With “Raya and the Last Dragon,” Disney has not only turned the titular Southeast Asian princess (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) into a badass warrior, but has also veered further into Marvel territory as an action-adventure. Thus, the animation studio has combined elements of the Oscar-winning “Big Hero 6” with “Moana” to create a more epic, culturally diverse story about healing the fantasy world of Kumandra with greater trust among its divided kingdoms.
“The way the film looks and feels like a live-action film we’re very proud of,” said director Don Hall (“Big Hero 6”). “I felt a similar thing on ‘Big Hero 6’ and technology has advanced quite a bit since then and allows for an even more immersive experience.”
But after a solid foundation was firmly established for the Southeast Asian world-building and core dynamic between Raya and the magical water dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), the theme of trust required further sharpening. So Hall was brought aboard a year and a half ago to share directing duties with Carlos López Estrada (“Blindspotting”), who came to Disney Animation earlier to make an original animated feature. They were joined by screenwriter Qui Nguyen, who hailed from the Marvel writers program and was experienced at creating superhero origin stories.
“Part of the reason that Qui and I both joined the animation world was the imaginative nature of animation,” Estrada added. But the magic of animation continues to be the ability to explore ideas, characters, and worlds that don’t exist. To me, ‘Raya’ is the best example of hyper-realistic rendering of images that almost feels like you’re photographing a real landscape.”
In devising a naturalistic, live-action approach, the filmmakers looked at a range of cinematic references, including “Seven Samurai,” “Indiana Jones,” and “The Revenant.” In fact, Adolph Lusinsky (director of cinematography — Lighting) and Rob Dressel (director of cinematography — Layout) created a visual language but specifically to the themes of trust and distrust. This impacted the choice of lighting, framing, composition, lensing, and even film grain.
For scenes about trust — when Raya and her father (Daniel Dae Kim) are together — they emphasized a soft color palette with shallow focus and light grain to instill intimacy and calm. The framing was also centered, which is uncommon for Disney animated features.
“The long lens helps to connect characters, pushes the background out of focus, and generates the bokeh effect, those little circles when you get bright points of light,” Lusinsky said.
For scenes about distrust — when Raya fights nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan) in a clash between Pencak Silat and Muay fighting styles — the visual look was flipped, revealing a desaturated palette with deeper focus, strong silhouettes and heavy grain.
“It’s a harsh world in the way it’s shot,” added Dressel. “There’s a grittiness, it’s more arid with no water, unlike the scenes between Raya and Sisu.”
The directors especially enjoyed working on the fight scenes with the animators. They got so into it, though, that Hall joked about it nearly being R-rated. “Knowing that this was going to be an action movie, we did an [animatic] test early on of the first fight between Raya and Namaari, and because we could be frame specific, there was actual hits,” Hall said. “We looked at it and we were like, ‘That might be a step too far.’ We pulled back a bit and shot it more like a live-action film. But it didn’t stop our storyboard artists when they were doing the action scenes because they really pushed the envelope. We still kept the savagery and intensity that we wanted out of those fights without the graphic nature of it.”
In the end, though, the directors enjoyed pushing the Disney Princess evolution into darker territory. But they had to pull back on the unintentional connection between the film’s amorphous Druun killers and COVID. “All of these ideas really became more and more timely to the point where we had to make the decision not to ever refer to the Druun as a virus because people are gonna think this is a reaction to what’s happening in the world, so it was eerie,” he said.
But the greatest accomplishment was developing Raya as a strong, independent, animated character through a combination of Disney and Marvel attributes: “She’s technically a Disney Princess and if there was a gathering of Princesses, she would be welcome,” Hall said. “But I think she also identifies as a warrior, specifically as guardian of the dragons. And what I love about her is that she can hang with the Princesses, but she can hang with The Avengers too. And not like the B-team. Full-on, A-team and earning her place there because of how badass she is.”