Interview: Turning Red Supervising Animator (and One-Time Chicagoan) on Creating the Film’s Look, Channeling His Inner Awkward Teen, and Catching Movies at Music Box Theatre

Pixar’s Turning Red is another groundbreaking stunner that combines elements of both Eastern and Western animation style to tell the story of Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a confident 13-year-old girl living in late-1990s Toronto and torn between being her mother’s (Sandra Oh) dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence—typified by her love of the boy band 4*Town. But even the watchful eye of her mother can’t stop her hormones and general energy levels from getting out of hand and turning her into a giant red panda one day, seemingly out of the blue. When she calms down, she turns back into Mei, but part of what the film is about is the joy of letting go, being yourself, and not feeling like you have to be placid in your teenage years. The film is creation of Academy Award-winner Domee Shi (the Pixar short Bao), and it, in part, reflects her experience growing up in a somewhat traditional home.

In the early stages of production, Shi worked closely with Supervising Animator (and native Chicagoan) Aaron J. Hartline, who studied animation at Columbia College of Chicago and worked for Fox Animation for a time before joining Pixar in 2008. The two came up with the various looks of Turning Red, even as the screenplay was being finalized and voice actors were being recorded, and it was Hartline who coordinated with the Pixar animation team to make the film you can now watch exclusively on Disney+.

In his time as an animator, Hartline has worked in various capacities on such films as the Ice Age movies, Robots, Up, Toy Story 3 and 4, Cars 2 and 3, Brave, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Onward. But Turning Red marks Hartline’s first time with the title Supervising Animator, and we chatted recently about the scope of his responsibilities, the influences on his team’s designs, capturing emotion in animation, and his work on the upcoming Disney+ animated series, Cars on the Road. Please enjoy our conversation…

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been to Pixar a couple times in my life and interviewed a great number of people who work there. Can you start by telling us what the job of a Supervising Animator entails and how closely you worked with Domee Shi on the various looks of the film?

This was actually my first time doing this job for Pixar in terms of a feature film, and I came on [Turning Red] about two-and-a-half years ago. Myself and my co-supervisor Patty Kihm, we were the first one to audit to the animators, and our job was to get inside Domee’s brain and learn what she likes, dislikes, the kind of style she was going for. So we would have weekly conversations with her, and we would show different clips or different styles, and she would talk about her teenage years in 2002. And from taking all of that information early one, we would get these drawings and get them in the computer with all of the other departments—like rigging, lighting, hair, textures—and then we’d start doing animations tests, taking all of that information that we talked to her about, in terms of influences and try them out. Not all of it works, some of it does, sometimes we wonder if we pushed it too far or not far enough, and it was really exciting. She really had a different voice and style than what we usually go for here.

That’s early on; that’s before any animator is on it. Then as animators start coming on, we were luckily with the director for a year beforehand and had so many conversations and got to know her. So when the animators come on, you’re retelling them what she likes, and it makes us seem much smarter than what we are [laughs]. From there, we’re showing everyone styles through animation tests and pointing everyone in a certain direction, because, for example, you have a character like Mei, and you have 70 different people, and the way I smile might be different than the way you smile, but Mei smiles a certain way. So we create model sheets, and once we got going and got the style down, our job is to clear the path and let them have clear communication with the director, making sure that the shops talk to her daily but also looking two months down the line, to make sure we’re ready for a sequence coming up. Are we ready for that one? How can I make sure that there are no obstacles in the way, so when that sequences comes down the line, they can do their best work.

I’ve seen interviews with Domee where she’s said it was her goal to blend Eastern and Western animations styles. That’s quite a range, which sounds both daunting and exciting because it gives you a lot of leeway. How do you narrow those looks down and what you wanted to borrow each style of animation?

Personally, with Luca, I know the animators were looking at anime as well, so having those back to back, I was a little nervous. Then seeing Domee’s influences compared to the director of Luca, they were completely different. We were much more exaggerated and pushed, crazy eye shapes. So it was really kind of freeing. To be honest, I didn’t have much of an anime knowledge, so when I got this job, I rented and watched as much anime as I could. I grew up on Warner Bros. and Disney, so I knew the western pretty well, but with the eastern animation, we would throw things in there and go, “How about this?” and she would say “Yeah, it’s great that we’ve got all this anime, but there are times when we’re going to have to slow the film down and really have the characters come out and have heartfelt moments, and I want that too.” So it really depended on the shot and the moments in the film where we needed to dial it up, exaggerate motion, exaggerate timing.

One thing I learned here, Andrew Stanton said at some point “When you first see the character, you almost have to scream who they are.” And going back to Toy Story, they say “Okay, Woody is kind of a floppy rag doll, we have to remind you that when he falls down behind the dresser. And Buzz is a spaceman, and he’s kind of stiff. From there, you can go on and tell your story. In this film, we had a really strong opening that pushed style, and you’re telling the audience “This is what you’re signing up for; this is what you’re going to watch.” And then after they get used to that after the first five minutes, then you can go off and try different things, tone it down, dial it back up.

All of that being said, this film feels like a visual departure from what we’ve seen from Pixar before. There are lots of pastels, the pacing is heightened, the energy is off the charts at times. And you mentioned the exaggerated features, a lot of time Pixar is going for something almost photorealistic. Were there checks and balances in place in terms of how crazy things could get?

It’s all about department heads talking to each other. Domee leads the way and says things like “Let’s push the color even more. Let’s tweak the effects and have a TV aspect to it.” This is the first time we’ve had an animator who specialized in 2D go over to the effects department and draw out some of the effects and do things like have light rays come out of her fingers when she’s indicating the number four. Those are all hand-drawn, 2D animation, and it was difficult sometimes to get that anime feel. Again, the director tells us when we’re in a heightened moment and we should go for it. Or if we’re going for a more emotional moments—like when mother and daughter connect—she would say not to go too heightened there.

I’m always curious about the journey certain designs take. Can you talk about the various iterations of the red panda look? How did it start out, and how did it evolve?

This might not be very exciting. The style of the characters was pretty solid when I came on, and they really didn’t go through much iteration, compared to when I worked on Toy Story 4 with Bunny, and he used to be ripped, torn, losing stuffing, and he was constantly trying to puff himself up or changing outfits to blend in. Then he ended up being a kind of toy that never got played with, which was a completely different character. With this one, I can safely say that all of the characters are pretty much who they were from the beginning. Mei didn’t really change at all; she always looked like that. It was really a trick of bringing it into the computer, so we could match those adorable drawings.

Is there a particular animation accomplishment that you’re especially proud of from a technical standpoint?

I remember when my wife and kid watched the film, I noticed that there were a bunch of little things that add up to a different style. It’s hard to put into words. There’s a shot in the trailer where Mei [in red panda form] pushes that little girl into the bathroom stall. When you look at that shot, it really is completely still with just the hand moving, and that seems easy enough. But for animators, our job is to look at life. If you were to push someone into a stall, your back would move, your body might move forward a bit, and that’s based on the way people movie, and it’s our job to capture that. Now you’re saying “Forget all that.” Literally, it’s going to stick figures, and all you’re going to move is the hand. It’s a real choice, and it tells the audience they’re looking at something different. But it’s comical and funny and different. Stuff like that, I really like; it’s fresh and new, and it was fun and we knew we’d have animators that were upset with us because they’ve been trained and are the best animators in the world. We’re telling them to throw away everything they’ve learned. Those kind of choices are really funny and really stand out.

It’s funny, when I think of that bathroom stall scene, when I saw it in the trailer, I think it’s the only moment when there is complete silence. That’s why I remember it. It’s like a silent movie moment.

Yeah yeah.

The film is specifically set in Toronto. Were there opportunities to play with the setting more than you usually do?

I know that’s all from where Domee is from. I’ve never been there, so we had Canadian people on our team going “Oh yeah!” when they spotted a Tim Hortons donuts shop. I didn’t know any of that stuff. I knew that they had research trips and wanted to pay homage to certain landmarks. Domee wanted to make sure Toronto was shown as a diverse city and show that there were all types of people there.

I read in your biography that you wanted to be an artist since you were very young, and I have family members who went to art school and continue to create. I’m guessing at some point prior to going to art school or studying animation that you felt like a bit of an outsider as a kid. On that level, could you identify with Mei, and did that change anything about the way you portrayed her and figured her out?

Oh, yeah. I was the nerdy kid. I’m from Chicago, but my parents got divorced, so we ended up moving to D.C. to Florida to Atlanta. Every different year of high school, I was in a different state, and the one things I always had were my drawings. I was a pretty quiet and shy kid, but those were the things that got me noticed. There are moments of Mei drawing under her bed that felt familiar. My mom just told me that she found my diary, and she admitted “Yeah, we were really concerned about you.” [laughs] I definitely was about to channel a lot of my pre-high school stories through Mei. The film was made from people’s homes, so we had a lot of Zoom meetings, and we shared a lot of those stories. Even the icons we used on Zoom were our awkward high school photos. There were some pretty bad ones out there.

So you went back to Chicago eventually, because you went to Columbia.

I did. In my senior year of high school, I went back to Chicago, and then did one year at Columbia College.

What do you think is the most Chicago thing about you?

My obsession for the Chicago Cubs, maybe [laughs]. Once a year, I take my son back out there, probably trying to brainwash him into being a Cubs fan, while he lives out here in California. Last year, I got him out to the Aragon Ballroom; this year, I want to get him to Metro.

If you know that neighborhood, you must know the Music Box Theatre.

Oh god, yes. I love that theater. We went there the last time we were in town to see The Fugitive.

I think it’s clear how animation is different from live-action filmmaking, but I’m wondering if you can tell me in what ways it’s similar?

I don’t have as much experience with live action, but I assume the post-production, with the music and such is the same. I know with animation, you tell a joke that crushed two years ago, and then when it comes out two year later, you wonder if it’s still funny. On this film, we really tried hard to get it down to the nitty-gritty with each department. “You see that finger move? Can you soften that finger move just a little bit more?” And that’s great because we’re professionals, and we want to make it look amazing, but we also want to keep the spontaneity and be surprised. On this one, if it made us laugh, it’s going in the film. If it gets a huge reaction, let’s not over-polish it; let’s hold onto that funny feeling.

I always hear stories about the team at Pixar, and how a lot of different people take a look at things and offer suggestions. You always hear the old saying about too many cooks spoiling the soup, but it seems that Pixar is the exception to that rule. Why is Pixar different in that regard?

I think it starts at the top, and I can only base that off the one other place I worked. Everyone here is an artist and they really want to try and make the film the best it can be. But on other films, at other studios, it felt like “We have to hit that date” and “Funny is money, so let’s make it funny and put it out.” There was no reworking the scripts. At Pixar, we put the film up and break it down again and put it back up. At other places, it was like “We’re done, let’s put it out,” but it’s really hard to get any film right the first time. At Pixar, we’ve built it into the schedule to make each film three times before it comes out. So we have a chance to get it right as best we can.

What’s the next thing you’re working on?

Cars on the Road. It’s a streaming show that they announced. It’ll be really fun to get back in that world.

Aaron, it was a real pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much.

This was great. Take care.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.