Raya and the Last Dragon is being celebrated for being the first Southeast Asian-inspired story produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. Set in the fantasy world of Kumandra, where long ago humans and dragons coexisted in harmony. After an evil force called the Druuns threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity with the creation of the Dragon Gem. Raya’s family are the Guardians of the Dragon Gem and must protect the gem at all costs. When conflict arises within the clans, the same evil returns and causes a path for destruction. It is up to Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) to track down the legendary last dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) to restore the fractured land and defeat the evil surrounding it.
Based on Southeast Asian culture, the creative team at Disney wanted to be as authentic as possible and hired screenwriters Malaysian American Adele Lim and Vietnamese American Qui Nguyen. Heading the story would be Walt Disney Animation Studios artist, and Thai American, Fawn Veerasunthorn, who had previously worked on other Disney animated films such as Moana and Zootopia. Disney also hired a team of consultants and experts to make up the Southeast Asian Story Trust.
“It is such a diverse and big and beautiful and rich world that in finding our connection to each area, we leaned very heavily on our Southeast Asia Story Trust, on some of our experts, to help find those connections,” Producer Osnat Shurer said during an early press day Q&A. “In the key creative room itself, we had someone from Malaysia, someone from Thailand, and somebody with a very strong connection to the Vietnamese heritage. We also have a lot of crew from various parts of the region. We had a number of Indonesians on our story trust who helped with that. So there was this kind of expanding and growing of incorporating elements from different places that had a lot to do with A, finding commonalities, and B, with the crew and members of the creative storytelling team from many countries in the region.”
The Nerds of Color got to have a chat with Shurer, Lim, and Veerasunthorn about the process of making the movie, the casting choices, and the use of the Southeast Asian Trust, and getting Raya’s skin tone right.
When creating the characters and the world of Kumundra, what was the process of adding the Southeast Asian elements to them? How did you work together from script to animation to bring Raya and the world of Kumundra together?
Osnat Shurer: I just fell in love with, with the themes of community that we felt were shared everywhere with some of the visual underlying visual design elements. And so what we tried to do, and it wasn’t something you do once, you do it constantly throughout the film, is always look at the inspiration, and then how it feeds the story and how it works in the fantasy. [And] how it was applied into the fantasy world of Kumandra. So it was an ongoing process between people on the team who have Southeast Asian roots, our Southeast Asian Story Trust, our architect and visual anthropologists, in particular, throughout. It still goes on. Actually, we’re still in conversation as we tell extension stories and children’s books and things like that. We’re still working with our with our Trust. So, to me, what’s most important about it is this kind of from the very beginning and an ongoing collaboration.
Adele Lim: Yeah, and I would just to add to that, again, it’s not about an overlay of it. It really was about, in such a collaborative medium that even from the script stage, coming at it from growing up in Southeast Asia. We have a huge tradition of like female leaders, female warriors, and even in contemporary Southeast Asia, how empowered women really economically and their standing in society. And so that all infused into Raya where the excitement of telling the next iteration of the Disney Princess. It’s not just because, like being a princess is it’s fun and fabulous and you get great outfits, but she’s a leader. She’s a leader of a broken land and what it means for a young woman to feel the burden of that, of carrying on your father’s dream and being able to like heal a land together. The feeling of community and how important it was. It’s something I personally felt, again, growing up in Southeast Asia and coming over here. There wasn’t so much of a culture shock but it’s this observation that back home – anybody in my church, anybody in my community, and my grandmother’s community felt a responsibility for me. And being able to create this fantasy world where those were the values that they also held at their best. And, and I would also say it goes on to a bunch of different levels. It’s not simply about having our Disney team experience the culture, although that was a very, very important part of it, so that they could feel it and live it. I shared this story earlier. One of my first days at Disney, I was taking the elevator out from the parking garage and I was in there with four or five other [young[ Asian women and I was like ‘oh my God, this has never happened to me in my 20 years in Hollywood’, and that there were so many Asian, not just Asian women, specifically Southeast Asian women, already within the Disney system. They were not brought in just for Raya to contribute. You know what felt true for them is just how they even grew up not just like our old mythology, like everyday life into their storyboards, into visual development, into our script. The number of times I find I would look across each other [speaking to Veerasunthorn] at the storyboard room going, just like the food scene. Yeah, it’s just like, ‘No, you can’t. You can’t do that, that’s just disrespectful. Like things you just understand on the key level, not because a cultural expert outlined it for you. You know it’s instinctive.
Fawn Veerasunthorn: We have a wonderful group of people, who are very passionate about this movie, working at the studio. We’re constantly talking to each other, whether it’s [a] formally put together group or just passing each other in the hallway or they just text me. So that’s how I feel that that’s a real passion of representation for them. We had this one fantastic session when people came together to talk about their relationship with their dads, because we’re trying to understand like how to represent Benja in a way that feels true to everybody across different cultures of Southeast Asia. And that session was kind of mind-blowing to get very personal, especially being from Asia, you don’t really talk about your feelings like that. Everyone was so open and talking openly, that was really formed his character.
There are so many recognizable locations and elements of different Southeast Asian countries – from the hat, the shadow puppets in the beginning – which reminded me of Thai shadow puppets, skin tone, clothes, food, and jewelry. How did you pick and choose which of these cultures, styles, and traditions to use in the film?
Shurer: I’ll start us off. Because it’s a very complex and interesting layered question. And for us, everything is driven by story and everything is driven by character. So, it’s all about what is going to serve the character the best, and it was very organic process. There quite a few people in the room that have like stories to tell from their own childhood and their own culture, growing up in Southeast Asia. We had a group of experts and one of them are our visual anthropologist, Dr. Steve Arounsack. He’s Lao but his knowledge goes across the region and we would consult. We would have conversations about every single aspect of the film and what we were looking for more shared design principles and shared schematics and we found them. There really are the sense of community, and, of course, the food. How could we not celebrate the food if you’ve ever tasted it. But, also, just like specific design elements for example, the woods. In almost every country, in every culture, in Southeast Asia, the architecture is a reflection of a worldview of understanding of how people look at life. How do we take that and apply that to commander, so everything we looked at we looked at the fantasy. And then what’s the inspiration behind it and how that inspiration forms, then there are also moments of fun. Adele winking at each other and getting something right.
Veerasunthorn: It’s important to me, personally, I think that we pick the element that that is true for across the board in Southeast Asia, so we’re not pinpointing that ‘oh this is from one country in particular’ because we want, you know, is this the first time that Southeast Asia has been portrayed on animated movie of this scope, and the use of such a special thing to be able to connect among each other on. You mentioned the opening scene the prologue scene and we know we want to make a stylized choice for that particular scene. And you said it looks like หนังตะลุง (Thai shadow puppets). Yeah, and Adele say it looks like wayang kulit (Malaysian shadow puppets). There’s a shared element when you look closely. It’s not exactly like wayang kulit looks like. We put in our own mythology and design and motive into those puppets. So you know how you picked it out [when watching the shadow puppet footage], I think that’s cool you’re like, ‘Oh, is it from Thailand?’”
Lim: Even within like a specific Southeast Asian country, there’s so many different races and cultures and we all grew up like that so we’re used to it. So, really, I think the important thing about the Kumandra culture is that it embodies the spirit that is inspired by the spirit of Southeast Asia. It’s not so much like ‘oh we want to pluck one hat’ or ‘we want to pluck one pillar design’ You’re of the culture, so you know we’re between China and between India. We understand what it is like to hold all those different things and we also know what it’s like to view even within our own people factions and feeling divided. And so really, the story was very much inspired by that rich landscape because the things that you can celebrate for making you different, you can also view, ‘oh, that’s alienating, and it makes somebody my enemy.’”
I thought that was beautifully done like just the different locations but a big draw for me for the movie, other than being a Southeast Asian princess and that’s like a huge deal for me, but Kelly Marie Tran is like a big draw to the story. She’s amazing. She’s fierce and she always defends her Vietnamese heritage, even writing an New York Times op-ed about her identity which revealed her Vietnamese name Loan. How did you feel like having her in the story and how does she add more to the character of Raya?
Shurer: Oh my goodness. There was this recording session we’ve all talked about, but it’s true, we all looked at each other when Kelly started the prayer that she does [in a scene] when she’s calling on Sisu, we all looked at each other and just started to cry because Raya was coming alive. There were also moments where she’d go ‘Oooh’ and look up at Adele or [co-screenwriter] Qui [Nguyen] and go, “Oh, I recognize that and ‘Oooh, you slipped that in’. Her sense of herself formed the Raya character. Don’t you guys agree?
Lim: Oh, yeah, 100%. I think it’s one thing to create a character on paper and then visual development puts in what the character should look like, the clothes that she should wear. Just to talk about Raya for a second. We have a strong female warrior in a broken land. It is very easy for that warrior to grow up like embittered, a misanthrope, unrelatable, a little harsh and distant, but all of that goes out the window when you have Kelly Marie Tran in the recording studio. When you talk about it culturally, culturally, with people and, particularly, the women, there is a warmth. There is a thing bringing you in. So even though when you meet up with her and she’s a little bit embittered in the world for having lost her father and seeing what she has seen. At her core, at her soul, there is still the thing of what her father sowed in her, and what the dragon manages to bring out. You can write her words and design her clothes, but Kelly Marie Tran has her soul.
Veerasunthorn: She totally understands the respect for the elders. Even if we have our characters talking back, she knows how to do it delicately. That’s kind of perfect, because she understands how to do that.
Lim: What Fawn brings up, just again, in terms of having creators to understand like the culture in the room. A lot of American films, when kids fight with their parents, you have that dynamic where the kids are just like giving their father grief and being a smart mouth. But, if you grew up in a real Southeast Asian household, you’re like, ‘oh no, you can joke with your parents but there is the line that we instinctively feel.’ And so, again, not that we’re putting a light on it, but I think people who watch it of the culture would immediately understand if there’s something that just doesn’t feel right.
The film is heavily inspired by the culture and the life of Southeast Asia and it is the Southeast Asian Princess in the Disney world. It is also heavily promoted as Southeast Asian, but the casting comes a bit off when it comes to casting East Asians in Southeast Asian bodies. Can you tell me the process and the reasons behind the casting choices of East Asian actors in the voices and bodies of Southeast Asian, especially the darker-skinned Asian characters?
Shurer: Yeah you know we gave that casting the same kind of attention that we give everything and auditioned a lot of people. We had a lot of great discussions and feel like we ended up with actors who really embody the spirit and the essence of the character. It’s obviously anchored by Kelly Marie in the in the central role in a great, great way. It’s also a movie that she’s in every scene. And, as we expanded the cast, we were looking for people who truly, truly embody the character. I think we ended up with, with some pretty amazing cast who could carry what that what these characters are, if that makes sense.
Well, I did love that you guys did use Southeast Asian consultants throughout the whole process. Can you tell me how were you able to utilize them throughout the whole process from the animation the creation, even the casting or just like in general, but the whole process?
Shurer: Yeah. We were lucky enough to be able to send some of our artists on research trips. In preparation for the trips, we also connected with a specific expert because it’s something that we’re looking at. For example, a cultural anthropologist or an archaeologist who tells us about the power of how empire rules. Whatever it is – psychology, botany, textile experts – we might reach out to someone specific and there are people we met on the trip. And, somehow, organically that grows into a group that stays with us. Dr. Arounsack was super key because, first of all, h’s awesome, but also his expertise goes across the whole region, and he is a visual anthropologist so his expertise is what is the visual representation of culture. We also had our team spend time with him in Laos and do some great ceremonies there. Our dancer is Balinese, the husband and wife team. He’s a gamelan master and she’s a dancer. They have beautiful gamelan group. We would just go, ‘okay, let me go where we need, we need you to put on camera’. It’s was like ‘how do you take off your shoes when you’re going into a sacred space, leave them tidy but not touch them with your hand.’ And by that night, we would have a video of that. She worked with our animation team to talk about how you carry yourself when there’s an elder in the room. We’d be in contact with Dr. Arounsack all the time. [We met these] wonderful architects we met through Fawn’s sister in Thailand, who has this expertise of what is the visual representation in the various cultures, and he draws, so he speaks our language. Or, he would jump up on Skype and then dance and give us an image of how this would be interpreted in Cambodia versus Laos versus Thailand. So, we were in constant conversation. We showed them versions of the film and got general notes as well as working towards each thing. We’re still in conversation. We’re doing extension stories and publishing books and the conversation still open. And, of course, friendships grow from that kind of collaboration.
Veerasunthorn: The relationship with them is so key to this process. I got to know them very well because I feel like I know Thailand, but I’m not a historian from Thailand. So Steve would know more insight. They can tell us across the board if is it’s true for only this country or is it true for all the four or five regions that we can connect us together. They made themselves so available to us. I think everyone understands that this is like a chance to like put together our love letters for our for our homeland and we want to do it right. We texted [consultant] Emiko [Susilo] at 6:30pm, and she sent it back THAT night. This is how tight we have become. I would ask Steve, ‘oh, we’re thinking about doing this, what do you think what is your angle on it?’ They were so helpful.
Shurer: Super helpful. They would be very specific. Even very specific shapes, like even Raya’s hat. The whole way it comes to this kind of super shape at the top, we worked with Dr. Arounsack. Or, some of the designs on Sisu’s tail where there were sketches that kind of inspired our artists. So it’s at our linguist we’d go to with every name that we were adding to the movie. She’s Indonesian but, again, has expertise across the region.
Lim: On a personal note, even though I grew up in Southeast Asia, there’s so much about other Southeast Asian countries I did not know. And, one of the most wonderful parts about having all the cultural consultants is because I would think there was something very specific about Malaysia like the daggers or the wayang kulit and to realize we’re sharing cultures. Not just with Indonesia, but there were so many similarities with Thailand and other things. It was like a big learning experience for us. So really, it wasn’t just about a one way street of just like ‘let me tell you what Southeast Asia is like’. My one country. But really being able to like have Disney really support and being very supportive of this. There were never any wrong answers. Nobody would ever say like ‘no, we can’t do that’. Let’s talk about it. Let’s figure this out. This is a no-no in your culture, but what about yours. What drives that attitude? So, really, I think, honestly, it was as much a learning experience for me than it was for anyone else.
Veerasunthorn: I just want to add one. I remember the day we saw Raya’s sword and we were like ‘O-M-G, we have to do this.’ I can’t wait to do this.
Lim: Again, it’s not like specifically a kris [Malaysian sword] from one culture, but that the visual development artists [worked on]. These are all images that we grew up [with]. I grew up with that. It’s onstage at your school play. Again, Southeast Asia, you don’t see yourself on a Hollywood screen. You don’t expect the larger world to be looking at your world with your eyes. If this was one of those times where we saw the kris and we saw you know the final iteration of Raya over there with her look and clothes and we’re like, YES.
Veerasunthorn: And to Adele’s point that we get to a deeper meaning of the culture we grew up in. I learned that kris, we use the kris is a stabbing motion, so it Raya wants to use her sword in this motion that we have to adapt the principle of that into a different handle. So, there’s a lot of thought in making it a Kumandra object versus ‘it’s cool, let’s put it in here.’
I do love the story and I love the people of Kumandra. I love that their dark olive skin. Being from Thailand, it’s actually a really important to see her reflected with the darker Southeast Asian skin tones. Can you explain to me like when you guys were doing the different shadings and what’s the process of like how you found Raya’s skin tone?
Shurer: It was a process. Obviously, there was a lot of research. We looked around a lot. We looked. We studied. It was very important to us to try to convey both the entire gamut of skin tones and facial structures. Southeast Asia is such a huge region with so many cultures and ethnicities to give a wide range and to have that wide range in every one of the lands. It wasn’t one land is different than another land. To have that variety in all the lands, we also felt like that we wanted every crowd seemed to be 50/50: male/female. Whether it’s in the kitchen or their guards, so there were things that were important to us that we instituted. We just made it so because we could. All we got was encouragement. There was never a ‘no, no that doesn’t make sense’.
Lim: Yeah, there was no there was no one from up top saying ‘oh, she needs to look a certain way’. It was what feels right for story – what feels authentic. For me, it’s intellectually you can talk about it and you see like the sketches and everything. But, for me, when I saw the render, the fully done renderings of Raya with her hair and her skin and all of that, you look at it and immediately it is this emotional thing. Because I was like ‘oh my God, that could be like my sister. That could be my mom.’ I don’t even think about it that way. It’s just a split-second thing that just comes to you. I am going to have a Disney Princess that my daughter can look at and be like, ‘I see myself in a Disney Princess.’ I cannot even describe that feeling.
Veerasunthorn: Now she looks like someone I know. I can’t wait for my friend to see this. I gave a tour to the [Thailand] voice actor of Elsa [Gam Wichayanee]. She came to visit for the [Frozen II] press tour. I was like ‘Osnat, can I show her what Raya looks like’ on the [art] wall. She’s like ‘okay, alright’. I’m told her it’s a secret and to not tell anybody. She looks at Raya and she was like, ‘is that print wrong? Is she going to have that skin tone?’ Gam also has a darker skin tone. Seeing that, she was like, ‘that’s the final?!’ I said ‘yeah, that’s what she’s gonna look like.’ She was so touched, and it got me emotional. We made the right choice.
Raya and the Last Dragon premieres on Disney+ Premier on March 5th.