Raya and the Last Dragon is a Disney animation with an important message. In today’s divided world, its exploration of trust, solidarity, and friendship seems especially pertinent. Raya stands out among its peers due to its focus on representation and inclusivity.
Raya and the Last Dragon represents an encouraging step for Disney as they address their troubled history with ethnic stereotypes. The film staff understands how critical it is to prioritize diversity within their ranks.
TechRadar recently had the chance to chat with Fawn Veerasunthorn, Head of Story at Raya, and Disney environment modeller Liza Rhea about their film’s journey towards creating a more inclusive Disney.
We also discussed how the movie’s actors provided representation and filming during the Covid-19 epidemic.
Raya and the Last Dragon: Film production during a pandemic
Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is on a quest to find the last Dragon Sisu (Awkwafina). To save Kumandra’s humans from Druun – an evil disease created from negativity – Raya must locate Sisu and destroy it.
Not an easy feat. Raya must repair Sisu’s Dragon Gem, which stopped Druun’s initial invasion 500 years ago, and restore peace to Kumandra.
Disney’s newest movie is about working together towards a common goal, yet its 900-person team had no idea that these themes would soon transcend into real life.
Raya The Last Dragon The Last Dragon: In March 2020, when Raya was at her peak, Covid-19 struck. This remote work caused a host of issues; equipment needed by over 400 households was fixed process and pipeline modifications made, and spontaneous office visits stopped.
Veerasunthorn and Rhea’s difficulties paled in contrast to family.
Veerasunthorn emphasizes the difficulty of finding a work-life balance. “When schools closed down, I had a child – who had been in preschool – at home all of the time and running around. She had no choice but to attend meetings regarding Raya’s production because there were no other options,” she adds.
“When lockdown occurred,” Rhea recounts, “I was five and a half months pregnant. We were worried about working ergonomically from home but Disney worked so quickly to provide us with everything we needed. It was something we had to figure out quickly – when could we do the work and when can we meet again – but there was lots of wiggle room for success.”
Raya and the Last Dragon: Highlighting Southeast Asian culture
Raya and the Last Dragon: Prior to the pandemic, the Raya team faced their most formidable challenge in recreating Southeast Asia – a place Disney has yet to explore in their movies.
The film takes place in the imaginary nation of Kumandra, yet pays homage to Southeast Asian customs and traditions.
Raya’s team consisted of Disney employees with connections to Southeast Asia and real-world specialists to accurately represent its traditions and culture.
Thai-born Veerasunthorn collaborated with Malaysian and Vietnamese screenwriters to provide movie information. Disney’s Southeast Story Trust, led by Lao visual anthropologist Steve Arounsack, ensured accuracy in aspects such as clothing, cuisine, and battle tactics.
Raya and the Last Dragon: Veerasunthorn was under immense pressure from the start to accurately reflect her and other cultures in her artwork. Yet her desire to accurately represent Southeast Asians triumphed over any fears she had; authenticity became her ultimate goal.
Veerasunthorn emphasizes the interconnectivity of cultures in this region. “From water’s significance in rituals, to awareness of and respect for the invisible world, to family values and respecting elders, there are so many similarities that need to be highlighted,” she adds. “This will be the first time my culture has ever been portrayed on such a large scale before – there needs to be done right! When thinking of Asian representation, many people automatically associate it with East Asia but I hope this film can demonstrate there are diverse, beautiful cultures within Africa as well.”
Raya and the Last Dragon: Prior to the epidemic, study travels to Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia gave team members an immersive experience of other cultures. Raya’s Southeast Asian consultants used modelling and animation techniques to accurately portray Kumandra’s landscapes, architecture, and people.
“Even though this is a fantasy adventure film, you can really feel Southeast Asian cultures in the environments and artwork,” Rhea said. “As modelers, we collaborated closely with David Wormsley’s art direction and visual effects team to get into that headspace. When people see the film, they’ll definitely appreciate how rich with inspiration from Southeast Asian cultures its environments are.”
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