Ask an artist what they absolutely loathe to draw, and there’s a big chance they’ll bring up food. The other option is horses, or maybe bicycles, or maybe a horse riding a bicycle, but making food looks like anything other than a pile of brown-ish glop in most representational art makes a real case for photography.
Which is just one reason the food in Turning Red is so thrilling. In a scene featuring unsteamed bao, you can almost feel the pull of the dough and weight of the filling. In another, bao boil away in a pot with a deliciously glossy sheen. Fresh leaves of lettuce, mounds of eel rice, and even a box of Tim Horton’s Timbits all make their way into Pixar’s newest film, which tells the story of 13-year-old Mei Lee, a Chinese-Canadian girl grappling with the end of adolescence with the added pressure of suddenly (and symbolically) turning into a giant red panda.
Production designer Rona Liu, who also worked on Pixar’s animated short Beam, understands the importance of appetizing-looking food and the animation experience. I interviewed her about getting the right filter on cured pork, putting Taishanese cuisine in a Canadian kitchen, and making cute dumplings.
Eater: What were some of your overall visual inspirations when designing Turning Red?
Rona Liu: The design inspiration we kept referring to was “chunky cute.” So it’s like, things have to be thicker, rounder, beefier. A lot of our inspiration was Sanrio, where things are big-headed. Even the food: Instead of going for realism, the shape of everything has to be a little bit rounder, a little more simplified. Leaves can’t have a thousand different turns and folds. It has to be cute. The shape language is almost like miniatures.
desde Beam, we learned a lot about the textural and light response to the food — the shape can be stylized, but the shading response has to be realistic. Meat needs to look like meat, the way the light passes through the leaves has to look real, in order for the viewers to have the connection that this is food. The key ingredient is the oily gloss that we put over everything. That was a carryover from Beam. We learned that and it worked, so we’re like, “Just layer that lard over everything.”
Also, the scene where [Mei’s dad] Jin is cooking in dream mode, we were inspired by Stephen Chow’s The God of Cookery. Everything’s got that golden glow.
I feel like there was a huge leap from Beam to Turning Red in how the bao were depicted. Especially, I noticed the flour-y un-steamed bao versus the steamed texture in Jin’s cooking process. Was there anything else that you figured out between films?
The difference is Turning Red had a much bigger budget, and a much bigger team. On Beam it was like, “Oh, can we get a person for a day?” But now we had a dedicated team who was on it for years. And of course the crew members bring in so much research.
That scene has a shot of the lettuce, and I’ve never seen lettuce look so enticing. Since it’s fresh and you can’t use that oily gloss, how did you approach that?
We’re all Studio Ghibli fans, and there’s a documentary [10 Years With Hayao Miyazaki] where they followed Miyazaki around as he was doing art tests, and a test on food. He was saying that if you look at real cooked food and advertisements of food, the colors in the ads are much more saturated than a natural level. That’s kind of what we did here. Real lettuce is not that green, but we made sure ours was — it’s so saturated it’s almost broken. You can’t actually hit that number in CG. If we were to color pick from real lettuce, there are yellow-greens and brownish-greens. But everything has to be saturated. And then we couldn’t do oil, but there is this watery, crispy gloss. So it has a bright, white highlight. Trying to evoke freshness with that dewiness was a goal.
How did you decide what foods were going to be represented in the Lee household?
We were lucky enough to be paired with Gold House, our cultural consultants. We had our own history lesson about the first immigrants in Toronto’s Chinatown. They’re not just Cantonese, they’re Taishanese. So you’re going to see eel rice. That one was funny because usually it comes in a clay pot, but we were thinking, mom is cooking in a western kitchen, so maybe she just puts it in a casserole dish. Those were the details we were trying to balance, that it didn’t feel so Chinese that you forget they’re in Toronto.
In the pre-ritual meal, that’s where we went full feast. There’s abalone with snow peas, steamed fish, steamed chicken, a seafood soup — all those things of Taishanese origin. But then, like the first time Jin is cooking and when [Mei’s mom] Ming cooks the breakfast porridge, we’re mixing it in with more home-y, less fancy food: onion pancakes and fried eggs, stuff that’s more like, your mom isn’t going to be busting out her cooking chops every day. Some of the stuff is frozen — the green onion pancakes you just pan fry. Things that we all grew up with.
Was there one type of food or texture that wound up being really difficult to properly represent?
The lettuce in that dish Jin is cooking with the cured pork and lettuce and soy sauce — that moment was so hard. We had to make a decision, because as lettuce is being cooked it loses its crispy nature. And the cured pork is dark brown, but if you make it too red it starts looking like raw, bloody meat. It was a really tricky balance.
One of the things that saved us was effects when they poured in the soy sauce, because once we pour that in and the oil effects are on, that meat will look complete and delicious. You’re not going to be just concentrating on a slab of meat. It was this waiting process to see all the departments finish what they were working on, and at the very end, when effects and lighting finished that scene, we could take a deep breath because it actually looks really good.
Have other viewers reacted to the food?
Everybody at some point has said something about the food looking delicious. I think food is tricky. We’re very lucky to have the talent that we have.
This interview has been edited for clarity.