Co-Directors of New Disney Animated Film Speak


Courtesy of IndieWire

The movie “Raya and the Last Dragon” premieres March 5. in select theaters.

Olivia Sabalaskey, Staff Writer

Walt Disney once said, “When you’re curious, you find a lot of interesting things to do.” Legendary animators and Co-Directors of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ new film “Raya and the Last Dragon” Paul Briggs and John Ripa have taken Walt’s words of wisdom to heart.

On Feb. 24, Briggs and Ripa hosted “Disney’s ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ College Filmmaker Presentation” via Zoom, representing the “enormously talented Walt Disney Animation Studios,” according to Briggs. University students all over the United States registered for this exclusive event full of behind-the-scenes videos, photographs and insights from the filmmakers’ journey from page to screen.

Briggs has worked at the Walt Disney Animation Studios for about 25 years. “Mulan” was the first animated film he worked on and remains one of his favorites. When talking about his journey to work at Disney, Briggs recalled feeling as though he was going to be fired because of the incredibly talented animators that worked around him. However, he soon found his niche in storytelling and understanding the complexity of character development through animation.

Ripa has worked at the Disney Animation Studios for about 27 years, two years longer than Briggs. He attended school in Buffalo, New York, received a Bachelor of Arts in Illustration and continued on to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) to study animation in greater depth. Once hired by Disney, the first animated film that Ripa worked on was “The Lion King.” Ripa thoroughly enjoyed working with hundreds of talented artists on this iconic film and continued to find success at Disney by becoming a Supervising Animator and Story Artist on other animated films such as “Tangled” and “Frozen.” Later, he assumed the role of Story Lead on “Zootopia,” “Big Hero 6” and “Moana.”

After their introductions, Ripa and Briggs introduced the audience of college students to the fantasy world of Kumandra in “Raya and the Last Dragon.” A once-peaceful land where dragons and humans lived together in harmony, Kumandra is now divided. Main character Raya, voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, and her father seek to unite the five divided lands. However, after a surprising twist and betrayal, Raya must learn to trust others again in order to save humanity and the dragons that used to live in peace. She departs on a quest to find Sisu, a water dragon voiced by Awkwafina, to repair broken wounds and fight those that threaten Kumandra.

Briggs and Ripa then discussed the creation of the film and how it was inspired by the culture and beautiful scenery of Southeast Asia. Together, the co-directors traveled to countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao, Singapore and Malaysia. Through these research trips, Ripa and Briggs immersed themselves in the various cultures, observing, sketching, photographing and interviewing people there who hold an extensive knowledge of the area, its traditions and customs. Briggs and Ripa met with Dr. Arounsack, a visual anthropologist, as well as choreographers, linguists, cultural experts and architects to learn more about Southeast Asia in order to depict it as authentically as possible on-screen.

Next, in light of how the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed the work structure at Walt Disney Animation Studios, Briggs and Ripa shared a behind-the-scenes look at the transition from working in-person to working remotely. According to Ripa, “Raya and the Last Dragon” was just beginning production in March 2020, almost at the exact same time when COVID-19 forced all employees to work remotely.

“It was incredibly difficult because animation is the most collaborative art form,” Briggs recalled. “So we’re sitting here in our homes saying, ‘How are we going to make this film?’”

However, the technology team at Disney helped guide the 450 artists throughout the transition. The technology team also helped voice actors like Awkwafina and Daniel Dae Kim set up shop in their homes to record for their characters.

At the end of the presentation, Ripa and Briggs answered a few students’ questions. They shared their love of Disney animation, insights into story inspiration, career endeavors and gave advice to those seeking a career in the Animation and Film Industry.

“Do not be afraid,” Ripa said. “Take chances and trust your instincts.”

Briggs agreed wholeheartedly and told the audience to “remember that [Ripa] and I were sitting in the same place you are now. Keep going!”

Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” debuts in select theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on March 5.