Colorado natives on what it was like to work on Disney's "Raya and the Last Dragon" during the pandemic — The Know

It takes thousands of people to craft a modern blockbuster, particularly at Walt Disney Animation Studios, where the company’s creative reputation and corporate bottom-line are always at stake.

The 97-year-old studio that began its feature run with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” has lately produced computer-animated hits such as “Frozen,” “Moana,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” “Zootopia” and “Big Hero 6”. Each of those — including “Raya and the Last Dragon,” now in theaters and on Disney+ — has been pumped through Colorado native Michael Talarico before seeing the light of day.

“I joined them at the studio for ‘Frozen,’ which was the first project I worked on as layout finalling artist,” said Talarico, the layout finalling supervisor for the aforementioned films. “The funny thing is that, at the time I got work on ‘Frozen,’ I was still at my house with my wife and kids in Arvada.”

That meant frequent trips back and forth from Colorado to Burbank, Calif., where Talarico would spend two weeks at Disney’s studios working on shots in those films’ digital, 3-D worlds. His job involves moving animated objects around to fit the virtual cinematography (he’s a former special-effects cameraman) and otherwise polishing and tightening the final product in countless, vital ways.

He lived in a tiny studio apartment before flying back to Denver to see his family on bimonthly weekends, and kept that up for six years — just before production on 2019’s “Frozen II” began. He has since sold the house in Arvada and relocated to Los Angeles with his wife (one of his daughters is still in college at Colorado State University), but the experience gave Talarico a preview of the long-distance havoc the pandemic wrought on film production.

It ended up being a mixed blessing for “Raya and the Last Dragon,” Disney Animation Studios’ 59th feature and the latest iteration of its princess formula, albeit one updated for the 21st century. Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, “Raya” features an athletic young warrior as its lead and Southeast Asian art-and-storytelling influences (although that, too, is the subject of controversy as critics have charged the film failed to hire any actors from the region).

Voiced by Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico in “The Last Jedi”), Raya is on a quest to reunite the land of Kumandra’s shattered factions by finding the last living dragon, a race of creatures that once brought magic and unity to the kingdom. In the process of locating the titular beast — named Sisu and enthusiastically voiced by Awkafina — Raya also confronts an old enemy while trying to bring her father back from the metaphor-heavy, Gorgon-like fate of being turned to stone.

It’s a fine, fleet addition to the studio’s catalog, and one that was simultaneously released in theaters and on the Disney+ streaming service, which recently notched 100 million global subscribers. But its production was unlike any other Disney animated film, Talarico said. Finishing it required huge leaps of technology.

“When the pandemic hit, we were really just starting to roll,” said Talarico, who graduated from Wheat Ridge High School before attending CSU and, eventually, UCLA, where he won awards for his student films. “A lot of the story had been figured out and a lot of sequences had been storyboarded in the rough. But about the time we were sent home from the studio, only 100 shots had come through the animation department. We’d barely scratched the surface.”

That was a problem for the entire production staff, given that their digital work is surprisingly hands-on inside Disney’s studios. During any given project, Talarico frequently stops by his staffers’ desks to look over their shoulders and tweak backgrounds and item placements while answering countless questions. Department heads are the conduits to the film’s director, intuiting their responses through meetings and creative briefs.

“We’re always trying to get into the directors’ head,” he said. “But we have a surprisingly small department, because per-show we’re working on anywhere from 1,300 to 1,700 individual shots, and for the most part we do it with a half-dozen people. ‘Moana’ was almost 1,700 shots, and ‘Raya’ is somewhere around 1,600.”

Now scattered to their individual homes, Talarico’s team was tasked with aligning virtual-camera movements to “Raya’s” complicated characters and scenery, as well as perfecting the timing and continuity of scenes. Like a real production, Talarico’s staff agonized over virtual sets, props and other details to adjust the story’s all-important flow.

“The big challenge was figuring out the best ways to communicate and feel connected through Zoom,” said Alena Wooten, the character-modeling supervisor for “Raya and the Last Dragon,” and a Broomfield native who graduated from Denver’s Metropolitan State before joining Disney in 2012. “Keeping the momentum going for other departments was also a challenge because the work/life balance shifted greatly, especially for me since I just had a newborn baby.”

Wooten’s husband helped take round-the-clock shifts with the baby so she could attend meetings for her job, which involves translating character drawings into fully realized, 3-D models. Like Talarico, she has worked on a wide swath of animated films for Disney and others over the last decade, including “Rio,” the “Ice Age” series and “Horton Hears a Who!”

She, too, felt Talarico’s frustration with long-distance work.

“It took a bit longer to solve problems just because there wasn’t that simple way of just going to someone’s desk,” she said.

“There was a whole new layer of technology under the hood that had to happen with this film,” Talarico added. “Sending that many images at a synced speed out of everybody’s houses was crazy, because it has to play at 24 frames per second and their animators do their work to the exact frame.”

As a result, Disney’s tech wizards were forced to design pipelines that could send massive amounts of top-secret data back and forth to various locations in the U.S. — and all at a speed that would let them complete the production on schedule. In March 2020, those tools simply didn’t exist. But through trial-and-error and the increasing quality of digital animation software, they found a model that worked, and one that’s already changing the way future productions are made, Talarico said.

“The fact that everybody didn’t throw their hands in the air was amazing,” he said. “It was an extraordinary achievement to make something that looks this good from everybody’s house.”

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