Pixar Story Artist Domee Shi Interview

This week sees the release of Pixar’s highly anticipated Inside Out and to celebrate we’re interviewing several people who worked on the film and posting one a day until the film’s release on Friday.

We thought it appropriate to begin with a local talent who had the pleasure of Inside Out being her first Pixar project. Story artist Domee Shi grew up in and around Toronto where she never really had any career in mind other than becoming an artist. It was ultimately a fan art website that helped show her the path to making this possible. “In the 11th grade I was on DeviantArt.com a lot, posting fan art of my favourite anime and Harry Potter. A lot of my favourite artists came from Sheridan College and that’s what motivated me to apply. Through Sheridan was how I realized I wanted to get into animation. “

Were you a Disney kid? 

Yes, I loved Disney. I loved all of the Disney knock-off movies, like Anastasia and Thumbelina. I just loved animation so much, 101 Dalmatians was my favourite, and The Lion King. That influenced me a lot, I would just go on the internet and look for pencil tests and just watch them over and over again. That was my jam. 

When did you realize Pixar films were different from other animated movies? 

Even though I was super young when I watched it, the first Toy Story movie was so different than all the musical animations that were coming out at the time. It was probably Finding Nemo when I realized wow, they’re making different stories, stories that are really emotional and they feel real. It’s not just an animated film, it felt like there were so many more layers and emotions and stories going on in their films. 

What was your first job out of school?

Pixar. I got the internship for story, I did that for three months and then I got hired, I’ve been here ever since. 

What was the internship like? 

The internship was a lot of fun but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. We had assignments every week that we had to finish within the week and pitch them to a whole entire room. Pitching was the most terrifying thing for me a the time. Talking in front of people was terrifying and I had to do it every single week for three months, so that was really challenging. But it was a lot of fun, it was like story bootcamp. We would have to storyboard out the whole story and pitch it board by board. It would all be pinned up and we’d pitch it in real time, kind of like a short film. That’s kind of what I do now except I do everything on the computer and I do a lot more.

What were your main responsibilities on Inside Out?

I was a storyboard artist on it so that meant I would get script pages from the writers and I would look at it and draw out all of the staging, the camera, the characters, the acting, all the emotion and the dialogue. I would draw it out in storyboard panels. This would basically be the first draft of the movie, kind of like the blueprints. I would pitch it to the directors, they would give me notes, I would redo it until we finalized it and then we’d send it to edit and they would cut it together. Then the story reels, which is all our storyboards combined with sound and music and timing. This would be what the rest of the departments would base their work off of. Animation would base their acting off the drawings that we did, layout would base the camera staging off of the staging that we draw, and so on and so on. We’re like the frontline of film production. 


So did your work on Inside Out end quite a while ago? 

It ended about a year ago, but it depends on every show. Sometimes they’d be changing the story up until the last minute and they keep on artists until almost the very end. I wrapped off pretty early on.

What was the most challenging part for you? 

Because it was my first job ever in the industry and at Pixar, I didn’t know anything about storyboarding at the time. I had to just get used to the process, which was draw a lot and draw really fast and you throw most of it away. Which is not what I learned at school, which was you have to make every single drawing beautiful and perfect and precious. You would hand it in and your teacher would grade you. At Pixar the story process is very chaotic and messy. It’s awesome but it took some getting used to, having most of my drawings thrown away and not feeling so precious and attached to every drawing. Just looking at the big picture more than my own individual little scribbles. 

Can you recognize your work in the final product or have so many other people added their contributions by then that it gets a little lost under everything else? 

There are some moments that look a lot like my storyboards. I get really excited when I see it because it’s kind of like your drawings come to life. There are a couple moments like that and that’s really cool, but it’s mainly the whole movie that I try to focus on. 

How is the work broken up? Will you be assigned a scene or concentrate on a specific character? 

Sometimes they would ask you what you want to try out, what kind of sequences you’d want to try out. Sometimes I’d want a challenge, and I’m not that good with action sequences so I’d sign up for one. Every artist has their own niche, every artist is good at a certain kind of scene. Some people are really good at emotion, some people are good with action, some are good with acting. I try to do everything but I’m not too sure if I’m good at anything (laughs). 

What’s your niche? 

I guess it would be comedy or drama. I’m really into dramatic scenes right now. I really like boarding the nuances and the facial expressions when two characters are talking or having a moment. I think that’s really cool. I also like boarding crazy gags. That was one of the funnest parts about being on Inside Out was the brainstorming sessions where we got to come up with different gags and ideas of how to get a character from point A to point B in the most entertaining but fast way. 

I imagine Pixar has a very unique work environment, what’s it like? 

It’s really fun. The animator offices are amazing. They get to stay in one place for most of their time at Pixar so they get to deck out their offices with really crazy things, like man caves, any kind of thing they ever want. They can customize and paint the walls, turn it into a jungle, that kind of stuff. But in story we move around a lot from building to building and from office to office so I don’t really have time to decorate my office, it is a really nice office though. It’s such a beautiful campus. 

It sounds kind of like being back at school…

Yeah, sometimes it feels like College because there’ll be people running around on scooters and some guy will be like riding a tricycle for some reason, I don’t know why, or a skateboard. There’d be people playing soccer at lunch time out on our soccer field. It’s the nicest place I’ll probably ever work, ever. 

Is the job all consuming or do you still find time for side projects? 

I try to keep an art blog active but it comes and goes. Sometimes you’ll be really busy, sometimes we’d have some down time so when I do have down time I try to update the blog with at least some sketches. I’ve tried and failed multiple times to start personal projects, we’ll see what the future has in store. 


What are you working on at Pixar now? 

I worked on The Good Dinosaur for a couple months and then I moved on to Toy Story 4 as a storyboard artist.

Can you tell us anything about Toy Story 4

Nothing, I can’t say anything. Just what’s in the press release. 

What’s on your Dork Shelf? 

Right now I’m collecting a lot of Inside Out merchandise. I bought all of the Inside Out zoom zooms, these little plushy bean characters of all of the Inside Out characters. I’ve got a little Sadness figurine. I’m collecting a lot of cute figurines too, I have a little Link figurine from Zelda. I have a Luffy one from One Piece. I have bunch of little Anime stuff. 

You can check out some of Domee’s sketches and animations on her tumblr, doremimi.tumblr.com.

If you take a look at Domee’s 4th year Sheridan College thesis film Well Being, you can see why her talent caught Pixar’s eye.

Well Being from Domee Shi on Vimeo.