‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ co-directors Don Hall, Carlos Lopez Estrada and writer Qui Nguyen on ‘meeting of ideas’

“The whole culture of animation, and specifically Disney animation, hinges on collaboration and the meeting of ideas,” explains Carlos Lopez Estrada. He co-directed the animated adventure “Raya and the Last Dragon” with Don Hall (Oscar winner for “Big Hero 6”), with a script from writer Qui Nguyen. Though they all have defined titles, it can be difficult for any of these men to pinpoint who came up with specific story elements. It’s clear during their conversation that an ego-less collaboration is key to their success in making the movie. Watch the exclusive video interview above.

“You really are constructing this thing as a team,” Estrada elaborates. Animated features can take years to develop and inspiration comes from everyone involved. The movie is hashed out not only with this trio of directors and writer, but with a group of story artists and a group of visual development artists. “Their ideas are just as valuable as anyone else’s,” notes the director. “The level and the depths of the collaborative experience at Disney is really unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

Indeed, Hall notes that the film was actually in development for about a year and a half before he and his collaborators jumped on board. “We had the benefit of seeing multiple versions of the film,” says the director. The major story thread they latched onto was “this idea of a world that’s fractured, that needed to be united,” explains Hall. They chose to tell that story through the concept of trust. Raya is betrayed at the start of the movie, and the five main factions of the fictitious ancient land remain distrustful of each other. “That gave us the thematic spine with which to build the story on,” details Hall.

For writer Nguyen, “Raya and the Last Dragon” offered a unique opportunity. “My goal is always to make superheroes for those who don’t get to see themselves depicted that way,” he reveals. Raya was a chance to create a southeast Asian hero for his kids to look up to. In order to ensure that the story felt authentic, Nguyen designed the lead character to be the opposite of outdated tropes like “the stoic, humorless hero,” which Hollywood all too frequently assigned to Asian characters. “When writing anything, you have to make it super personal,” he says. So his Raya is not just a formidable fighter, but a buoyant and bubbly character who oozes heart.

Just as important as Raya, is her rival Namaari. “Our antagonist is not only formidable, but also right,” asserts Estrada. “There’s very easily a version of the movie where Namaari is the protagonist.” Like Raya, she also just wants to help her people survive. How these two women navigate trust and learn to see each other beyond a surface level understanding, is a core element of the film. “No one’s right, no one’s wrong,” suggests Estrada, “it’s a movie about people coming together… and being able to look past their differences.”

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