Disney Animator Benson Shum on Chasing the (Animated) Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon. © 2020 Disney.

Flying slightly under the radar, Disney’s latest animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon lands this weekend in Disney Plus Premier Access and selected theatres.

Loosely inspired by traditional Southeast Asian stories, Raya and the Last Dragon tells the story of a broken nation: A place where once humans and dragons lived in harmony has become a bitterly divided country (any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental). 

Warring tribes battle for the last vestiges of the once thriving dragon community, gone presumably for good. Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), the last descendant of a skilled warrior clan, is out in no-man’s-land tracking down the mythical last dragon, the last hope in her effort to vanquish evil entities that turn their victims into stone (think Medusa meets the Tasmanian devil).

It’s no spoiler to say Raya finds the dragon (it’s in the poster), but Sisu (Awkwafina) turns out to be more Clueless than Game of Thrones, with confidence issues galore. The film is classic Disney: Plenty of adventure, cute and cuddly sidekicks, a princess-y lead and a message unabashedly pro-family and community (the latter, very effective). There is some risk-taking to be found: The villain du jour is more abstract than what we’re used to and two sections of the film are inspired by paper cut-out and manga animation.

As is common in Disney productions, the contingent of Canadians involved in the making of the film is considerable. Among them is Benson Shum. A Vancouver animator who has been involved in the likes of Wreck-It RalphBig Hero 6Moana and the ubiquitous Frozen franchise, Shum was tasked with animating Sisu, albeit in human form (long story, watch the movie).

Benson Shum. Photo by Alex Kang. ©2016 Disney.

Because the pandemic hit early in production, the animators (Shum included) worked on the film from home. I got in touch with Benson to talk all things Raya and the life of a Disney animator:

Before talking about the movie, I’m curious about how do you get assigned a section of a film.

There’s a team of between 90 to 100 animators. Whenever a sequence comes up, we can put a request, like “I’m interested in doing some acting with the characters.” The supervisors then assign the shots for us to work on. In this particular movie, I animated mostly Raya and Sisu.

Some of the visual cues in the film seemed familiar, but couldn’t quite pinpoint the source. What were the referents?

Sometimes we watched the Asian films that inspired the filmmakers (Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada). They also drew inspiration from martial arts fighting. In the case of Namaari (Raya’s frenemy), her style is very Muay Thai. The kicking is very specific, so we had specialists to come and demonstrate it for the animators. They filmed it and used it as reference.

What was the main challenge of animating Sisu as a human?

Trying to make her specific. Sisu has certain gestures that are intrinsic to her. For example, there’s no pointing—pointing is considered very rude in this culture—so Sisu gestures towards stuff. I see my grandmother doing that. It’s a very Asian thing to do. Little things like that.

How much access did you have to the directors of Raya?

We saw them quite frequently, at least twice a week, if not more. We showed our work very often to get feedback, so there was a lot of back and forth. Very collaborative.

Before you joined Disney, you worked at Sony Imageworks in Vancouver and were involved in the making of The Smurfs and Hotel Transylvania. How’s it different to work for one and the other?

At Disney they create a lot of their own content, as they always have. At Sony, they also do live-action, so they have a variety of projects that allows you to jump from visual effects to CG animated films.

Raya and the Last Dragon opens tonight at Landmark Cinemas in Saskatoon and Regina and tomorrow in Disney Plus Premier Access.

REVIEW: Cars 3 Goes Back to Basics

Lightning McQueen and Cruz Ramírez burning rubber.

Less hyped but more profitable than other Pixar productions, Cars is the most kid-friendly saga out of the Disney subsidiary. Each film is awfully similar at playing with toy cars, a joy a franchise like Transformers completely misses.

Cars 3 is a nice rebound from the overstuffed and Mater-heavy Cars 2 (Mater is best in spaced out, small doses). A good portion of the film takes place away from the big city, precisely one of the charms of the first film. As a good Pixar film, it carries a positive, timely message (being different is not an obstacle to achieve your goals), although is less high-concept than, say, Inside Out.

We reencounter Lightning McQueen (voiced with increasing ease by Owen Wilson) as his career is taking a tumble. Newer, faster cars are joining the track and McQueen is having trouble keeping up, let alone winning. The next-gen champ, the slick, patronizing Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), is too passive-aggressive to be a proper villain. McQueen is basically his own worst enemy.

Following a fierce accident, Lightning reevaluates his career and comes to the conclusion he needs to change strategy. Backed by a new owner, McQueen ends up in hands of Cruz Ramírez (Cristela Alonso), a trainer whose unusual methods don’t sit well with Lightning.

Cars 3 unfolds smoothly. It provides a hearty dose of comedy and nostalgia, while at surface level. Cruz Ramírez is probably the best character the series has introduced outside Lightning and Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson. Tentatively, Cars 3 ventures outside race circuits and folksy little towns and into a makeshift monster-trucks arena. It’s the kind of risks the franchise could take more often.

Cars 3 offers a rare twist ending for a Pixar movie, one I failed to see coming. I guess old cars can learn new tricks. Three planets.

Cars 3 opens this Friday the 16th, everywhere.