By TREVOR HOGG
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
As our world lay under siege by the pandemic, Raya and the Last Dragon revolves around a warrior seeking a demigod in order to defeat evil creatures threatening her divided land of Kumandra. The fantasy adventure by Walt Disney Animation Studios was not left unscathed by the lockdown as 400 artists had to work remotely as shot production was to commence, and the theatrical release date shifted from 2020 to 2021, with it simultaneously debuting on Disney+ in March.
Within two weeks of the work-at-home mandate, the production was back on track thanks to Herculean efforts of the technology department. “The hardest things to figure out at first were sync playback and editorial Avid reviews because of the lag time,” recalls Producer Osnat Shurer (Moana). “You’re dependent on everyone’s Internet speeds. There’s family. Two kids are going to school online. A spouse might be teaching classes on the other side of the room. But people figured out ways around it. One of the keys was the support of the studio as well working with each person individually. ‘What works for you?’ Flexibility was important and finding ways to still feel connected.”
“Making these films is not easy because we create all of these layers that are important to the moment, appealing, and full of heart and humor,” notes Shurer. “We have to live up to the Disney legacy. It’s an action-adventure film, which isn’t what we always do in animation. We have a world within the film that is made up of five distinct lands; each one of those have their own personality, geography and topography. It is inspired by Southeast Asian design and thematic principles. Every character represents one of these lands, even down to the patterns in their clothing. Our dragon is based on the Nāga, which is a deity connected to water and to bringing life. It’s not fire-breathing like Western dragons. The Heart Clan are more connected to the dragon, so Raya has a raindrop pattern on her outfit.”
“The design of Raya came together relatively quickly because she has such a clear personality. Raya is a martial artist and martial artists stand and move a certain way. We wanted her to have stature, mobility, and be believable as a strong fighter as well as someone who can lead a crack team. She’s gone out to save the world. Raya is conflicted and has trouble with trust, but works with her flaws in an exciting way.”
—Osnat Shurer, Producer
While the premise of a young girl and dragon remained constant, the setting evolved over the course of the development of the project. “The Southeast Asian focus came in just over two years ago,” remarks Production Designer Paul Felix (The Emperor’s New Groove). “Joe Rohde from Imagineering came in to talk about how you build a culture from scratch and what are the visual hallmarks of a culture that you’re likely to come across. We tried to lay down ground rules for the civilizations that we were trying to create, that kept being modified because of changes in the story.
“Luckily,” continues Felix, “we came in under the wire [with the lockdown] and did take a research trip to Bali, Cambodia and Laos early last year. I was going for more of a sensory feel of what it’s like to be under those climatic conditions and having the sun be almost overhead all of the time. What struck me [the most] was the knowledge that Southeast Asians have about the stories of their own cultures – and that influenced how we imagined how the cities were built and how people lived with each other.”
Combined with how the communities would actually live in the climatic conditions being depicted was the mythology created for the movie. “Once the clans [of Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon and Tail] were one people, but are now divided up into different lands,” remarks Felix. “We had conceived some fairly straightforward through lines. For example, all of the clans have their own particular approach to costume but have similarities in the way the wrap was tied over. A clan like Fang has a rigid hierarchical, militaristic approach to life and that’s how their buildings are constructed. It lent itself more to a geometric way of living. Heart has reverence for the connection between people and dragons, so we went for more of a flowing, organic feel with their architecture.”
Charts were produced that illustrated the various design underpinnings for each land. “For Heart, we leaned towards cool blues and greens, and tried to keep that part of the color wheel associated with the dragons that you see in the film,” states Felix. “Talon was conceived as the trading crossroads of the whole land. Every culture meets the other culture there, so we had the idea it would be more of a cacophony of colors coming together with a strong purple, pink underlay. Everyone is wearing a poster version [of their clothing] to draw attention to themselves and to sell their wares. Tail consists of people who wanted to get away from everyone else, so we gave them earth-tone colors to make sure that they disappeared into the landscape.”
A serpentine-shaped river is the source of life and transportation in Kumandra. “Because the water has been drying up, Tail is the driest and most ravaged land,” remarks Head of Environments Larry Wu (Big Hero 6). “Talon is like a floating city in Cambodia that is on stilts on the water. That was a fun set to work on because it’s full of little huts and has a big market. Spine is up in the mountains, so they’re really cold and it’s snowing. They make all of their structures from bamboo [that is as big as redwood trees]. Heart has done well because their city is built on an island, so they are naturally protected from the Druun. Fang is on a peninsula, but they cut a canal to make themselves an island. Fang has worked hard to thrive and have this sense that they deserve what they have.”
In the prologue, the dragons sacrifice themselves to save humanity from the Druun and then the story flash-forwards 500 years later when Raya is a teenager being trained by her chieftain father to be the guardian of the Dragon Gem. “The first act sets up her journey as an 18-year-old and what needs to happen for the world,” states Osnat. “The thing with fantasy films is that you want to establish the world so the audience can move along with the story, but not to the point where it feels like a separate movie.”
Young and adult Raya kept being refined so as to feel like one character. “The design of Raya came together relatively quickly because she has such a clear personality,” remarks Shurer. “Raya is a martial artist and martial artists stand and move a certain way. We wanted her to have stature, mobility, and be believable as a strong fighter as well as someone who can lead a crack team. She’s gone out to save the world. Raya is conflicted and has trouble with trust, but works with her flaws in an exciting way.”
Simulating authentic Southeast Asian clothing was a complex undertaking. “We designed the garments the way they were actually constructed,” explains Head of Characters and Technical Animation Carlos Cabral (Tangled). “They didn’t have stitching. It’s all folded garments, tucked in and wrapped – that was a huge challenge. Raya is a total badass. She’s out there in the world on her noble steed Tuk Tuk running around different environments. Raya had to have that tough Asian look. She’s dusty, wearing well-worn clothing, and her hair is clumpy. Raya has been in the outdoors for a long time, and there were a lot of challenges in maintaining continuity whether she’s wet or dusty. Raya has this large cape to protect herself from the environment and a giant sword, so there were a lot of pieces to design and to maintain believability throughout the whole movie.”
Pivotal to the plot is the demigod Sisu who has the ability to shape-shift. “Sisu [as a dragon] has this amazing mane of hair and we wanted to preserve the quality and spirit of it in the human form,” remarks Cabral. “We also had to make sure that the facial traits and the personality translates from one to the other.”
Visual research involved studying various animals and reptiles. “For Sisu, we wanted to make sure that she wasn’t coming across too much like a dog,” reveals Co-Head of Animation Amy Smeed (Frozen). “We would take a piece from a reptile or something that swims in the water versus something like a lion, and look at the way the shoulders move. It was a challenge to get Sisu walking on all four legs, and there are times when she will stand up on two legs and talk.”
“If you look closely at the shot when Raya is in the temple, the water is flowing up the stairs not down. How do I simulate that? It is not opposite gravity, otherwise the water would flow straight up. You have to figure out how to get it to conform to the stairs plus flow in the wrong direction. There was a bit of development when it came to that.”
—Kyle Odermatt, Visual Effects Supervisor
Tuk Tuk is the faithful companion and steed of Raya. “Tuk Tuk is so cute!” laughs Smeed. “There was a lot of reference early on of pugs, penguins and armadillos.” Tuk Tuk has the ability to transform himself into a giant wheel with a saddle for Raya. “In pre-production,” says Smeed, “one of our animators built a small Tuk Tuk in a garage workshop in order to figure out how the saddle could stay on top. A lot of it has to do with the counterweights at the bottom. Everything has to fit perfectly to be able to roll. Once it opens, the shell has to rotate in a way that you see his body underneath. There was a lot of back-and-forth between our Animation Supervisor Brian Menz and the rigger on how that would work. That was definitely a challenge to figure out because there are many times where Tuk Tuk is walking or running, will leap into the air, turn into a ball and start rolling.”
Extension experimentation was required to create the effects-driven and antagonistic creatures known as Druun. “It went through a lot of iterations based on the needs of the story,” states Wu. “Where we ended up was this ethereal, otherworldly thing that invades Kumandra. The Druun are composed of a lot of smoke and mist. They appear as dark particles and have an internal glow, so we got them to read well.” The Druun are organic and have lots of different shape changes within them. Explains Smeed, “What we created for the layout and effects department were Druun cycles that had basic shape and timing changes. Layout could use that when they were doing all of the cinematography.
There were times where we would touch the Druun, if it was reacting to a character or the timing needed to be specific for a moment. Other times the Druun would live more in the background and we could plug in cycles that went straight to the effects team.”
A personal favorite for Cabral is a rival to Raya. “Namaari is a unique and strong character, not that I would necessarily want to hang out with her because she’s intense, but in terms of how the design got resolved and the way her performance is in the movie, it was amazing to see her antagonistic relationship with Raya come to life.” Smeed agrees. “Namaari comes from a place that is stoic and structured, so it was finding what makes her different from Raya so we can play up those characteristics between the two. A choreographer helped us pick out specific martial arts moves from Southeast Asia. One of our writers, Qui Nguyen, has a martial arts background so we also had conversations with him.”
“On this film, the question was, ‘How do we push the art and the efficiency of it?’” states Visual Effects Supervisor Kyle Odermatt (Winnie the Pooh). “Our effects department made a whole library of volumetric effects that would be common in the region that inspires the film – a lot of broad atmospherics such as mist because it’s humid there. Normally, our shots tend to be devoid of things like smoke and mist unless the effects department specifically gets involved. But in this case the lighting department was able to add all of that, and it has changed dramatically many of the sequences in the film.”
Even though ambient water was mastered in Moana, it takes on magical properties in Raya and the Last Dragon. “If you look closely at the shot when Raya is in the temple, the water is flowing up the stairs, not down,” adds Odermatt. “How do I simulate that? It is not opposite gravity, otherwise the water would flow straight up. You have to figure out how to get it to conform to the stairs plus flow in the wrong direction. There was a bit of development when it came to that.”
“The main part of my job is to understand the director’s vision and then figure out how our teams can get that up onscreen,” notes Odermatt. “At the same time, I have a component of my role where we need to be able to complete it in a timely fashion and within budgetary constraints. I am encouraging and pushing them back at the same time depending on which day it is or meeting I’m in. I said we could not show fully the onscreen transformation between human and dragon. I set those ground rules in the beginning because it’s too much. There were numerous transformations in Moana, and our artists were so clever that they figured out ways to do it without a complex method. Here we’ve covered up transitions with speed and, in one case, with an outfit.”
“For both our cloth and hair we have custom simulation engines that we have written over the years that address the needs of the complex situations that we find ourselves in,” explains Odermatt. “It’s a process of doing both the groom and simulation at the same time, because you can’t construct a groom in a way that is not nonphysical and have the simulation that you add look natural. Once we have that simulation rig for that hair groom together, it goes to our technical animation group who runs it for any given shot context, like when it’s blowing in the wind. Technical animation run and then guide that simulation. Long hair will always fall in front of the shoulders and frequently in front of the face. There might be heavy acting in those scenes, so they have to find a way to pin the hair behind the shoulders and yet feel like it isn’t disobeying physics.”
“The scope and scale of this film that we wanted to create and put up onscreen was our ultimate challenge to which the teams rose incredibly,” states Odermatt. “When you see Raya and the Last Dragon, you feel that it is a world of great diversity both in terms of characters and land. We accomplished it all within the timeframe that we had to work with and under the incredible constraint of working from home. We have an experienced crew that knows what it’s doing; if we get clear direction from our creatives, their ability to execute is second to none. They were lightly noted. Everyone got to contribute a lot of themselves in the production, which they’re happy about.”