How Turning Red Brings Diabetes Representation to Pixar
“Turning Red,” the newest animated feature film from Pixar Animation Studios has now been released on Disney+ —but the diabetes community has been anticipating the film for quite some time, and for a very specific reason.
When the teaser trailers first emerged for “Turning Red” back in July of 2021, something immediately set off everyone’s “diabetes in the wild” radar. In a couple of shots, there appeared to be a diabetes management device of some sort on the arm of one of the characters in the film.
With the type 1 and type 2 diabetes communities buzzing, Beyond Type 1 took a moment to get to know Susan Fong—Turning Red’s technical supervisor—and to discuss the diabetes representation in the film, as well as her own journey living with type 1 diabetes.
Susan’s diabetes journey
Susan was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of four but a few years later, she wasn’t alone.
“(My sister) got diagnosed as a preteen, which is a much harder age to get diagnosed at,” Susan says.
When it comes to getting employment in the visual effects industry, Susan had a few concerns leaping into an artistic career path while also living with T1D.
“I think that when you are a diabetic, you can’t help but worry about things like health insurance, and that’s going to really affect your job choices and your desire for stability,” Susan says.
“A lot of the visual effects industry works on contracts and not with consistent employment. And so, there are choices you make for that stability to make sure that you have continuous coverage.”
But for Susan, her dream job manifested itself and she will be celebrating her 20th year working for Pixar soon. She started her journey as a software developer there and credits Pixar as being her “first crush,” career-wise.
Finding her place at Pixar
“I am a person that has a kind of love of math. Math comes easy to me and a love of art and I found a way to put those two things together and never looked back,” Susan says. “And at some point in my career, I switched over to production working on the actual films themselves.”
Some of Susan’s favorite Pixar films that she has worked on in the past include “Finding Nemo,” “The Good Dinosaur,” and more recently, “Coco.”
“Turning Red,” the first female-only directed Pixar feature film (directed by Domee Shi), is about a 13-year-old-girl called Mei Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), who finds herself torn between being a well-behaved, dutiful daughter and navigating adolescence. And the kicker? She turns into a big red panda any time she gets too excited.
Susan served as supervisor for both the dailies and rendering departments for the film, and it is a story that is very close to her heart.
“It’s a coming of age story where the main character has something very different about them. And I think as a diabetic that resonates with me, of just kind of being the one that is the odd one out,” Susan says.
Representing diabetes in the film
When Susan had the idea to “pitch” having diabetes represented in Turning Red, it was an easy “yes.”
“It was a remarkably easy thing to incorporate into this film. And I think a lot of that goes back to the fact that we’ve had a kind of grassroots effort, really probably started around the time of ‘Toy Story 4,’” Susan says, “Of trying to get better representation of what the real world looks like into our characters. And so that has manifested in different ways. It’s not uncommon to see characters that have crutches or wheelchairs or better diversity in terms of ethnic representation.”
Susan approached the crew members that had spearheaded most of the efforts with regard to representation in the past and suggested that an insulin pump be included in “Turning Red.”
“They took it to the director and made a pitch for that to be something that we include, and it was a very easy ‘Heck yeah, let’s do it!’” Susan says.
Contrary to some speculation in the T1D community based on the trailer for the film, the device on the young girl’s arm is actually not a continuous glucose monitor (CGM)—it’s an infusion set.
“We wanted to be accurate to the time period of the film, which is the early 2000s,” Susan says, “And so that kind of describes what you’re seeing. And part of the choice to wear it on the arm is the fact that when you film a movie, very commonly you’re filming kind of framing the faces, so if we put an insulin pump on the waist or we have the infusion set hidden, we were afraid you wouldn’t see it very often.”
T1Ds can look forward to seeing not one, but two characters in “Turning Red” representing diabetes technology, including a young female student with dark hair, and a young blonde female student in the bathroom with “Panda Mei” called Stacy Frick (voiced by Lily Sanfelippo)—a recurring character, according to Susan.
“It gave us the opportunity again, to really up the ante and see it on screen in a hero way,” Susan says, “But one of the things I also like about it is that (Stacy) is so accepting of who Mei is in particular, with her transitioning to a Panda, she’s the one that’s in the bathroom that’s just like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so cute. This is amazing.’ And again, she herself is the one accepting the otherness, accepting it at face value. And so I thought that was kind of a nice character to have on.”
Diabetes education at Pixar
In addition to the audience being able to experience more diabetes representation, the film crew themselves got to learn more about diabetes firsthand while executing the design of the infusion sets in the film.
“It was definitely an education for them,” Susan says. “I think that’s one of the things that a lot of our artists have talked about is that when they do work on something that’s for better representation, how much they enjoy and how much they learn through the process of making it.”
For the team, much of the work on the design was pulling references of what insulin pumps looked like in the early 2000s, as well as focusing on the intricate details such as the adhesive and tubing, and how to make that translate on screen.
“And I laugh because sometimes despite the best of education, as things move through the studio, they come up with funny names,” Susan says. “So, ‘infusion set’ somehow got morphed into ‘insulin injector,’ which I thought was amusing.”
.When it comes to the portrayal of diabetes in entertainment historically, Susan believes that we as a society and as an industry need to do better, and that’s exactly what “Turning Red” aims to accomplish.
“It doesn’t define me, but you’ll see it on me,” Susan says, “So having it not be a story point is actually, for me, rewarding as so much of the representation of diabetes and film just gets it wrong. I’d also rather just normalize it. You are going to see children with this, you’re going to see adults with this. You’re going to see those with type 1 and type 2 with this, and it’s just an accurate representation of life.”
Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted while Susan Fong was still a technical director supervisor of dailies and rendering at Pixar Animation Studios; as of March 2022, she has moved into a role with another company.