Composer Toby Chu discusses Disney-Pixar’s Bao…
Breaking box office records, Disney/Pixar’s Incredibles 2 premiered to $182.7 million at the domestic box office, soaring past the record for biggest animated film opening in box office history by nearly $50 million, which was previously held by Finding Dory. While that may not be a surprise to forecasters and critics who previewed the sequel, what is coming to a surprise to filmgoers is the heart warming short preceding the film titled Bao.
Bao tells the story of a Chinese woman’s homemade dumpling that sprouts limbs and a face. She treats it like her son—until the dumpling grows up, and the inevitable happens. There is no dialogue in the short, but composer Toby Chu’s score gives the characters voices in a more than effective way and very quickly establishes an emotional connection not always seen in short stories. This connection may be because the short somewhat parallels his personal life as he grew up in a Chinese immigrant family and ended up happily married to a beautiful, blonde Caucasian woman. Life very much imitates art with this project for Toby. In the exclusive interview below we talked with Toby more in depth about everything from where he got his inspiration for Bao to the most challenging part of the job and more.
Can you tell us how you got involved with Bao?
Back in November 2016, Tom MacDougall, who is the executive vice president of music for Pixar and Disney Animation, invited me to Pixar for a meeting. We flew up for the day, met the filmmakers, and I got to see the short for the first time. I fell in love with it instantly.
What was your inspiration for Bao?
Bao resonated with me on a personal level. When the short finished, I said, “That’s me. I’m the dumpling!” I had a good laugh with Domee, Becky and Tom about it. There were a lot of parallels. Growing up in a Chinese immigrant family, my mom would always call me her “Xiǎo bǎo bǎo”(small treasure). She even had this way of hugging me in tight and telling me that she wanted to eat me. And like Dumpling, I also ended up happily married to a beautiful, blonde Caucasian woman. For me, Bao gives new meaning to the saying that art imitates life.
We heard that you worked on Bao for a whole year. Why did it take so long?
Production was about a year and a half. The protracted timeframe was because of a combination of things. The way the shorts department works at Pixar is they staff and crew between the other large features that are being worked on at the studio. So sometimes production would pause depending on when certain artists would become available. I remember Domee got pulled onto working on Incredibles 2 at one point, though this worked out great for me as it provided more time to experiment and play with instrumentation.
Pixar is also a stickler for quality. One of the reasons their projects are so successful is their commitment to excellence, even if that requires more time. In addition, Domee and I wanted to incorporate elements of both eastern and western instruments, for artistic reasons as wellas a metaphor for our personal stories growing up as Chinese immigrants (Domee in Canada and me in the United States).
My parents watched a lot of Chinese opera, so I was very familiar with that sound. I wanted to become as much of an expert as I could. Peter Rotter, a friend and contractor here in Los Angeles put me in touch with a brilliant erhu (a traditional Chinese string instrument played with a bow) player named Chi Li, who also happens to be an ethnomusicology professor at UCLA specializing in Chinese traditional music. We became great friends and I learned so much.
Thanks to Chi, I got to experiment with all the major Chinese traditional instruments. Playing with different ensemble combinations until I felt we found the right sound to tell this particular story. It was important that the Chinese traditional elements were authentic and would not only help to tell the story, but be appreciated by Chinese people who grew up with this music. Although it was the starting point, my goal was never to write a traditional Chinese piece. I was interested in blending east and west with the hope of creating something new.
Bao doesn’t have any talking in it, so your score is really used to give viewers a sense of what the characters are feeling and push the story forward. Did you feel any added pressure because of this?
I felt a sense of responsibility. The entire writing process was very organic, and Domee, Becky and Tom couldn’t have been more supportive and protective of the music process. Working with them was a wonderful experience. We decided early on that it was important that the music stood on its own and wasn’t entirely dictated by the picture. I wanted things to feel natural in order to create an authentic bond between the score and what viewers would see (and feel) on screen.
How involved was Domee Shi, the director, with creating the score? Did she have a pretty clear understanding ahead of time of what she wanted the score to sound like?
Absolutely! After all, it’s her story. She knew the overall arc and what she wanted to feel at every single moment. We worked together, went back and forth for over a year and molded it like… well, like a dumpling!
What was the most challenging part of scoring Bao?
Overcoming the fandom, for sure. Like many, I grew up watching all of Pixar’s movies and shorts. There’s a proud history and legacy that you instantly feel like you have to live up to. I found myself asking whether I was worthy on more than one occasion. But Domee, Becky, and Tom trusted me, and I connected so personally with the story. Once I got started, the music came naturally. When everything was finished, I couldn’t help but feel proud. Proud of the work that everyone did and honored by the story we were able to tell. There’s nothing more important than family and the love of parents for their children.
You can learn more about Toby at http://www.tobychumusic.com/
Photo Credit: Deborah Coleman / Pixar