Director and Royal Conservatory alumna Domee Shi earned one of the highest accolades in film when she received an Academy Award nomination for her 2018 short film Bao.
Produced by Pixar Animation Studios, the film chronicles the story of a Chinese-Canadian woman feeling the ache of an empty nest, who gets a second chance at motherhood when one of her dumplings comes to life.
Shi based the film in part on her experiences as only child. In an interview for CBC’s Here and Now, she recounted that her mother often treated her like a “precious little dumpling.” Through the film, Shi pays tribute to her mother while exploring the relationship between a child and a very protective parent.
Music plays a huge role in conveying the meaning of Bao, as the entire short is without dialogue. “So much of the emotional heavy-lifting is with the score,” Shi explains. She credits composer Toby Chu for ably mixing western and eastern instrumentation to take the audience on the journey of a Chinese-Canadian mother. Music writer Chris Miller describes Bao’s score as a welcome invitation into a culture that some might find unfamiliar.
Shi believes that an understanding of music, and especially how it works in the service of storytelling, is a valuable tool for an animation director. “You need to have a good sense of rhythm,” she explains. “You need to know what emotion you want to the score to evoke and where you want it to go.”
Having begun flute lessons at seven years old, Domee developed her musical instincts at an early age. By the time she finished high school, she completed the Level 10 Flute examination of The Royal Conservatory Certificate Program.
Shi’s mother, Ningsha Zhong, says that music lessons helped her in many other ways as well. “Domee’s music training made her become more disciplined and mindful of details,” Zhong says.
“I believe music education is very important in one’s life,” she adds. “It develops children’s capacity in all aspects. I am very grateful to [Domee’s] music instructors and the programs at The Royal Conservatory of Music that helped her become who she is now.”
Shi agrees that her music education was very important to her personal and professional development. “I’m definitely thankful of my music background,” she says. “It’s helped me to be a better animation director.”