INTERVIEW: Composer Toby Chu Gives A Cultural Lesson With Bao

Toby Chu delves into how the new Pixar short Bao explores relations between the Eastern and Western worlds.

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After its release over a month ago, Pixar’s Incredibles 2 is still holding one of the top five spots at the box office, quickly approaching the billion-dollar mark and rocketing past what the original film grossed. While Incredibles 2 continues the story of the Parr family, another, very different, family is introduced to moviegoers before the film, in the seven-and-a-half-minute short Bao.

The short tells the tale of an aging Chinese woman who’s dealing with empty-nest syndrome. When one of woman’s homemade dumpling sprouts limbs and a face, she begins to treat it like her son until the dumpling grows up, and starts to be rebellious, eventually leaving home to be with his blond girlfriend. The audience then learns that the dumpling is a metaphor for her real son leaving home and signifies the pull between Chinese and Western cultures and interracial dating, opening the door for a lot larger conversation to be had. This was on purpose as the director, Domee Shi, is Chinese-Canadian and wanted to make lite out of how, especially in the Chinese culture, it can be very difficult for parents to watch their kids grow up and eventually break away from them.

With the short having no dialogue, it was crucial that the score set the right tone for the film. A tone that only a person very familiar with the story’s culture would be able to dive below the surface with. Cue composer Toby Chu. Looking at Toby’s personal biography, he couldn’t have been a better fit for the job. He is a Chinese-American man married to a Caucasian woman. The short is a very close parallel to his personal life, so when he visited the Pixar offices to initially discuss working on this project he knew it was fate.

The short could have fallen flat if this musical component, which acts as the narrative, was done by someone who didn’t wholeheartedly understand the story, but when you hear Bao’s score that relatability is most definitely there. This seven-and-a-half-minute short becomes a cinematic escape, and more importantly, a welcome invitation into a culture that a lot of people are unfamiliar with. To learn what the process of scoring Bao was like we spoke with Toby below about many things including experimenting with Chinese instruments and what the production process was like.

There has been a mixed response to Bao with some filmgoers not understanding it, why do you think this is?
I think it’s great that Bao is starting lots of conversations and debates about culture. There are Chinese elements and concepts that I think many viewers from Asian families, including myself, connected with, while some themes may have felt foreign to others.

Confusion is natural though, especially when people see something that doesn’t conform to conventional stereotypes. But I see these as opportunities for us to broaden our vision for how we experience different cultures and identities. Questions are healthy and they push us towards greater appreciation and understanding.

Much of the short exemplifies the tug between Eastern and Western cultures. Ours is a nation of immigrants. It’s important we don’t forget this, especially given some of the hostile rhetoric against those who are simply trying to make better lives for themselves and their families.
For those who didn’t understand the film, I’d encourage them to see it again with someone who might help to provide greater understanding, and to engage in a dialogue about how our differences can enrich all of us.

Bao tells the story of experiences specific to the Chinese culture. From someone who isn’t familiar with that culture, what do you think the most important message to take away from the short is?
Bao is a Chinese immigrant story. At the same time, it’s also a story about family and delicious food. No matter what country your family is from, food is an entrée into your history, culture, and lived experiences.

At a time when it feels like people are less willing to really talk with one another and are more content to call each other names, stories like Bao take on greater importance because they remind us that as different as we may be on the surface, we actually have more similarities than we might think.

Whenever we forget this, food can be a powerful reminder. This is why breaking bread is a great way to learn from and bond with people – no matter what your story is.

Do you think Bao would ever get made into a full-length feature?
I would love that! If it happens, Becky said Bao 2 would be about a matzo ball. I’m researching klezmer music as we speak. Wish me mazel tov.

Musically, what was the biggest challenge you had with Bao?
One challenging aspect of Bao was that many of the traditional Chinese instruments are tuned to play in only certain keys and to play a specific scale. Blending the two took some work. The western side of the music moved to many keys developing and evolving alongside the story. I ended up developing a few custom tunings based on the piece for the guzheng and we used a large assortment of dizi’s to cover the changing music landscape.

At what part of the production process did you step in and begin scoring?
I began quite early in the process. When I first saw the film, it was in storyboard form. There was a different ending. There was more dialog and sound effects. The story and music informed and evolved together, which worked out great.

As a Chinese American yourself, did you feel any extra pressure to get the tone of the score right?
Absolutely. It was great getting to know Domee because as it was for her, I experienced a personal connection with the film. I did a lot of reflecting upon my own upbringing before I wrote a single note. It was important to me that the music spoke on many levels and the Chinese elements were authentic. I did a lot of research.

Did you experiment with any specific Chinese instruments with this score?
I did. I wanted to learn about and become as much of an expert as I could. I was able to play around with all of the major traditional Chinese instruments (e.g., erhu, guzheng). The music you hear in Bao is actually a mix of these and a 60-piece orchestra.

Over the years you have scored almost every genre. Do you think animation is harder to score than live action?
I love animation, but it’s probably the most intensive in terms of the timeline and how there’s quite a lot of music required. Nothing is for free, every aspect of what you see has been conceptualized, written, storyboarded, colored, animated etc. And in the early stages, which you’re in storyboard, substantial changes can happen very quickly as there’s no need to bring back the crew, get the location and reshoot. Adapting musically is a challenge. It’s important to remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you start out on a feature at its inception, it’s around a 3-4 year process. That being said, often times you get to write big themes and the music takes on more of a foreground role, which is wonderful.

Check out the score to Bao here, or check out some of Toby’s other work on his personal site here!

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