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Interview: Animator Andrew Lawson Talks ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’

February 23, 2021Ben MK

A symbol of power and prosperity, dragons have always been an important part of Southeast Asian culture. And that also holds true in Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon, where the divided inhabitants of the land once known as Kumandra owe their very existence to the sacrifice made by the dragons. But when an ancient evil rises up once again, threatening to wipe out all life in Kumandra for good, it falls on one headstrong girl named Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) to save the world from complete catastrophe. Together with the last dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), Raya must reunite the broken pieces of the only thing powerful enough to save humanity — the Dragon Gem — and, in the process, perhaps reunite the people of Kumandra as well.

I caught up with animator Andrew Lawson to chat about Raya and the Last Dragon, how the animation team ensured they were portraying Southeast Asian culture authentically, and what makes the film unique.

First of all, how are you doing as we enter year two of the pandemic?

Lawson: I'm doing well. There's some sort of stability that has settled in. I think it's preferable to the uncertainty of the early days, when we didn't know what was going on, how long it would last, what exactly we were up against. And now that there's a lot more certainty, at least we can kind of see a light on the horizon. I think that people have settled into the process — we've figured out how we're going to work from home, how we're going to interact with each other. And now the question is if we go back, what is it going to look like and when are we going to do it?

As an animator on Raya and the Last Dragon, what was the exact nature of your role on the film? And can you tell me a bit about the collaborative process working with the filmmakers?

Lawson: My job is to take the storyboards that come from the Story Department and the rigs and the models that come from Rigging, and then that dialogue that come from the voice actors, and do the acting. So we take the models — basically digital marionettes — and we pose and act the dialogue and the actions through them.

Our collaboration with the directors is that we'll take what they've asked storyboard guys and girls to do and we'll do passes of animation. We'll do some of the acting and how we feel that the characters in the movie would best act out the dialogue that the voice actors have provided, and the directors will give us their insights to who the characters are, where the story points are and how best to portray that.

Of course, the film is heavily influenced by Southeast Asian culture and mythology. Where did you and the animation and design team draw your inspiration from, and what kind of research did you do to make the film as authentic as possible?

Lawson: When it comes to the look of the movie, that's very much the realm of the Art Department and the Visual Development Department at Disney. And I know that they've done an extreme amount of research to make sure that everything's authentic and, obviously, portrayed in the most respectful way in the movie. That trickles down to us in the animation realm. We're mostly the actors, so we take from the Art Department what they have come up with. But when it comes to research that we do on the animation side — there's motion, acting, how people behave.

We had a few consultants that we talked to from various countries. And they would basically inform us about the intricacies and the idiosyncrasies of certain cultures: certain movements, the do's and don'ts, what's polite and impolite, how people would move. And that's super helpful for us, because we can take that knowledge and put it into our acting and how the characters are moving.

There are so many memorable characters that we meet throughout the film. Did you have any favorite characters or scenes among the ones that you worked on?

Lawson: I helped quite a bit with the rigging of the father character, Benja. I was working with one of our riggers to get him up and running back when we were still at the studio. So I definitely had more of a connection with [Benja], just because I was working with that character a lot more.

I animated some of the sequences between him and Raya, where they were making soup and talking about the world of Kumandra and making it a better world again. So I have a big connection with that. But I also really like [Benedict Wong's] Tong character. He was really fun to animate — brute and comedic.

You've worked on many other movies, including quite a few Disney animated films. What makes Raya and the Last Dragon unique for you?

Lawson: What I liked about [Raya and the Last Dragon] was that it was a world that wasn't our world. Other movies that we've made have been a lot more connected with our universe. But with this one, I liked the idea of the fantasy that we imbued into it as well, while still having elements that were recognizable as being similar to our world. I enjoyed the fact that we were able to create a fantasy world where other things were possible — where there was magic and you could have mystical creatures and demons.

But it's really hard to separate working on this movie from the situation that we're making the movie in. This movie will always be the movie that was started in the studio and then finished at home, with all the craziness in the middle. So my first is just the experience of making it, rather than it itself. Which is kind of a shame, because I had fun working on the movie and it was very inspiring.

You're also working on another upcoming Disney animated film. Can you tell us a little bit about that one?

Lawson: The title is Encanto, and again it's going to have a little bit of a mystical vibe to it. It's about family — a lot of our movies are. It's set in Colombia. I start working on it later this month, so I've got a lot to learn about it.

Last but not least, what kind of advice would you give to someone looking to break into the animation industry today?

Lawson: There's a lot of schools nowadays. A lot more than when I first started, which is great. I would just say to get started on it. I think a lot of people hesitate — they want to make sure they go to the right school and do the right process. And there's no one way to get into animated movies or animated TV or video games, as it were. It's really more about just getting started.

Get familiarized with the software that most companies use and just get experience. Get animating. Just start learning. That's my main piece of advice, because you never really know in this industry exactly where you can end up. Things change really quickly and it's too hard to plot a course from the beginning. So I would say just get started, see where it takes you, and learn as much you can in each step on the way.

Raya and the Last Dragon will be released simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5th.

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