Canadian animator on adding cultural authenticity to 'Raya and the Last Dragon'

TORONTO — When animating Disney's new film "Raya and the Last Dragon," Vancouver-raised Benson Shum says he honed in on the subtle details to ensure cultural accuracy.

Available in theatres and on Disney Plus with Premier Access on Friday, the epic adventure follows a Southeast Asian-inspired warrior and her pals as they battle an evil force in the fantasy world of Kumandra.

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It's the first Walt Disney Animation Studios film to have a Southeast Asia-inspired setting, and Shum says the filmmakers made research trips and used three expert consultants from the region to make it authentic.

They also brought in professional Southeast Asian martial artists, and spent time with a group Disney called the Raya Southeast Asia Story Trust, which included anthropologists, architects, dancers, linguists and musicians.

"They did a ceremony sort of thing and we sat around and watched what they did, how they sat, how they positioned themselves when they were sitting," the Los Angeles-based Shum said of the Story Trust.

The ceremony helped the team add specific details to a scene in which different tribes are sitting together on the floor as Raya's father speaks to them.

"I tried to bring in gestures that I thought I would see Asian or Southeast Asian people do, and one thing I learned was that pointing is actually considered rude," said Shum, who is of Chinese heritage.

"So instead of pointing with a finger, like 'look over there,' we might do a gesture where we're using our whole hand."

A scene in which Raya takes off her hat and places it on a cape before entering a temple was also informed by the experts.

"We were told from the cultural consultants that you would never place hats on the floor, you would always put it on something else," said Shum, who joined Walt Disney Animation Studios as an animator in 2012.

Kelly Marie Tran voices Raya alongside Awkwafina as Sisu, the legendary last dragon in Kumandra, which is broken up into five ancient lands.

Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada directed, while Paul Briggs and John Ripa co-directed. Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim wrote the screenplay.

The story is one of trust and unity as Raya tries to repair fractures in the tribes of the once-harmonious society of humans and dragons.

"It's just cool to be animating an Asian warrior princess, daughter of a chief," Shum said. "And bringing something from myself into the film was really fun."

Shum said the part of himself that related to the material was the sense of community and coming together.

"We gathered at my grandma's house every single Sunday growing up," said Shum, who has also worked as an animator on films including "Wreck-It Ralph," "Frozen" and its sequel, "Big Hero 6," "Zootopia" and "Moana."

"Even if there was no event happening, it was just the fact that we were all eating together. And that was something that was really special to me. I didn't necessarily appreciate it when I was younger, but looking back, every week all my cousins, my aunts and uncles were all (together).

"It was a big family, and to be able to see that in a film where they're coming together and they're eating together and it's a very Asian thing to do...that was really nice."

Shum said there are about seven or eight Canadians working at Walt Disney Animation Studios and the list "keeps growing."

He and his colleagues are used to sitting next to each other while working, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to create "Raya and the Last Dragon" remotely from home.

"It's the first film that we've done fully from home, and it was nice to see it all come together," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 5, 2021.

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