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Behind the Martial Arts and Motifs of ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’

Striving to create distinct, authentic, and believable fight choreography, artists on Disney’s new animated action fantasy were determined to show emotion-packed action quite different from what audiences are used to seeing on screen.

From classics like the Karate Kid and Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, to more recent TV series like Warrior as well as animations such as Kung-Fu Panda and Baki, martial arts stories have been gracing our screens, in various forms, since the 1950s. But Walt Disney Animation Studios’ latest action fantasy, Raya and the Last Dragon, released today simultaneously in theatres and on Disney+, is setting itself apart, featuring Southeast Asian martial arts that were choreographed, reviewed, and refined by martial arts experts on the production team. 

“The directors were really clear from the beginning that they wanted believable and distinct fighting styles for all the characters, and they had really strong ideas of how that was supposed to be shot and edited,” explains production designer Paul Felix, a studio veteran who was also production designer on Big Hero 6 and Lilo & Stitch

Raya’s director of cinematography - layout, Rob Dressel, adds, “There are these preconceived notions because everyone's seen so many movies with martial arts, but the Southeast Asian styles are a lot different than what people have seen before, so we really wanted to focus on those heavily.”

The film - drawing visual and cultural inspiration from Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines - is set in the diverse world of Kumandra, made up of five lands inhabited by warriors, assassins, and pickpockets. While the nations were once united, with humans living in harmony together with dragons, the balance was disrupted by an awakened, evil force that divided the very people the dragons sacrificed themselves to save. 500 years later, rogue warrior Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) searches out “the last dragon” (Awkwafina) in an effort to bring peace back to Kumandra. But her efforts are met with intense opposition from a neighboring clan member, fellow warrior, and nemesis Namaari (Gemma Chan).

Despite already tackling the challenge of framing, shooting, coloring, and editing from home due to the COVID pandemic, sharing work with team members from iPads and hosting virtual meetings, the film’s animation, design, and cinematography artists were determined to go above and beyond with their depictions of Raya’s action scenes. 

“Early on, we were doing research in martial arts,” remembers Amy Smeed, one of Raya’s heads of animation. “But once we found out one of our writers, Qui [Nguyen], specializes in Southeast Asian martial arts, we had meetings with him, and he really defined the fighting style for us. And then he introduced us to Maggie MacDonald, [the film’s stunt coordinator] who did all the fight choreography for our fighting sequences.”

Nguyen, the film’s award-winning co-writer known for The Society and Incorporated, recommended his longtime collaborator and Hunger Games’ stunt performer MacDonald to the filmmakers for her expertise in choreographing combat not only for film, but also television, video games, and the stage. MacDonald was also helpful in providing a strong female fighter reference for the character animation team.

“Most of us aren't martial artists, let alone have knowledge of Southeast Asian martial arts,” notes Smeed, known for her work on Tangled and Meet the Robinsons. “That's why it was so important for us to have that reference. I can't do those specific moves. For something like walking down the street, I can get up and walk and see where the weight is in my hips, or what my legs and arms are doing, but I can't do that with some of these specific moves. There's a flying scissor kick that Namaari does as a takedown, which is so incredibly difficult. So that's where that reference really came in handy for us.”

“With Raya, her fighting style was really more based on Indonesia’s Pencak Silat and Namaari’s was more based on Muay Thai,” Smeed adds. “So, having Maggie choreograph that out for us so that we could be very specific in those moves was a huge help for us and the uniqueness of the film.”

Smeed and her team even collaborated with consultants for the Southeast Asia Story Trust team to make sure not only the fight sequences in Raya were authentic and believable, but also the characters themselves in how they sit and make or break eye contact. 

Camera angles and aesthetics for the fight shots were also vital to the film’s believability as well as the emotion behind the scenes. “From a shooting style, we wanted to make sure that we had multiple fights in the film and wanted each one to have a different feel to it,” says Dressel, who was also director of cinematography - layout, on Moana as well as Big Hero 6. “Not just to look visually different, but to feel different based on what point of the story we were in and how the characters were relating to each other, because each fight has a different reason for happening.”

He continues, “We would choose to either shoot with shallow lenses for a scene between Raya and her father - because it's a connection point of trust - or a deeper focus for rough fighting between Raya and Namaari. And we used even more lyrical, anime-styles for certain fights to bring a more surreal feel and our version of taking things out of the box and beyond what people are used to seeing.”

More than a year before production, Dressel, Felix and director of cinematography - lighting Adolph Lusinsky decided that the thematic for Raya would be contrasting trust and mistrust and visual characteristics that go along with each. “That dictated everything from layout to color to film grain,” says Felix.

“Between Raya and her father, that fight was really about her father wanting to teach Raya about trust and, for trust scenes, we searched for light sources to give us a Bokeh effects,” Lusinsky explains. “We placed in the flowers a glow that would give that effect with lighting and design. Sparkling water was often used. It gave a magical effect that was really beautiful and tied into this bonding between people, as opposed to Raya and Namaari’s fights, which were about distrust. That was a much more monochromatic fight with much higher contrasts and lots of silhouettes.”

Heavy film grain was another feature employed in distrust sequences, which is unique to animated films. “The way we push it on this film is really cool,” says Lusinsky. “We were inspired by a few Kodak film stocks that we used to shoot the scenes with more discord.”

Understanding the emotion and meaning behind the film’s well-researched combat, according to Smeed’s fellow head of animation Malcon Pierce, is another reason the film stands out. “We have a crew that has so much different expertise,” he notes. “We have cartoony animators, and we have subtle animators that really dig into the internal subtext. Then we have animators that do comedy really well. We have animators that do action really well. So, what the film offered us is such a great range in all of those different kinds of flavors, which allowed us to give those specific sensibilities to the right artists. And I think when that happens, from an artist standpoint, whenever you get something that you can really feel, and is complementary to your sensibilities and your instincts, you end up digging deeply into it.”

And while the diverse characters, multi-layered meanings, wide emotional ranges, and highly detailed animation of Raya required the same last-minute touches and polishing that come with wrapping up any feature, Pierce believes that extra 10 percent added to the film was really about the artists’ emotional investment in their creations.

“In the industry, I hear ‘polish’ a lot, and ‘polish’ is a misconception that’s associated with what’s going to make the animation great. I think it has to be the emotional investment from the artist to take the feeling of whatever the scene needs to be, and how you maximize that visually through the animation, and merging that with the dialogue performance or the storytelling in the scene, so the feeling of that comes out to the other side. I think one of the things we did really well on this project, from a leadership standpoint, is allow the artists to have the space to do that.”

Staying true to the thematic the team came up with prior to production, Lusinsky adds, “It took a lot of trust, but I think it pulled everybody together.”

Raya and the Last Dragon arrives today in theatres and on Disney+ (with Premier Access). Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada are directing, with Paul Briggs and John Ripa co-directing. Osnat Shurer and Peter Del Vecho are producing; Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim are the film’s writers. The voice cast features Tran as the intrepid warrior Raya; Awkwafina as the legendary dragon, Sisu; Gemma Chan as Raya’s nemesis, Namaari; Daniel Dae Kim as Raya’s visionary father, Benja; Sandra Oh as Namaari’s powerful mother, Virana; Benedict Wong as Tong, a formidable giant; Izaac Wang as Boun, a 10-year-old entrepreneur; Thalia Tran as the mischievous toddler Little Noi; Alan Tudyk as Tuk Tuk, Raya’s best friend and trusty steed; Lucille Soong as Dang Hu, the leader of the land of Talon; Patti Harrison as the chief of the Tail land; and Ross Butler as chief of the Spine land.

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Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at