How Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon overcame production problems in a pandemic

The release of a new movie from Walt Disney Animation Studios is always a big event, but few films in the studio’s history have experienced a path to the screen quite like the one that Raya and the Last Dragon took.

Premiering March 5 in theaters (where available) and on the Disney+ streaming service, Raya and the Last Dragon was produced almost entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing its creative team and cast to rethink the collaborative filmmaking process in unique ways. Set in a world where humans and dragons once lived in harmony until an invasion by sinister creatures led to the dragons’ disappearance and the fracturing of society, Raya follows a lone warrior on a mission to bring back the dragons and unite the world. The film features the voices of Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran as Raya and Awkwafina as the dragon Sisu, along with Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, and Alan Tudyk.

Digital Trends spoke to Raya directors Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting), as well as co-writer Qui Nguyen (Dispatches From Elsewhere), about the process of bringing Raya and the Last Dragon to the screen, its roots in classic adventure and martial arts cinema, and the studio’s decision to release it in theaters and on its streaming service the same day.

Digital Trends: What were some of the creative touchstones for each of you in developing Raya and the Last Dragon? Were there any specific stories or concepts you drew inspiration from when working on the movie?

Don Hall: I really responded to the fantasy action adventure element. As a kid growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, [I was a] huge Steven Spielberg fan, and obviously Raiders of the Lost Ark is at the top of the list. This felt like a way to indulge some of those childhood influences, but do it in a new way. For me, that was one of the really fun things about this film.

Qui Nguyen: I’m a big fan of martial arts, so it was really important to me to present the martial arts that come from Southeast Asia, where I’m from, not just respectfully, but in a really cool way on screen. The movies that I enjoy are like Tony Jaa’s Ong Bak and Chocolate and things like that. Those are really, really great films. And like Don, I love a good adventure film. I was definitely inspired by Guardians of the Galaxy and Star-Lord, who was basically a version of Han Solo, who’s really another version of Indiana Jones … So, like Don, big adventure films were definitely something I pulled inspiration from.

Carlos Lopez Estrada: I also grew up watching all the adventure movies Don and Qui grew up watching, so we have that in common. I did not see them in theaters, though, because I wasn’t born when they came out. [Laughs] What was exciting for me was, in addition to these more obvious references that you’ll see in the movie immediately, we also wanted a contemporary element to Raya. We talked a lot about filmmakers like Taika Waititi, Edgar Wright …

Hall: Danny Boyle was another one.

Estrada: Right! Filmmakers with contemporary sensibilities. I think a lot of us saw Raya as an opportunity to create this kind of adventure movie we all loved, but in a fresh, surprising way.

It seems like every Disney movie has a particular visual style. What were some of the ways the look of Raya evolved? How did your vision for the story affect the visual aesthetic of it?

Hall: We wanted to keep pushing the boundaries in different directions. One was in the cinematography itself. There’s also a version of this movie that could have been very reverent and slightly stodgy, as big, epic fantasy adventures sometimes have that flavor to them. So to combat that, we wanted to push on different things, and Qui hinted at one of them already, with Raya having some of the swagger that a Han Solo or a Star-Lord has. Making that our main character was a big deal, because then we felt we could have fun with our main character.

We also tried different sorts of editing patterns and stuff like that. [There were] quick cuts, as well as some really long takes. There are also some different graphic styles that we explore at different points in the movie — the prologue being one of them. And also, the film grain. We really wanted Raya to look as close to a live-action film as we could, even knowing that the characters are caricatures. When you put the film grain on and have that realistic lighting, it all just comes together in a really, really beautiful way.

I was going for something similar with Big Hero 6, but that was 2014 and technology has advanced so much. We really thought we were pushing it back then, but compared to Raya … Wow!

So much of Raya was created during the pandemic, when everyone was isolated. What were some of the ways you had to adjust your process in this environment? What did the experience teach you?

Nguyen: The home base of our productions are usually our story rooms. These are huge meeting rooms where we often have all of our story team animators and all of the key creative collaborators together, constantly talking ideas out, looking at stuff together on a screen, and so on. That room becomes the hub for everyone that’s working on the movie, and that was the first thing we lost. Trying to re-create that online and in Zoom rooms was probably the biggest challenge. All of us were concerned that, no matter how hard we try, we could never re-create that experience.

We were never all together in that room, but I think that forced our team to really work together in other ways. Ironically, since it’s the theme of the movie, we really had to learn to trust each other and know that even though we weren’t physically together, we all had the same goal in mind and we all wanted the best results.

And it really did happen. As we were wrapping the film, every one of the crew members was talking about how included they felt in the process, and how intimate of a collaboration they felt it had been.

You’ve been working on Raya for such a long time. Without spoiling the story, what are some of the elements you’re most excited for people to see?

Hall: I guess for me, it would be the ending. I know this sounds like I’m teasing it or trying to sell tickets, but I’m just really proud of how this film comes together. Obviously, a great ending to a movie is based on all the steps and decisions and things that come before it, but I’m really, really proud of how we managed to pull off the ending of this movie.

Nguyen: The thing I’m excited for people to see is Sisu, the dragon. There’s a version of this movie where you can take her out of it and you have a straight-up action movie that could fit at any studio. But the inclusion of Sisu in the narrative really makes it a magical Disney movie. It brings so much heart and joy and inspiration that I just can’t wait for everyone to experience what Awkwafina did with that character and the relationship she has with Kelly [Marie Tran] as Raya.

Estrada: For me, one of the things I’m looking forward to storywise is how the themes resonate with what’s happening around the world and here in our country. We were joking with Qui a few days ago when [U.S. President Joseph Biden] made his inauguration speech that it sounded like Qui wrote it. The themes of unity and what it takes for a fragmented land to sort of come together, those are very much the themes we’re exploring in the movie. So I’m just excited to see how these characters and these ideas will come out in the world and how people will take them, because I think it’ll inspire some really good conversation.

Disney is releasing Raya in theaters where available and on Disney+ at the same time. As this sort of release became more inevitable, what went through your heads? This has to be such a strange time for filmmakers.

Hall: It is. But I think we were, across the board, pretty stoked. Ultimately, we just want people to see the film. That’s our goal. That’s why we spent all these years on it. We’re just excited for people to see it. I think the dual release in theaters where available and on Disney+ provides the most opportunity for people to see the movie, so I think we’re all just really, really happy. This feels like the best scenario for it right now.

Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon premieres in theaters and on theDisney+ streaming service March 5.

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