Canadian Oscar winner Domee Shi on pushing change in the animation industry


TORONTO — Canadian animator Domee Shi returned to work at Pixar on Tuesday an Oscar-winner, armed with tales of partying with Elton John and wielding a nearly four-kilogram statuette.

“Everyone’s super jazzed,” Shi said when reached at the California studio where she passed the trophy around to co-workers for photos and selfies.

“Lots of people have never held an Oscar before. I’ve only held Pete Docter’s, like once, when he brought it in to work randomly,” she said of the writer/director of the Oscar-winning films “Up” and “Inside Out.”

The Toronto-bred artist recounts fielding congratulations from Lady Gaga and Regina King at Sunday’s Oscar gala, when she claimed the trophy for best animated short for her Toronto-set film, “Bao,” along with producer Becky Neiman-Cobb.

She gushed over getting to view the glitzy gala firsthand, marvelling over how quickly the sets change, the army of camera people amid the audience, and the many backstage rooms where winners can call loved ones and address hundreds of waiting journalists.

Then there are all the celebrities.

“Once you have this Oscar thing it’s like all of a sudden you’re like the cool kid in school and celebrities who kind of looked over you before are like, ‘Oh cool, congratulations!’ And you’re like, ‘Whoah!” says Shi, recounting exchanges with the “Shallow” singer and King, the best supporting actress winner.

“And then we were able to get into the Vanity Fair after-party which is nuts. You just walk in and, ‘Oh, there’s Elton John,’ and ‘Oh, there’s the “Queer Eye” guys.’ It’s amazing and they’re all just normal people walking around, having drinks or partying.”

Afterwards, she admits to trying to crash the A-list-only party hosted by Jay-Z and Beyonce.

“We found the address and we tried to get in but they were like, ‘Oh sorry, we’re at capacity,'” she sighs.

Now back at work, Shi says she’s focused on developing her first feature-length film for Pixar, but she was mum on details.

The Sheridan College graduate is the first female director to helm a Pixar short but says she’s proud to now be among several at the studio — including fellow Canadian animator Kristen Lester, who just released her short film “Purl” through the company’s experimental shorts program.

“I definitely have witnessed a shift within the industry but also within Pixar over the last couple of years,” says Shi, who has been at the Disney-owned studio for about eight years.

“Feature film is still pretty male-dominated but we’re slowly starting to see that change. Shorts are a great kind of training ground for future directors. I know for me, I definitely don’t think I would have been ready or had the experience needed to direct a feature had I not been given the chance to direct and make ‘Bao.'”

Being part of the change is one small way she hopes to keep pushing the industry further. Shi says nearly all of the top leadership positions in her first feature film are female.

“And that’s just something that naturally kind of happens. Once you staff up a project with female and diverse leadership, the casting kind of naturally reflects that afterwards, too. It’s just proof that it’s just so important to get more representation in leadership.”


Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press