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

An Interior Health nurse administers Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. Photo: Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News
Interior Health opens up vaccine eligibility in Columbia Valley to 18 years or older

Only local residents can register and book appointments as COVID-19 case counts spike in the region

Elvira D’Angelo, 92, waits to receive her COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, March 7, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
110 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

Provincial health officers announced 1,005 new cases throughout B.C.

BGC Cranbrook will renovate a facility to relocate 24 existing spaces and add 24 new spaces with support from the Trust. Photo courtesy Columbia Basin Trust.
Grant funding to help create new childcare spaces in Cranbrook

Columbia Basin Trust providing $10,000 to BGC Cranbrook to help renovate new facility

Earlier this spring, the City of Cranbrook started positioning components of the Stormceptor system to carry storm runoff to Elizabeth Lake from the Innes Avenue neighbourhood. Photo submitted
Stormceptor will bring clean run-off to Elizabeth Lake

The City of Cranbrook is installing new infrastructure to handle the Innes Avenue neighbourhood, but go easy on Elizabeth lake

Interior Health nurses administer Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. (Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News)
69 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

The total number of cases in the region is now at 9,840 since the pandemic began

Vancouver resident Beryl Pye was witness to a “concerning,” spontaneous dance party that spread throughout social groups at Kitsilano Beach on April 16. (Screen grab/Beryl Pye)
VIDEO: Dance party erupts at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach to the dismay of onlookers

‘It was a complete disregard for current COVID-19 public health orders,’ says Vancouver resident Beryl Pye

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday December 8, 2020 in Ottawa. The stage is set for arguably the most important federal budget in recent memory, as the Liberal government prepares to unveil its plan for Canada’s post-pandemic recovery even as a third wave of COVID-19 rages across the country. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Election reticence expected to temper political battle over federal budget

Opposition parties have laid out their own demands in the weeks leading up to the budget

A syringe is loaded with COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to open up COVID vaccine registration to all B.C. residents 18+ in April

Registration does not equate to being able to book an appointment

(Black Press file photo).
UPDATED: Multiple stabbings at Vancouver Island bush party

Three youths hospitalized after an assault in Comox

Selina Robinson is shown in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday November 17, 2017. British Columbia’s finance minister says her professional training as a family therapist helped her develop the New Democrat government’s first budget during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she will table Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. finance minister to table historic pandemic-challenged deficit budget

Budget aims to take care of people during pandemic while preparing for post-COVID-19 recovery, Robinson said

Each spring, the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale is held in Penticton. This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will not be held. However, beer is still available. How much do you know about this beverage? (pxfuel.com)
QUIZ: How much do you really know about beer?

Put your knowledge to the test with this short quiz

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

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Most Read