Color wasn’t the only consideration for production designer Rona Liu and director Domee Shi when developing the look for Disney Pixar’s “Turning Red,” which hits Disney Plus March 11. They also wanted “big cute”.
That meant building everything up to look taller and rounder for the coming-of-age story of college girl Mei, voiced by Rosalie Chiang, who transforms into a giant red panda every time she feels anxious or angry, as she navigates between being a free-spirited teenager with her group of best friends and an obedient student and all A for her mother.
Liu says it was Shi who wanted to use the idea of a red panda, an animal native to Asia that hasn’t been widely portrayed in the media. “They are reclusive and sleep all day,” says Liu. “While Domee and the team were working on the story, we all thought, ‘Wait, that describes a teenager going through one of his phases, and so that was perfect.
There have been many design iterations for the red panda Mei; the key was to emphasize that it was Mei out of her comfort zone. “She is stocky, has a big belly; it is messy and stinky,” Liu said. “We wanted her hair to be bushy and tangled.” Liu looked at the alpaca hair, which, although soft, she said, was “gritty” and “sticky together.”
The color of the character was vital, says Liu. Red panda Mei’s orange-red hue made her stand out in every scene, from the blue of the ancestral temple in the family home to the green of Mei’s bedroom.
“Chunky” and “cute” were also watchwords for the design of the Toronto film version, where the film is set. Liu and the animators built three-story buildings instead of five. They reduced the stairs to seven steps instead of 10.
The inspiration for Mei’s room came from Shi and Liu’s teenage years. “We looked at what our own rooms looked like, with a stack of CDs, Sanrio stuffed animals and posters,” Liu says. However, since Mei lives at home, other touches reflect her devoted mother, Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh. This meant that on the surface, things were still very organized. Even Sanrio’s animals were sorted by size. “The room has Ming’s control sensitivities,” notes Liu. However, under the bed was Mei’s refuge. “We turned this on in this red-pink light to show that she’s coming into her own world, and her teenage fever feelings are coming out.”
To counterbalance the house, decorated in shades of green, pink and ocher, her middle school had pops of color incorporated into posters, particularly in Mei’s science and math clubs. Liu says that’s where the production came to life: “It’s a place where she can be free and with her friends, so we wanted a wide range of colors. For example, her best friend Miriam, voiced by Ava Morse, had green and yellow attached to her palette, reflecting the freedom Mei feels around her friends. In contrast, her mother’s green had more subdued blue tones, subtly reflecting that Mei was being pulled in different directions – as a devoted daughter and the identity of Western culture.
In true Pixar style, “Turning Red” is also filled with Easter eggs. Liu points to the family temple as an audience that the public should pay attention to. “Everything about it is panda-centric,” she says. “There are pandas if you look at the altar. The wood carving in the temple depicts two pandas in a tree. The table of offerings [at the altar] has engraved pandas – this shows a little girl transforming into a panda.
And yes, the main Easter Eggs including the Luxo ball, the famous A113 easter egg. Pronounced A1-13, A113 refers to the class number used by character animation students at the California Institute of the Arts, and a new “Lightyear” Easter egg – on a skateboard.