What do Kanye West, Steven Spielberg, and Southeast Asian shadow puppetry have in common?
All were on the filmmakers’ minds as they made Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Raya and the Last Dragon, which is up for ten Annie Awards — more than any other title this year. Directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, alongside co-writer Qui Nguyen, sat down to discuss the film with INBTWN Animation, the official online event partner of Cartoon Brew. Watch them talk artistic influences, Covid chaos, and the risks of making an Asia-set action movie below:
“From the very beginning we had this desire to push the boundaries of what a Disney movie could be – in terms of tone, in terms of the visuals, in terms of the action,” says López Estrada. “Our team really saw every opportunity to try something that hadn’t been tried before in this type of animated movie.”
But shaping Raya’s character took time. “There was a very stereotypical samurai story that you could tell — which we could easily have fallen into,” says Nguyen. The filmmakers wanted to avoid the “boring trope” of a quiet badass, like Uma Thurman’s Bride in Kill Bill: “It’s hard for a kid to want to be that … there’s no personality there to attain as a kid.”
Namaari, Raya’s friend-turned-nemesis, hews more closely to this archetype, but she too changed a lot in development. In an early scene, she was to save people by doing “super-athletic martial arts things,” says Nguyen. But then “we were like, ‘Oh crap, we’re only 15 minutes into the film and now we’re all on Namaari’s side. And it’s called Raya and the Last Dragon.’” The scene was cut and Namaari reimagined as more of an antagonist.
The team also speaks about developing the film’s tone and style. To set the mood, the filmmakers created a playlist early on. “I remember Don, the very first day, said, ‘We need a badass soundtrack: let’s look at contemporary stuff, let’s look at hip hop,’” recalls López Estrada. “We didn’t go quite as far as hip hop, but in the first iterations of the mood, we definitely tried some Kanye West songs.”
The plan was to make a film that looked like no other Disney feature. López Estrada, whose background is in live action, explains how the crew used everything from certain camera lenses to a heavy film grain to achieve a striking cinematic look. The works of Spielberg, Taika Waititi, and Edgar Wright were all reference points.
But Raya isn’t limited to this kind of realism. It opens with an arresting 2d sequence that evokes the Indonesian shadow puppetry known as wayang kulit. The idea to pay homage to this tradition came early, but the sequence posed challenges: “We had to do some r&d as we were in production,” says López Estrada.
“That’s what I love about animation,” adds Hall. “You can take some big stylistic swings, and it all plays together. Probably more than even live action, it’s forgiving, in terms of big stylistic choices in the same film.”
Raya is available on Disney+. Read our review round-up here.