Raya and the Last Dragon: Disney’s Southeast Asian Tribute

Raya and the Last Dragon is a Disney animation with a message. In a world when distrust and division are rampant, the film’s study of trust, solidarity, and friendship seems urgent. Raya’s consideration of representation and inclusiveness sets it apart from its peers.

Raya and the Last Dragon seems like a step in the right road as Disney addresses its difficult history surrounding ethnic stereotypes. The film’s staff knows the importance of placing diversity front and centre.
TechRadar got down with Raya’s Head of Story Fawn Veerasunthorn and Disney environment modeller Liza Rhea to discuss the film’s path towards a more inclusive Disney.

We also discussed how the movie’s actors assisted with representation and filming during the Covid-19 epidemic.

Raya and the Last Dragon: Film production during a pandemic

A warrior named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is on a quest to find the last Dragon Sisu (Awkwafina). Raya must locate Sisu and eradicate the Druun, a mindless, deadly disease spawned from negativity, to save Kumandra’s humans.

Not easy. Raya must fix Sisu’s Dragon Gem, which halted the Druun’s first onslaught 500 years ago, and restore peace to Kumandra.

Disney’s newest movie is about working together to accomplish a shared goal, but its 900-person team had no idea its themes would soon spill over into real life.

Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon: In March 2020, at Raya’s peak, Covid-19 attacked. The team’s remote work caused several complications. Over 400 households required equipment, internet difficulties were addressed, processes and pipelines were changed, and impromptu office visits ended.

Veerasunthorn and Rhea’s difficulties paled in contrast to family.

“One of the biggest challenges was the work-life balance,” Veerasunthorn says. “Suddenly, the schools closed so I had a child – who had been in pre-school – who was home all of the time and running around. She had to come to the meetings [about Raya’s production] as there were no other options.”

“I was five-and-a-half months pregnant when lockdown happened,” Rhea adds. “I was concerned with how I would work ergonomically from home. But Disney worked so quickly to get us everything we needed. It was something we had to quickly figure out. ‘When could we do the work?’ and ‘When can we meet?’, but there was a lot of wiggle room with figuring out how to get that up and running again.”

Raya and the Last Dragon: Highlighting Southeast Asian culture

Raya and the Last Dragon: Pre-pandemic, the Raya team’s toughest difficulty was replicating Southeast Asia, a place Disney has yet to explore in its movies.

The film is set in the imaginary nation of Kumandra, yet it pays respect to Southeast Asian customs and traditions.

Raya’s team included Disney workers with links to Southeast Asia and real-world specialists to appropriately reflect its traditions and culture.

Thai-born Veerasunthorn, together with Malaysian and Vietnamese screenwriters, gave movie information. Disney’s Southeast Story Trust, led by Lao visual anthropologist Steve Arounsack, made sure aspects like clothes, cuisine, and battle tactics were accurate.

Raya and the Last Dragon: Veerasunthorn felt pressure from the start to accurately reflect her and other cultures. Still, a desire to depict Southeast Asians accurately overcame her fears.

“There are lots of ways of life that overlap between different cultures in this region,” Veerasunthorn explains. “The close proximity to the water and its importance in our rituals, the awareness and respect for the invisible world, and the importance of family and respect for your elders. This will be the first time I’ve ever seen my culture portrayed on this scale before, so there’s a need for doing it right. When you think of Asian representation, people think of East Asia. I think this film will be able to show that there are different, diverse and beautiful cultures within the continent.”

Raya and the Last Dragon: Before the epidemic, study travels to Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia immersed team members in other cultures. Raya’s Southeast Asian consultants worked with modelling and animation to authentically depict Kumandra’s landscapes, architecture, and population.

“Even though it is a fantasy adventure film, you can really feel them [Southeast Asian cultures] in the environments and artwork,” Rhea said. “As modelers, we worked closely with the art director (David Wormsley) and visual effects team, and we have a library of photos and videos to look at and really get ourselves in that headspace. I think when people see the film, they’ll see the environments are so rich with inspiration from Southeast Asian cultures.”

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I'm a 21 years old B.Com Grad from DU and currently working as a content writer, i love to write about gaming, anime and about the latest technology too.

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