A Matter of Trust
Issue: April-May-June 2021

A Matter of Trust

Raya, the lead character in Raya and the Last Dragon, the latest feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios, is not your typical Disney princess of yesteryear. Rather, she is a fierce warrior, albeit one with trust issues. And with good reason.

Raya and the Last Dragon builds on technology from several of the studio's last films, only here, instead of focusing on one of those big technical achievements, the filmmakers expanded and utilized a number of them to bring the amazing, diverse worlds and characters of Raya to life.


In the fantasy world of Kumandra, humans once lived harmoniously alongside dragons within a peaceful paradise. When an evil force called the Druun threatened the land and all in it, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Life was restored, except to the dragons. And all that remained of Sisu, the very last dragon who saved the world, is the precious Dragon Gem. But instead of reuniting the people of Kumandra, borders formed, and Kumandra was divided into five lands: Heart, Tail, Talon, Spine, and Fang - each with different cultures, inhabitants, customs, and terrain. And the people of the five lands became enemies.

In the land of Heart, Raya's father, Benja, the chieftain, guards the precious dragon crystal used to expel the mindless plague that consumed life and turned all it consumed to stone. As a young girl, Raya began training and eventually passes a complex test so she, like her father and ancestors before her, can become a guardian of the gem.

Meanwhile, Raya's idealistic father attempts to unite the five lands and calls for a meeting among the tribes. Warily, the tribes meet in Heart. During a welcome feast, Namaari, a young daughter of the Fang clan chief, pretends to befriend Raya. Proud of her skills, Raya successfully traverses the Indiana Jones-like gauntlet and proudly shows off the gem to her new "friend." Only, it is a trap by Fang. Rival tribes appear. A fight ensues, and the stone shatters, as the various tribes snatch up pieces and retreat to their homelands. Only, the shards did not contain enough dragon magic to restrain the Druun, which after 500 years, descended upon the land once again, turning the people to stone - Raya's dad among them.

Several years pass, and now a lone, nomadic Raya travels with her friend and transport, the pangolin-like Tuk Tuk, to collect the pieces and find the mythical Sisudatu, maker of the original gem, in hopes that this last dragon can restore it. Along the way, a distrusting Raya must rely on the help of a diverse group of strangers and learn to trust once again before she can unite Kumandra and bring her father back to life.

The adventure of Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) through the five lands starts at Tail, whose once mighty waterways have now become tiny streams. She is searching the tributaries for Sisu (Awkwafina), who legend has it washed away and rests at the end of the Dragon River after creating the gem. Out of the mist appears Sisu, who turns out to be funny and self-deprecating, but not the most competent of dragons, especially the one of legend. As it turns out, Sisu did not even make the gem all those years ago. She just "turned it in." Despite this, Sisu - who assumes human form - agrees to help Raya find and reassemble the pieces.

Raya and the Last Dragon is directed by Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and Carlos López Estrada (Blindspotting). Veteran artist Paul Briggs, known for his work as head of story on Frozen and Big Hero 6 and longtime animator/story artist John Ripa (Moana and Zootopia) are co-directors. Osnat Shurer, who was nominated for an Oscar for Moana, and Oscar-winner Peter Del Vecho of Frozen fame are producers. Rob Dressel is director of cinematography layout; Adolph Lusinky, director of cinematography lighting; and Kyle Odermatt, visual effects supervisor.

A young Raya and her chieftain father in the lush land of Heart before the Druun reappears.

A New Spin

Over the past several years, Disney Animation has released amazing CG features with increasing levels of sophistication, each accomplishing a particular technical milestone or more, with subsequent features building on the technology. And those animation developments all combine in Raya. "I see this as the final version of the pipeline that we've been working on for the last 10 years," says Kelsey Hurley, technical supervisor. "For example, we have camera improvements from Zootopia, water from Moana, the complex environments of Ralph Breaks the Internet, and the volumetrics of Frozen 2. And of course, this was all rendered [with global illumination] in Hyperion, which we first saw in Big Hero 6. Raya combines all these together to just [present] an amazing world."

The film is steeped in Southeast Asian culture. In fact, Raya and the Last Dragon is the first Disney Animation film to have a Southeast Asia-influenced setting and characters, including the unique princess Raya. And filmmakers embraced this culture from the start, even holding a good luck Baci ceremony at the start of the production, as Laos elders from the Laos community in California provided blessings on the project.

Inspired by real-world Southeast Asian cultures, the filmmakers and artists consulted with a group of anthropologists, architects, dancers, linguists, musicians, and more from the region. Collectively referred to as the Southeast Asia Story Trust, this group provided guidance concerning the area's age-old traditions, sacred customs, rich cultures, and more - food, fabrics, colors, décor, and so forth - which gave the CG film a sense of reality and authenticity.

Sisu the dragon can assume human form, here with Raya.

"We're making a movie that is inspired by the cultures of Southeast Asia, and we wanted to be sure that when people from the region see this - although Kumandra is a made-up place - they can feel the love and respect the team had for the incredible real places that inspired us," says Estrada.

In addition, two groups of filmmakers made research trips throughout Southeast Asia - including Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore - so they could experience the cultures firsthand.

"Of the people we met, everyone had such a deep connection to their village and to their culture. They knew all the old legends and what, aesthetically, everything means, and that's layered into everything from fabrics, to how food is created, to how flowers are arranged," says Paul Felix, production designer. "There's a deep meaning relating to their culture and their village, which ties into everything that they do."

Food, in particular, was a key aspect of the region's cultures. Although there were similarities and differences across the area in terms of the ingredients, taste, preparation, presentation, and so on, the common element was its importance in bringing people together. "When connecting with those on the research trips, it was evident that food had to be a fundamental element in the film," says Hall. The filmmakers turned the food into a metaphor that is used to track Raya's sense of trust.

A large number of sequences contain work from the crowd animation group.

An Adventure in Worldbuilding

Raya and the Last Dragon is large in scope and complexity. Each land in Kumandra is unique, with its own physical characteristics, geography, geology, topology, climate, and even structures. And, each world has its own light design - for instance, the desert land of Tail, where the sun is especially strong, has the harshest light, along with a lot of dust elements and heat distortion.

"We have a world made up of five different lands," explains Shurer. "That's like designing five movies. They have five different natural environments, materials they build with, different colors the locals wear, different shape languages that are meaningful to them."

Despite the disparities, the lands are unified by two particular elements: the dragon and water.

Heart is Raya's home, a prosperous land filled with peace and magic. Here, the connection to the dragon - which itself is connected to water - is strong, and the buildings and rooms are round to resemble a drop of water. Tail, meanwhile, is a far-flung desert land that is becoming increasingly isolated as the water recedes. In the water-surrounded land of Fang, power is a driving force, so the structures are over-scaled, with straight lines and sharp edges. Talon, the crossroads of the five lands, is a floating, bustling marketplace that's overfilled with food and goods of all kinds - a thriving environment for pickpockets. Spine, an insular and remote land high in the mountains, can best be described as a frozen forest that's home to fearsome warriors distrustful of outsiders.

To build these virtual lands, the artists used Autodesk's Maya for modeling and in-house tools for procedural set dressing, along with in-house tools for texturing, including Paint 3D for painting and proprietary software for material creation. Rendering was done using Hyperion, Disney's proprietary renderer.

Artists filled Talon with food and goods in this bustling marketplace.

For the large-scale environment in each land, the crew leaned heavily on the Set Extension team to help build out the landscapes. This team combined modeling, look, and compositing skills to create these lands using the following tool sets: Maya; Adobe's Photoshop, After Effects, Substance Designer, and Substance Painter; Pixololgic's ZBrush; SideFX's Houdini; and Disney's in-house Paint 3D. The environment asset artists would build out an environment to a certain distance so the characters could interact with it. Beyond that, generalist artists would then build models, texture them, shade them, light them, and then paint over them "to make it feel like the worlds are fully created and you can move through them," says Odermatt.

The filmmakers wanted to bring the set extensions as close to the camera as possible, resulting in fully realized worlds beyond the extent of the set, making the sets seem much bigger than would have been possible through conventional means. "They are epic and entirely convincing, and work fully well in the stereo conversions of our movies because they are renderable with dimension. So even when heavily painted, there is some dimensional aspect to the set extension," Odermatt says. "All the set extensions have to be stereo-compliant, so the artists created just enough geometry to support the parallax that was needed for the stereo process. Then they painted in an incredible amount over top that."

As Odermatt points out, there are a lot of atmospherics in this part of the world because there is so much water, inspiring the artists to apply those atmospheric effects to the film. "Traditionally, that would be the work of the effects department. But that gets very difficult when you think of all the other big challenges in this film, including the Druun, which was a monumental challenge for the effects department," he says.

Instead, the lighting and effects departments worked with the technical team to generate an extensive library of volumetric elements, such as morning mist, ground fog, and so forth. And then when the lighters lit a master shot or an individual shot, they could compose these moving, simulated effects elements into their shots. This helped evoke more of a Southeast Asia setting.

Says Odermatt, "This was a big upgrade for us, because in the past, we would have had the effects department create those [elements] on a per-shot basis. Here, they were created in preproduction and available to any lighting artist to add into a scene."

This enabled the effects department to focus on the really big, dynamic VFX in the film - the Druun character and the effects related to the dragon magic. "We knew they would be completely full of those big story point effects and would not have a lot of excess capacity to do environmental effects and things like that, to make this feel more like a real place, and we wanted those effects in the film," adds Odermatt. "It was a big shortcut to getting a lot more production value up on the screen."

The atmospherics also had a large effect on the storytelling. For moments of distrust and discord, more dust and smoke were added, and for the sweet, trusting moments, the atmospherics were more water-inspired with mist and steam.

Moreover, the filmmakers leaned into live-action cinematography to further affect the viewer experience, here using camera and render properties. "For the first time in a real significant way, we applied film grain just like a director might choose to shoot on different film stocks for different sequences," says Odermatt, describing the post process added on top of the images.

The grain was used as a storytelling device: A heavier film grain was used in scenes with the distrust/discord story thematic, and software grain with the trust thematic. One film stock stripped a significant amount of color out of the high end. "It was a bit scary while we were doing it because we haven't seen it heavily used in an animated film before this, since it is such a bold thing to bake into the images," says Dressel. "But the directors really liked the grittiness it added, and we began working to get the R&D done and the plug-ins to do it."




Raya, a proud Guardian of the Dragon Gem, is on a mission to save the world. She has grown up to be a resilient warrior whose wit is as sharp as her blade.



Sisu is the last dragon of Kumandra. Legends say she’s a divine water being of unspeakable beauty and unstoppable magic, but she does not see herself as such. Now she must learn to become the dragon of legend if she is to save the world with Raya.



Part pill bug, part pug, part high speed off-road vehicle, Tuk Tuk has been Raya’s best friend since she could hold him in the palm of her hand. Now they are both grown, and Tuk Tuk is Raya’s faithful, gigantic steed.



Brilliant, calculating, and a formidable warrior, Namaari is Raya’s unrelenting nemesis. She is the daughter of the chief of the Fang lands and is determined to do whatever it takes to protect her people.



Part monkey, part catfish, the three Ongis are resourceful con artists from the trading port of Talon. They do everything together, including raising a 2-year-old toddler named Noi.


After her family is lost to the Druun, 2-year-old toddler Noi is raised by the Ongis. In the trading port of Talon, she leads the group’s hustle, distracting passersby with her cuteness while the Ongis rob them blind.



A precocious street kid from Tail always up for a business deal, Boun is the self-styled owner, manager, chef and captain of his boat.



Underneath his huge, gruff, and fierce exterior, Tong is really a lonely woodsman with a soft spot for little ones, a true gentle giant.

Full of Character

Raya contains a large ensemble of hero characters, along with lands populated by various clans, each with their own ethos who have different physical features, clothing, hairstyles, and so forth.

The basic sculpts for the characters were created in ZBrush, and then the models were ported over to Maya, where they were rigged and animated using Maya and proprietary tools, including a faster distributed rig evaluation system called Parade. The models were textured using the studio's Paint 3D and Photoshop. For the clothing, the artists used Marvelous Designer, a 3D tool for designing clothing and fabrics, which actually tailors clothes to the body. The final renders came from Hyperion.

The animation for the fight between Raya and Namaari is based on reality.

The crowd animation department keyframed more than 72,000 individual elements while filling the five lands of Kumandra. This includes 18,987 human characters in addition to 35,749 non-human characters. In fact, nearly 70 percent of all the sequences in the feature film include the work of the crowd animation department.

In Raya, it's the big things, and little things, that can make a significant difference. Animators worked with choreographers and experts in the Trust to accurately portray movement such as dances. They also learned how to remove shoes properly before entering a sacred location, which they passed on to the CG characters. Such attention to detail can be found throughout the film. "I think people who have some expertise in these areas will recognize the moves, stances, and postures," says Odermatt.

In one of the more impressive examples of authentic animation, there is an intense and brutal face-off between Raya and Namaari that is based on a Philippine martial arts fighting style called Muay Thai kickboxing. Providing the animators with guidance and reference was Qui Nguyen, one of Raya's writers, who hails from Southeast Asia and just happens to have been a fight choreographer at one time.

"I wanted to make sure that our martial arts were correct. So often when you see a big action movie that is depicted with people who look like me and [co-story writer Adele Lim], the martial arts can be just any combination of anything, even made-up moves," says Nguyen. "But for this, it was very important the fighting styles that Namaari, Benja, and Raya used were grounded in real-world physics and were based and rooted in Southeast Asian martial arts - specifically, pencak silat, Arnis, and Muay Thai. Of course, this being animation, we could have had the characters do fantastical moves, but if we did, then suddenly the dragon would not have been such a magical element in the film. So, as a story element, it was important that we separate the actions of the two and ground this human fighting motion in reality."

Sisu, meanwhile, is a changeling, requiring two different rigs: one for her as a dragon and one for her as a human.

She has a unique look for a dragon, with a long, flowing mane of blue hair with purple streaks, and more of a furred body than a scaly one, with overall elements of water in her design. She has a long, serpentine body, which presented a rigging challenge. "We hadn't really done a character that was quite like that, where the spine was going to be so long that it would need to be potentially inverted if she was walking on hind legs or flying, where her kinematics would be driven more from the front of her spine," says Malcon Pierce, head of animation. "Her rig had to be really versatile - we needed to get the highest performance range with the fewest controls possible." This allowed the animation team to achieve consistency without limiting the number of people animating this character.

Animators used Disney's proprietary Toxic to simulate and groom the characters' hair.

Nevertheless, Sisu contains more controls (both FK and IK) than a typical Disney Animation character.

Numerous sim setups also were needed for her fins, hair, tail. Her hair, like that of the other characters, was simulated and groomed with Tonic, an in-house tool, by the tech anim team that was originally developed and used on Tangled. "The artists are getting better at producing very complex hairstyles. [Young] Raya's braid was actually hand-plated in the software," says Pierce.

In fact, Amy Smeed, head of animation, estimates that for this film, there was more collaboration between the animation and tech animation teams than in any previous film.

Of course, this being Disney Animation, there was the drive to create something that has never been seen before. One of those truly unique characters is the Druun, an ethereal, amorphous, and destructive spirit born out of human conflict. With a single touch it can turn a person to stone and multiply; although repelled by water, it can only be destroyed with the power of the dragon. An effects/simulation character made of a purplish, smokey haze, the Druun's shape and overall timing was crafted by animation, while effects placed a magical spin on it. "The Druun have a sort of character to them, but we didn't want them to have actual personalities," says Odermatt. "Yet, they have an incredible presence in the film."

The Druun's rig was generated in Houdini. That rig was then handed off to an artist who would animate it for the needs of a shot, while retaining its overall character. "It's very multilayered. There's an internal web and the emissivity part in the center, and the outer parts of swirl encircling that. All of those are part of this greater effects rig with controls and knobs that are available to a shot artist," explains Odermatt.

The various clans each have their own physical features, clothing, and hairstyles.


As stated earlier, water was one of the unifying elements of Kumandra, and in the film, it takes many forms, from the subtle, to the apparent, to the fantastical. "The importance of water was a huge visual thematic in the film. Sisu is a water dragon based on the Naga [also a shapeshifter], which brings water and life, so water just became this reoccurring motif in the film that was extremely important," Hall points out.

Sisu's special magical power is water-related: She is a strong swimmer. She is also able to conjure up atmospherics such as fog and mist, powers bestowed on her by her brothers and sisters. In other scenes, Raya's guardian ancestors are represented by suspended water droplets, while the stream in the temple defies gravity and flows backward.

"We had just finished Moana, so we knew we could realize water [which was rendered in Hyperion]," says Shurer. "Many of us, especially on our tech team, had worked on that film. They can play with the beauty, with the color of the water."

Controls enabled the team to shape and move the water to achieve the desired motion and look, even allowing them to pull out the right color and saturation. In Raya, the Dragon River itself has different reflections depending on how close the camera is to the headwaters - it gets a little greener as it gets farther away. "So playing visually with the water was a dream because we knew we could."

Volumetrics helped seat the imagery in the world. Above shows the shot without volumetrics; below, with them.

Fun Facts

  • The scene with the largest number of animated characters takes place underwater and features 23,836 animated fish.

  • Raya’s fighting style was inspired by pencak silat from Malaysia and Indonesia, and weapons modeled from Kali and Arnis martial arts in the Philippines. Her distinctive sword was inspired by the keris, revered in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia.

  • Namaari’s fighting style was inspired by Muay Thai kickboxing and Krabi-krabong from Thailand.

  • Nearly 70% of all sequences in the film have work from crowd animation.

  • The welcome soup prepared by Raya’s father was inspired by Thailand’s Tom Yum soup. In the film, he shows Raya (and the audience) how to actually make it.

  • Inspired by garments found throughout Southeast Asia, the costumes in Raya used draping-based designs rather than pattern-based designs used in previous films.

COVID Hurdles

Raya is the 59th animated film from Disney Animation Studios, and the very first to be made at home due to COVID. As a result, nearly all the shot production took place from the homes of more than 450 artists and crew, who were making assets, animating, creating shots, lighting, having story meetings....

To Nguyen, COVID presented more of a mental hurdle than a technological one, as tech support had nearly everyone up and running off-site after about two weeks. The biggest adjustment came in the way the group had to work.  "But everyone brought their best game across the board to make this beautiful film," he says.

"I often wondered, will we ever make it? But we did," says Fawn Veerasunthorn, head of story. Creating this movie in the middle of COVID - I mean, who would have thought?"

Workflows were altered, and communication became more important than ever. There's no "running" into each other in the building; every encounter with coworkers had to be deliberate. Indeed, many valuable lessons were learned from the experience, and some of the workflow changes that proved especially advantageous will be adopted permanently.

Throughout the experience, the filmmakers banded together as a community and overcame  unprecedented hurdles associated with lockdown, and central to overcoming them was the trust the crew had for one another, enabling them to tackle and resolve the problems they faced. And that parallels the story of Raya, who must do likewise, and believe in and trust others to accomplish an overwhelming goal.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.