Creating the Look of Disney and Pixar’s “Turning Red”

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On March 11, 2022, Disney and Pixar’s 25th feature film Turning Red by director Domee Shi will release exclusively on Disney+.

Turning Red gives us a look at the trials 13-year-old Mei Lee (Rosalie Chiang) undergoes as she navigates the treacherous route of adolescence between childhood and teenage years with the additional complications of an overly-attached mother, embarrassing emotional and physical changes, and a new tendency to Hulk out into a giant red panda whenever she gets excited.

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Recently, Socalthrills.com was invited to take an early look at Turning Red and hear from some of the filmmakers on a virtual press day.  Part of the session was devoted to describing how the film got its unique character design and animation style.

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Rona Liu is photographed on March 22, 2018 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Production designer Rona Liu spoke a bit on the cultural references–pop and otherwise–that informed the stylized world of Turning Red.

On constructing the style of Turning Red:  “We (Lui and Domee Shi) wanted to put into the movie all of the things that we loved at that age.  So we asked ourselves, what influenced our aesthetics when we were 13? 

The answer was a mix of East meets West. Our teenage years were filled with best friends, boy bands, punky music videos, and glitter accessories.  We also watched a lot of anime movies and T.V. shows, and we wanted to mix in that chunky cute design sensibility, expressive character designs, and poppy color palettes.”

DisneyTURNING RED concept art

On character design:  “Since this story centers around Mei’s relationship with Ming, we wanted to make sure that they visually contrast each other.  Their colors give them a
huge statement, so we made sure that Mei is fire red and Ming is emerald green and that they sit on the exact opposite sides of the color wheel.

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TURNING RED

Mei panda symbolizes all of Mei’s intense feelings, so it’s important that she feels cute but also gives the vibe that she is really messy and she doesn’t have it all together.  We made her figure round and chunky, and her fur is ultra-fluffy, but also comfy in areas to show that she’s not perfectly groomed.  We even designed her whiskers to be uneven and crinkled, and to give the vibe that she’s a magical red panda, we gave her little swirls on each arm.

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TURNING RED

Mei human is a confident dork. For her, we looked to ourselves–the chubby cheeks that we had as teens, our sparse eyebrows, and the way that we have moles sprinkled all across our faces.  We gave Mei a pink Peter Pan collar shirt with a thick-knitted cardigan, so she looks like mom’s good girl, and then a denim skirt to give her that early 2000s flair.

We look towards anime for inspiration for her multitude of expressions: Stars in her eyes when she is amazed, giant droplets of tears when she’s sad, and pupils that can shrink down to a dot when she panics.

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TURNING RED

“That’s the complete opposite of how Ming comes across. She’s controlled and elegant with a graceful beauty mark placed under her left eye to contrast all of the random moles on Mei’s face.  She’s dressed in a punchy, emerald green power suit over a slimming qipao dress with perfectly drawn red lips and thinly plucked eyebrows like the ladies from 1960s Hong Kong.”

On the setting:  “Even though we’re going for a squatter scale to fit our character designs, we’re still keeping believability in structure and construction.  We’re reducing complexity so that it’s never diverting attention away from our characters, but everything that you see in the set would function as it would in the real world.

We created a fantastical Toronto and tweaked the real world to fit our design needs while still keeping the city instantly recognizable.  One of the things we constantly said to ourselves was instead of going for photorealism we are going for believability in all aspects of our designs.”

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Finally, animation supervisors Aaron Hartline and Patty Kihm walked us through some of the processes they went through to create the specific anime-influenced animation style for Turning Red.

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Aaron Hartline is photographed on March 18, 2019 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)
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Patty Kihm is photographed on January 24, 2018 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Kihm:  “The first thing we do as animators is immerse ourselves in who the character is, so we can take those traits and find the performances that are true to those characters.  We learned that Mei is an overachiever, straight-A student, but she’s also an awesome uncompromising 13-year-old girl…about to embark on the roller coaster ride that we call puberty.  We wanted her to be full of enthusiasm, but we also wanted her to be somewhat awkward and clumsy to reflect that she’s still in her adolescence.

“We wanted to tap into Domee’s passion for the two genres of animation that she loves, anime being the east and Pixar Disney animation being west.  Turning Red lives somewhere in between these styles.

We often referenced anime eyes on this film, and one of the great things about anime is that it’s not afraid to push the character designs to an extreme.  The character’s eye shape can be drastically different depending on the mood of the character.”

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Hartline:  “The next thing is Mei’s friends, and they are a huge, huge part of this film.  They are her besties, her crew, her ride or die.  We set up a role for each of these friends:  So, Miriam, in the upper left there–we always wanna show off her dorky braces.  Abby always has angry brows, so even if she’s happy, those brows are down and intense.  And Priya, she always has half lids.

We would have discussions in the film, ‘can we just raise it a little bit?’  ‘No.’  It’s always half lid the entire show. To show that the girls are tight, that they are one, we literally move them as one. They would start and stop, all four of ‘em, at the exact same time.”

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Disney and Pixar’s Turning Red will debut exclusively on Disney+ on March 11, 2022.


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