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raya and the last dragon

Female Disney Animators Discuss Workplace Culture

The Disney movie Raya and the Last Dragon has received multiple awards for its animation, voice acting, and overall quality. To Disney fans, an animated movie might seem easier than a live-action film; however, writers, technologists, and artists at Disney Animation put in a lot of work, especially because a lot of Raya and the Last Dragon was made from home during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic!

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Sisu is a magical, mythical dragon (and the legendary last dragon) in the movie ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’, which was heavily inspired by Southeast Asian culture. When the sacred dragon gem is broken, Sisu and Disney princess Raya must team up on an epic adventure to save the fantasy world Kumandra. Credit: hollywoodreporter.com

As part of Women’s History Month, the female team behind this movie about a Southeast Asian warrior Disney princess and her quest to save Kumandra (as well as sacred dragons like Sisu, the legendary last dragon of fantasy world Kumandra) spoke to D23 and provided some female perspectives on the industry of animation.

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Osnat Shurer, Walt Disney Animation Studios Producer of ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Credit: D23

Osnat Shurer, the producer of Raya and the Last Dragon, said that “everyone working on the film has the same goal in mind—to tell a wonderful story for the ages, filled with heart and humor, about something that is important to us. So if you see something that could be better, or more sensitively or equitably handled on screen, find a thoughtful way to bring it up to the filmmakers. While there might be a slightly uncomfortable moment, it will pass, and the film—and the filmmakers—will be better for it, having gained deeper empathy and respect.”

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Amy Smeed, Walt Disney Animation Studios Head of Animation for ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Credit: D23

Amy Smeed, the Head of Animation for Raya and the Last Dragon, advises that any woman or girl aspiring to work in animation remember that “animation is a lifelong journey…it takes years to master the principles of animation, and that’s just the start. Be patient and know that you’ll make lots of mistakes, but that’s OK—we all do every single day! Be determined, believe in yourself, and stay open to critiques. Our best animators are those who are constantly seeking out feedback and those who are always pushing themselves to learn new things.”

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Kelsey Hurley, Walt Disney Animation Studios Technical Supervisor for ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Credit: D23

Kelsey Hurley, the Technical Supervisor for Raya and the Last Dragon, advised that any females interested in animation should “be confident in yourself and find your voice”.

“Those are the two things that have changed my life and let me go out for different opportunities, even when they scared me,” she told D23.

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Gabriela Hernandez, Walt Disney Animation Studios Associate Technical Supervisor for ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Credit: D23

Gabriela Hernandez, the Associate Technical Supervisor for Raya and the Last Dragon, also advised that aspiring female animators should not “be afraid to speak up and take up space. Believe in yourself. We, too, deserve a seat at the table,” she asserted.

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Shweta Viswanathan, Walt Disney Animation Studios Associate Technical Supervisor For ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Credit: D23

“From a technical aspect, this job is all about problem-solving. A programming background is essential since we build a lot of tools for the artists,” Shweta Viswanathan, another Associate Technical Supervisor for Raya and the Last Dragon, said.

“I’d also add: be curious and open-minded and don’t be afraid to ask questions because that’s a great way to learn. Having mentoring, tutoring, and TA [teaching assistant] experience also goes a long way, since a lot of our day is people-facing and having good soft skills is a huge plus,” she advised.

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Alena Wooten, Walt Disney Animation Studios Character Modeling Supervisor for ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Credit: D23

“You can do it! You always have!” Alena Wooten, the Character Modeling Supervisor for Raya and the Last Dragon, said to aspiring animators. “Now is the time and place for you to be you and own your magic. Be true to yourself. Know you always have what it takes to do your passion and find your place; now you have the opportunity to shine.”

“I feel this question should be, ‘What encouragement do I have to [all] young people?’ as we are all one and all equal,” she clarified. “It’s important to know we are united.”

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Avneet Kaur, Walt Disney Animation Studios Simulation Supervisor for ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Credit: D23

Avneet Kaur, the Simulation Supervisor for Raya and the Last Dragon, finished the interview with one powerful statement that perfectly aligns with classic Disney magic: “If you have the willpower, grit, and resilience never to give up on your aspirations and dreams, you will surely find your way to fulfill them,” she said.

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Kelly Marie Tran, who voices the lone warrior and Disney princess Raya in the epic adventure ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’, a movie inspired by Southeast Asian culture with a focus on Asian representation. Credit: Pinterest

Raya and the Last Dragon is a Walt Disney Animation Studios movie that features plenty of inspiring women onscreen (including the lone warrior Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran from the Star Wars franchise, the dragon Sisu who was voiced by Awkwafina, and the lone warrior Namaari, who is voiced by Gemma Chan from the 2021 movies Eternals and Shang-Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings).

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Lone warrior Namaari, played by Gemma Chan, in the fantasy world Kumandra in ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ Credit: IMDB.com

However, it’s also clear that the women working behind the scenes had a huge impact on this Disney movie! Some of the animators even went on a trip to Southeast Asia for inspiration (with the Naga of Southeast Asia being a big inspiration for the water dragon Sisu). Have you seen lots of Disney animated movies, and thought about the writers and animators behind them?

About Sharon

Sharon is a writer and animal lover from New England. Sharon's two main focuses in her work are Disney's correlations with pop culture and the significance of Disney princesses (which was the basis for her college thesis). When she's not writing about Disney, Sharon spends her time singing, dancing, and cavorting with woodland creatures!