Dragon Mythology drives a thematic journey in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Raya and the Last Dragon, set in a fantasy world where a lone warrior, Raya, embarks on a quest, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and unite its divided people.
Nearly all shot production for Raya and the Last Dragon took place from the homes of more than 450 artists and crew members. In total, more than 900 Walt Disney Animation Studios employees worked remotely contributing to the film and other upcoming WDAS projects.
Raya and the Last Dragon is helmed by Don Hall, director of Disney’s Academy Award–winning Big Hero 6, and Carlos López Estrada, whose feature film directorial debut was the critically acclaimed Blindspotting.
Award-winning playwright and writer Qui Nguyen (Vietgone, She Kills Monsters) and Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians, Private Practice) crafted the screenplay.
“Working for Disney Animation, part of what we do is that we deal in magic. Right now the world is very broken. This movie has a lot of magic in it, but I think the biggest piece of magic in it is trust. It is the real secret ingredient that will save our fictional world of Kumandra. And it’s a message that is really important for the world to have and see,” says Screenwriter Qui Nguyen.
Producer Osnat Shurer agrees, remarking, “Divisiveness in the world and the need to come together for the greater good, despite our differences, is something that is top of mind for so many of us. We all are excited to bring out a film that provides a space for that conversation.”
For screenwriter Adele Lim, Sisu may be the key to finding meaning in the film. “The magical thing about Sisu in this movie is that she has that trust and that faith in humanity, even when we don’t deserve it,” says Lim. “Even when we betray it. Even when we let each other down again and again. We can feel embittered. We can feel caught up in our own grudges. But, some creature like Sisu being able to see that sort of divine core within everybody is the thing that inspires everyone. I hope that’s what people come away with when they see Sisu.”
Nguyen also reflects on representation in the film, “For me, this is the big dream. I know that a lot of people are super-excited about Raya being Disney’s first Southeast Asian princess. But, for me, it is such a big deal for her to be my kids’ new favorite superhero. It is something that I didn’t get to see growing up, someone that really represented me, our voice, our culture. And to be able to have that for my children is a blessing that will last way beyond my time here on Earth. So, it’s an amazing moment to be part of this.”
Adele Lim notes, “Growing up in Southeast Asia, we’re very proud of our culture and our history. But you don’t really ever see it on a Hollywood big screen. I had lots of action heroes on screen growing up, but it was often Hong Kong action kung fu. And now, the idea to be part of a Disney movie that really can celebrate everything that’s beautiful about our culture and how strong our women are is great. And that Raya’s not just a good fighter; she’s got so much personality. I feel that it’s so much of the spirit of a lot of the women that I grew up with. And so, I’m very excited for the world to see this.”
The Story: Dragon Mythology Drives A Thematic Journey
Integral to the story of Raya and the Last Dragon is the character Sisu, the legendary water dragon that Raya seeks to find in the hopes of saving Kumandra. As Raya sets off on her quest to find Sisu, she is empowered by her absolute belief in the dragon’s power to help restore Kumandra and its people to life and happiness.
Raya’s quest is also a journey of self-discovery—a quest filled with danger, adventure, humor and new friendships, yet tinged with regret, loss and anger born of the need to revenge a wrong. What Raya learns, and comes to believe, is bigger than all of us: we can trust, we can work together, we can unite. And, most importantly, we must.
“Throughout different cultures in Asia, including Southeast Asia, there is a very strong love and affection for dragons, but these dragons are very different from what you see in ‘Game of Thrones,’ for example. They mean luckm” says Nguyen, who wrote the screenplay with Adele Lim, offering insight into Sisu and what she represents.
” They mean luck. They signify life-affirming powers and fortitude, and those aspects were important to expand on since Raya is a Southeast Asian-inspired hero.”
Producer Osnat Shurer adds, “The dragon is interpreted all over the world very differently. The European dragon is a fire-breathing dragon; the Asian dragon, however, is more connected to water and to life, and to harmony. As we dug deeper into Southeast Asian water elementals and water deities, we learnt of the Naga of Southeast Asia, which appears more serpentine than other dragons seen in Asian cultures. The Naga was one of the strongest inspirations for the design of Sisu in her dragon form.”
Director Don Hall points out, “Sisu is a water being, and water became a recurring motif and a huge visual thematic in the film.”
Nguyen offers another insight into Sisu’s character as it plays out in “Raya and the Last Dragon”: “Sisu is highly revered and super powerful, but at the same time, we wanted to subvert our expectations of what a dragon could be like. So she’s funny. She’s goofy. She trips on herself. She’s new to the world. She’s new to what life is like now. There’s something charming and fun about her, and I think that she’s just a really fun comedic character to follow.”
Both screenwriters, Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, drew upon inspirations from their Southeast Asian heritages to develop the characters of Raya and Sisu.
Adele Lim says, “In Southeast Asia, there’s a great tradition of female leaders, military leaders and warriors. And leaders of their realms. And also, the stories of Nagas and dragons, particularly with water. In Malaysia, we have the warrior Tun Fatimah, and we have stories of Naga Tasik Chini, which is the dragon of Chini Lake. The Nagas and strong females are present within a lot of the cultures in Southeast Asia, so we knew those were threads that would really resonate within the film.”
Comments Nguyen, “Without a doubt, I think Adele and I drew inspirations for families from our parents. Specifically for me, from my mom. I know what she had to go through when she came to this country. And just to have that kind of fighting spirit. And also, just the kind of energy that our people have that you don’t always get to display on screen. It was important for us to show the real spirit of Southeast Asia out there.”
As the story of Raya’s journey in “Raya and the Last Dragon” evolved over the years of developing the film, a theme of unity and togetherness began to emerge, being further honed and defined when directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada came on board the project.
“There had been some great exploration by the team into the concept of unity and togetherness,” says Hall, “but Carlos and I felt that honing in on the trust required to achieve unity would lay a firm groundwork from which to make every decision in our lead character’s journey.”
Describing the tone of the film and how it affects the Raya character, screenwriter Adele Lim says, “The tone we really wanted to lead with was one of love for our world, our family and joy. With a project like this that is so fantastical, we wanted to find emotional anchors for our character and her journey, grounded in something true and relatable. So when you look at Raya and her journey—she loses her relationship with her father, she loses this world she grew up in—and there’s this need to fight for the chance to restore her world, and perhaps see her father again, one day. And so we wanted to explore all those emotions, but at the same time, have the film be joyful, fun and an adventure.”
Co-director John Ripa says writers Nguyen and Lim were “both incredible to work with on this film. They both bring amazing character and humor to their writing. Adele really found Raya’s character—her strengths, her vulnerabilities, as well as how she relates—or doesn’t—to those around her. And Qui is really incredible with structure. He also found a lot of entertainment and humor, and specificity for the characters’ voices. And so with the two working together, you get this powerhouse combination of heart, humor, story structure and character specificity.”
Head of story Fawn Veerasunthorn and her team of story artists were key to visualizing the script and delivering the directors’ vision. “The storyboarding phase of production is like the testing ground of ideas—to see if things work. We rework things a lot on every version of the film to make sure that we deliver the best humor, the best and clearest story for the audience,” she explains.
Veerasunthorn, who was born and raised in Thailand, felt it was essential for her and her team to be steeped in the cultural inspirations, so she put on a presentation of key learnings that she and the other filmmakers gleaned from their research trip to Southeast Asia. “I wanted to provide the same experience for my team,” says Veerasunthorn. “In the beginning it was kind of hard to understand culturally, because people are not as familiar with Southeast Asia as perhaps other parts of Asia. So, a lot of artists didn’t know what to draw for the outfits or other cultural things. So, it was a way to get everyone on the same page.”
For Shurer, developing the first Southeast Asian warrior princess was a labor of love born out of her past Disney experiences and collaborations.
“I’d have to say that Disney has a long legacy of pushing the envelope in terms of the power and the strength of our female protagonists,” says Shurer.
“We did that on ‘Moana,’ for example, and with ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ we just took it to a whole new level, and just pushed it exactly where we wanted it to be, with all the blessings of our chief creative officer and the rest of our story trust. Just go and play and make her as amazing as she can be. Not just her, but Namaari, Sisu and all the other characters. Just push it. And so, we did. We’re really proud of the result.”
Director Carlos López Estrada concurs, “If you think about Raya in context with the rest of the movies from Walt Disney Animation Studios, it makes sense and belongs to the family. But, it also just stands out in a way that is just super-exciting. I feel like she is going to be unlike any Disney heroine you’ve ever seen.”
The Raya Southeast Asia Story Trust: A Gathering Of Experts
Throughout the making of the movie, filmmakers consulted with a group consisting of anthropologists, architects, dancers, linguists, and musicians—a group the filmmakers call the Raya Southeast Asia Story Trust.
These expert consultants from the region provided invaluable assistance to the entire production team throughout the making of the film to ensure that even though this is a fantasy adventure, it is grounded in respect for the diverse cultures of Southeast Asia that inspired the film.
Explaining how the filmmakers worked with the consultants to enrich the story with elements from throughout Southeast Asia, Osnat Shurer says, “It was an organic process. We met some of the Trust members through our early research trips. Still, others we sought out for specific elements—whether it was an expert in fabrics, in architecture, in music. We worked with a linguist from the region. Kumandra is such a diverse and big and beautiful and rich world that in finding our connection to each land, we leaned very heavily on our Southeast Asia Story Trust, on some of our experts, to help find those connections.”
Dr. Soulinhakhath Steve Arounsack, a visual anthropologist, who is one of the lead consultants on the film, describes his contributions: “My role was to provide a comprehensive and holistic review of the visuals and cultural themes embedded in our film. That included things such as characters, environment, motifs and all the different philosophies that might go into it. And I examined visuals, small details, such as the types of flowers that are used all the way up to the design of prominent characters like Sisu and Raya and the iconic accessories like Raya’s sword and Raya’s hat.”
The production was blessed with several key creatives who were from or who had familial ties to Southeast Asia, including screenwriter Qui Nguyen, who is Vietnamese-American; Fawn Veerasunthorn, head of story, who is from Thailand; and screenwriter Adele Lim who hails from Malaysia originally. Their insights on everything from customs and traditions combined with the experts from the story trust, created ongoing conversations that enlightened the filmmakers and gave special depth and meaning to the film.
As producer Osnat Shurer says, “The cultural in-conversation was going on during the writing of the script and continued to go on throughout the creation of the film, and continues to this day. Some of it is just because we’re all buddies and we love to talk to each other. But also, we keep our trust involved as we talk about extensions of the storytelling seen in publishing, in consumer products, in so many elements. So it’s an ongoing conversation that grows organically through the specific needs of the film.”
Martial Arts Inspirations
Combat sequences throughout the film were inspired by martial art forms specific to the cultures of Southeast Asia and were created through collaboration among the film’s co-writer Qui Nguyen, the Character Animation team and fight reference choreographer Maggie MacDonald, a longtime collaborator of Nguyen’s.
Says Qui Nguyen, “Being a lifelong martial artist, I wanted to make sure that our martial arts were correct. So often when you see a big action movie that is depicted with people who look like me, the martial arts can be just any combination of anything. Really, they could be made-up martial arts. But for this, it was very important that the moves that Namaari, Benja and Raya used were styles that were rooted in Southeast Asian martial arts.”
The complex fighting styles employed by Raya and Benja, from the land of Heart, are inspired by Malaysian and Filipino martial arts. When armed, they utilize Arnis, a Filipino fighting style that emphasizes intricate weapon forms (including escrima, which Young Raya wields at the top of the film). Unarmed, they fight using Penchak Silat, a Malaysian and Indonesian fighting style that incorporates animal stances and intricate defenses and strikes.
If Heart’s fighting styles are elaborate and dynamic, the fighting techniques of Fang (the land where Namaari comes from) work perfectly in opposition. Her style centers on power and strength. When unarmed, her punches, elbow strikes and kicks are inspired by Muay Thai (also Kun Khmer and Muay Lao), the powerful effective kickboxing techniques of Southeast Asia. She hits, strikes and kicks hard. But that’s not the only thing in her arsenal—she also displays a Vietnamese form that uses surprising flying scissor-leg takedowns as her means of grappling. When armed, Namaari fights using Krabi Krabong, a Thai sword-fighting style that (like Muay Thai) emphasizes powerful slashes and cuts for both defense and offense.
“If kids are big fans of this movie, they will be able to go study real martial arts that represent the cultures that inspired this film and celebrate Southeast Asia so much,” concludes Nguyen.
How To Make A Movie Remotely: Trust & Unity
Nearly all shot production for “Raya and the Last Dragon” took place from the homes of more than 450 artists and crew members. In total, more than 900 Walt Disney Animation Studios employees worked remotely contributing to the film and other upcoming WDAS projects.
“Sometime around March of 2020, as we were heading into the height of our production, which takes place in the last nine months, the pandemic hit,” recalls Shurer.
“And we all went into a work-from-home mode, which meant that in hundreds of homes around the area, we were making assets, animating, making shots, lighting, having story meetings. All of that was happening with all of us from our individual homes. If you asked us a year ago if this is something we could do, we would have said no, of course not. We have to all be together in the same room, we have to be in the building, we need our setups.”
But necessity is the mother of invention, and when March hit, the technology group was ahead of the game as about 30% of the artists had had both work and home set-ups. So when production had to scale up to remote working, they were able to do it quickly and have everyone up and running from home in about two weeks. The technology team on the movie, including Kyle Odermatt, visual effects supervisor, and Kelsey Hurley, technical supervisor, worked with the studio’s technology team to accomplish the feat.
There were definitely challenges and hurdles to jump over along the way: new software had to be experimented with and developed to meet the needs of the artists; internet issues had to be addressed for everyone working from home; equipment needed to be sourced and delivered; a workable daily schedule had to be designed for people new to working from home; and many more.
With trust and unity being the theme of “Raya and the Last Dragon,” filmmakers found themselves playing out the theme in real life. “One of the interesting things that came from this time of working from home, is that more responsibility was delegated to individual artists by necessity,” says Shurer. “And the artists loved it. And our animators and our lighters and our effects artists just upped their game. As did the supervisors, and the leads, and everyone just learned to trust one another. We learned that we had to trust one another while we working in this distanced way in order to make this movie.”
Visual effects supervisor Kyle Odermatt echoes Shurer, commenting, “One of the incredible aspects of the show that we talked about even before transitioning to work from home is that we wanted to have the directors delegate a great deal of the artistic creation process to heads of departments, department supervisors and the artists themselves.”
And that happened organically when the artists began working from home, and it resulted in less review time and back and forth. “What we found is it worked like we envisioned,” says Odermatt, “and I would say our directors thought this was an incredible experience because what they were seeing was artists really getting to extend their creativity and coming up with results that were really just as good as we’ve ever done. And the artists were so inspired by what they were able to contribute to the film.”
“This could’ve been the worst project to work on with what we’ve had to do in this last period of time since March to finish this film off, but I think it’s been one of the best experiences for many people, because of that interaction with the directors and that ability to bring all their creativity to the process,” concludes Odermatt.
Working from home, rather than a recording studio, was a necessity for all of the voice actors as well. Director Don Hall recalls, “We recorded in the voice actors’ closets or in tents set-up in their homes but we always had cameras rolling. It was very important for us to capture not only their vocal performance but their physical performance as well, because the animators are inspired by that footage extensively.”
Whether they choose theaters or their living rooms, when audiences sit down to watch “Raya and the Last Dragon,” filmmakers hope that they will be swept into the fantastical lands of Kumandra and saddle up with Raya on her courageous journey of hope and self-discovery.
Co-director Paul Briggs hopes audiences relate to the theme. “I want my son, and my grandson, and my great-great grandchildren to understand that this film is about the need for trust in each other so that we can come together to make this world a better place,” he says.
For Awkwafina, the representation was equally as important. “There are so many different levels of representation in ‘Raya and the Last Dragon.’ There’s Southeast Asian representation that you don’t really see a lot of, especially in the animated sphere. But then there’s also the idea of three strong female leads. In the way that it’s presented, I have never seen anything like it in this country. When it does hit screens it’s going to definitely inspire.”
Summing up the filmmakers’ expectations for the audiences, Carlos López Estrada says, “Audiences should expect to be surprised. It’s a fantasy adventure, but it’s so much more than that. It has so much comedy to offer. It has so much action and so many thrills. We really wanted the movie to be unexpected and we really wanted the movie to feel new within the genre and even within the incredible legacy of Disney Animation.”