Animated character Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, left, appears with Sisu the dragon in a scene from “Raya and the Last Dragon.” THE CANADIAN PRESS/Disney+ via AP

Animated character Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, left, appears with Sisu the dragon in a scene from “Raya and the Last Dragon.” THE CANADIAN PRESS/Disney+ via AP

Vancouver animator talks adding cultural authenticity to ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’

Benson Shum says there are 7 or 8 Canadians working at Walt Disney Animation Studios

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.

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.

Movies & TV

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society communications officer Brianna van de Wijngaard reflects on World Water Day March 22. (Photo submitted)
DOWN TO EARTH: World Water Day means something different for everyone

This year’s World Water Day theme was Valuing Water

Williams Lake Cycling Club president Shawn Lewis (from left), Jeremy Stoward of New Path Forestry, WLCC Boitanio Bike Park director Andrew Hutchinson accept a cheque from Williams Lake and District Credit Union investment specialist Abigail King. (Photo submitted)
Williams Lake Cycling Club gets bike park donation to bolster upgrades, maintenance

Plans are to complete three rideable lines each year, he added

Forestry Ink columnist Jim Hilton. (File photo)
FOREST INK: Credit, COVID and climate crises facing the world

Concerning COVID, Mr. Carney feels we have had the proper response by showing solidarity

Columnist David Zirnhelt’s grandsons practice some fun roping on his granddaughter at the family ranch. (David ZIrnhelt photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
RANCH MUSINGS: Roping, is that an essential skill for a ranch hand?

We all know someone who has had a digit reducing accident while roping

School District board members discuss business at a regular board meeting prior to the pandemic. (Angie Mindus/Williams Lake Tribune file photo)
Ministry of Education gives special shout out to School District 27 at start of Education Week

District board and administration recognized for creating outdoor learning spaces

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

People walk past the Olympic rings in Whistler, B.C., Friday, May 15, 2020. Whistler which is a travel destination for tourists around the world is seeing the effects of travel bans due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Adults living, working in Whistler, B.C., eligible for COVID-19 vaccine on Monday

The move comes as the province deals with a rush of COVID-19 and variant cases in the community

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
UPDATE: RCMP investigating after child, 6, dies at motel in Duncan, B.C.

The BC Coroners Service is conducting its own investigation into the circumstances around the child’s death

RCMP display some of the fish seized from three suspects who pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act in 2019, in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - RCMP
3 banned from fishing, holding licences after overfishing violations near Vancouver Island

Mounties seized the group’s 30-foot fishing vessel and all equipment on board at the time

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia’s opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan’s government, but they say Monday’s throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province’s economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

Farnworth said the budget will include details of government investment in communities and infrastructure

FILE - An arena worker removes the net from the ice after the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames NHL hockey game was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test result, in Vancouver, British Columbia, in this Wednesday, March 31, 2021, file photo. As vaccinations ramp up past a pace of 3 million a day in the U.S, the NHL is in a tougher spot than the other three major North American professional sports leagues because seven of 31 teams are based on Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
Vancouver Canucks scheduled to practice Sunday, resume games April 16 after COVID outbreak

Canucks outbreak delayed the team’s season by eight games

Most Read