SF Zoo field trips helped Pixar animators get red pandas right for ‘Turning Red’

“Turning Red” animators and director Domee Shi (seen here) took a research trip to the San Francisco Zoo to observe red pandas on Dec. 6, 2019. Photo: Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar

Most people think of pandas as roly-poly black-and-white fur balls gnawing on bamboo. Now with the new Pixar animated feature, “Turning Red,” red pandas are about to get their time in the spotlight.

In the film, Chinese Canadian tween Mei Lee (voiced by Fremont native Rosalie Chiang) learns she has ancestral lineage with the species and transforms into an enormous red panda when stressed or agitated.

Just as Mei Lee had to learn about calming her inner beast, Pixar had research to do to get the red panda’s anatomy right. And they didn’t have to go far.

Director Domee Shi, who earned an Oscar for her heartwarming Pixar short “Bao,” and members of the film’s development team visited the San Francisco Zoo in February 2018 for a preliminary research session where they observed three red pandas — Hillary, Hunter and Tenzing — at their habitat inside the Youth Exploration zone. In December 2019, illustrators in small groups got to watch, sketch and capture video and still photos of the trio, while the zoo’s red panda specialist Antonietta Brocksen answered their questions about the adorable furry creatures and their behaviors.

Pixar animator Kristophe Vergne’s experience animating Pixar’s 2007 film “Ratatouille” benefited “Turning Red.” He recalled how important these nose-to-snout encounters are in capturing how their anatomy works for the screen, as his team did with Remy, the rat/chef protagonist of “Rattouille.”

“It’s very important knowing where the spine is, or knowing where they’re the most flexible,” Vergne said.

“Turning Red” animators, including Tom Gately (seen here), visited the San Francisco Zoo to observe the behavior and physicality of red pandas on Dec. 6, 2019. Photo: Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar

For “Rattouille,” Vergne said his team housed rats for that purpose. With no red panda loaner program available for “Turning Red” — and the zoo off and on in 2020 due to pandemic restrictions — his team reviewed video of the illustrators’ trip to the zoo and observed their habits. For instance, they noticed that when you stare at red pandas, they put their arms up. But while Vergne thought it was adorable, experts explained that the red panda’s reaction is a defense mechanism.

“Red pandas will stand on their hind legs with their forelegs up in the air as an effort to appear larger when threatened,” said Dr. Jason Watters, who manages the San Francisco Zoological Society’s Wellness and Conservation Department, overseeing scientific research, animal behavior and enrichment, veterinary care, animal nutrition, and wildlife conservation initiatives. “Red panda cubs will display this behavior during playtime and often pounce on one another.”

Once the story line for a sequence is determined, concept art is created by the production designer and the art department to determine the look and feel of the film. This concept art piece was created by Carlos Felipe Leon, and it showcases the exploration of color and design for the characters and red panda Mei, including the character scale and the pink poof of smoke when she transforms. Photo: Pixar / Pixar

Watters also notes that despite their names, red pandas and giant pandas (the popular black-and-white ones) are not related. Giant pandas are classified as bears, while red pandas are extant to the ailuridae family, a group all by themselves. Their closest relatives are raccoons, which have bushy tails and similar facial features. But because red pandas and giant pandas have similar diets, they earned the panda name. “’Panda’ translates to ‘eater of bamboo,’ ” Watters said.

Red pandas can be found in China, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. They are an endangered species, with fewer than 10,000 remaining in the wild.

Culturally, the red panda is a symbol of gentleness, compromise and patience. They’re chill creatures that prefer solitary lives — which makes the dichotomy of seeing a red panda inhabited by a manic 13-year-old girl clashing with her mother fun to watch on the big screen.

“Turning Red,” which is directed by Domee Shi and voiced by Fremont native Rosalie Chaing, is slated for release March 11. Photo: Pixar / Disney

“The red panda was a perfect metaphor for puberty because, well, red is the color of that stage in your life in so many ways,” Shi said. “It’s the color of embarrassment, the color of the love you might feel for your first crush, the color of your period.

“And the red panda is kind of big, kind of hairy, and kind of awkward too — like how you feel during puberty. And, let’s be honest, they are a little stinky … but still so cute at the same time.”

“Turning Red” isn’t the first time that red pandas have been spotted in pop culture. Master Shifu is the mustachioed red panda martial-arts master of Disney franchise “Kung Fu Panda.” There’s a Portuguese psych-rock band called Red Panda. The Netflix original series anime “Aggretsuko” revolves around a red panda office worker who lets out her frustrations by singing death metal in karaoke bars. And if you’re reading this on a Firefox web browser, you have red pandas to thank — “firefox” is another name for red panda.

With “Turning Red” getting a wide straight-to-streaming release on Disney+, even more people will know about Ailurus fulgens. And that’s fine with the San Francisco Zoo.

“It’s about time,” Brocksen said. “Red pandas are such adorable and interesting animals, perfect for a Pixar movie.”

Turning Red (PG) premieres on Disney+ on Friday, March 11.



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