I’m staying competitive with my artwork and everything.” When Shi and her producer Lindsey Collins told her that she was going to be the production designer, Liu thought she was going to faint.

Pixar is famously known for its research trips, both exotic and domestic – for “Ratatouille” the team went to Paris and visited some of the greatest restaurants in the Bay Area, where Pixar is located, while the team from “Toy Story 3” visited the local dump. (Hey, there’s a reason that sequence in the incinerator is so harrowing – it’s accuracy!) Unfortunately for Liu, much of the production of “Turning Red” took place during the lockdown, which led to some inventive workarounds.

“There was a lot of these us getting on Zoom and us all getting on Google Maps and point, putting the little figure down. And then, ‘Which street are you on?’ ‘Hey, we’re on this street.’ We walked virtually on Google Maps, all of the Chinatown locations. That’s how we did our research,” Liu said. “I think it’s a very special place for Domee. She grew up there. It has a lot of meaning for her. I think the culture, the diversity, capturing the warmth of Chinatown, the hustle and bustle. From the architectural point of view, it’s about from the color, it’s getting that salmony red with the brick and capturing the, we call them the cat ear roofs, where it’s two houses kind of pushed together and they both have these triangular roofs and they look like a cat or a panda ears. It’s getting those.” Liu said they didn’t look at other films or depictions of Chinatown, which are often riddled with inaccuracies and clichés and chose to focus instead on “staying true to just what we see and what we find inspirational.”

Another key part of “Turning Red’s” Chinatown is the people who live there. For that, Liu drew on a research trip that she and Shi had taken for “Bao.” They’d go to the Oakland or San Francisco Chinatowns for inspiration. “We’d just stand next to street intersections and just look at the old ladies and the women of Chinatown and getting the way they dress and a lot of floral prints, a lot of mix and matching,” Liu said. When doing research for “Turning Red,” they’d see the same bold expressions in photographs. And they made sure they included it in the film.

As for the stylized nature of “Turning Red,” which is one of the more boundary-pushing technical aspects of the film, Liu said that it all went back to the characters and in particular the panda version of Mei. “Everything revolved around the panda. Once we knew that the panda was a certain proportion, her head was gigantic too… She had what we called chunky, cute proportions (thick legs, big head squat body), then we knew how to stylize our sets,” Liu said. They couldn’t just have “copy and pasted” a real Chinatown building into the world of “Turning Red.” It just wouldn’t work. “It would look like the Chinatown buildings were too slim and realistic. To fit with the proportion of our characters, if a building had four levels, we would make it squatter; it would be two to three levels.” This design philosophy applied everywhere – if a building had four windows, they’d simplify it down to two.

And, of course, Chinatown adheres to one of the biggest design principles of the film. “We talked about everything not being perfect. In the film you don’t see straight lines, you don’t see crisp anything. Everything has this handmade quality. Once we design something, once the modelers make them, we kind of sit around and we ask, ‘How can we make this feel a little more tactile, a little more charming, a little bit imperfect?’ But it’s a tricky process because if you push it too far, then it just looks broken. But if you give it the right amount, then it’s becomes charming,” Liu said.

And in order to test their sets (and that charming imperfection), the team would use a cutting-edge technology – virtual reality. “There were moments early on where we had our VR team and they actually put us in a very preliminary model of a Chinatown street, and then you get to see it as the panda. So you’re getting to see the whole entire scale of things and you get to walk across the street. And that moment was like, Wow, this is real,” Liu said.

“Turning Red” includes another hallmark of Pixar films – Easter eggs. And there’s one, when it comes to Chinatown, that Liu is particularly proud of. “In Toronto Chinatown, there is this red dragon gate statue. For us, it’s like ‘If we made an exact copy of the city as we shoot the film, we might not get to that part of the city.’ So we found a place in the beginning of the film when Mei hops off the bus. You can see it in the background. And it’s our way to include the things that make Toronto Toronto and to give the people who rewatch the film a few times to say like, ‘Oh, hey, I recognize that. I didn’t notice it the first time, but oh, this feels familiar and this feels like home.’”