UT Grad Helps Raya and the Last Dragon Dance on Raindrops
James Romo adds his talents to the Disney magic
When you make a dream a reality, there comes a time when that whole world reveals itself. For James Romo, UT grad and production supervisor on Disney's magical fantasy Raya and the Last Dragon, it was when the writing team sat down with the art department to explain the five disparate lands of the mystical realm of Kumandra: not just the geography but the people, their cultures, and how the three elements were interwoven. "It was a big moment for me," Romo recalled. "I remember thinking, 'OK, this is our world that we are making.'"
Romo was part of the team behind the story of young warrior Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), whose quest for the last dragon in the world brings her face to furry face with Sisu (Awkwafina), the sole remaining member of her kind and the unlikely last defense against the invading, malevolent, and mindless Druun. He was the production supervisor on the animated film, which arrives on Blu-ray this month. But what exactly does a production supervisor do? It's one of those job titles that fly past while you're waiting for a post-credit sequence, but it's a vital role, especially in a Disney writers room. "We are very collaborative in the studio," said Romo, "so one meeting it's, 'This idea is in, this idea is out,' and I'm just following in that story room."
In film production, but especially in animation, the important word is "pipeline." There are so many time-sensitive components that the slightest delay leaves everyone further down the pipe sitting on their hands. Romo described his job as "helping manage the priorities for the writers." He laid out a typical week: The writers would meet to brainstorm, then have a couple of days to turn in polished pages so that a voice actor would be able to record on Friday, "because those have to be sent to the editors on Monday, and then animation is picking up that scene on Friday." From there the project moved to editorial, and he followed, "working alongside the editors, saying, 'OK, these three sequences are approved into production. You have all the sketches you need from the story department. You have all of the recordings from all the talent. When do you want to show the directors?'"
His career has been its own pipeline of progress. After graduating from UT with a B.S. in Radio-Television-Film in 2013, Romo moved to Los Angeles and interned at DreamWorks Animation, then found a position at Ridley Scott's RSA Films. Yet animation still called to him, so a friend recommended that he apply at Walt Disney Animation Studios, and he found a job as a production assistant for the Oscar-winning Big Hero 6, then as a PA on Moana, and then as a production supervisor on Raya. He summed up the appeal of the medium: "In animation, you have the world at your fingertips. You are able to jump into a story room and discuss what kind of really cool thing can this dragon do, and what really cool things could we do if we made this whole world a fantastical region inspired by Southeast Asia. ... What kind of things would they see on this travel montage? What would the magic look like if Sisu is running on raindrops?"
That design and narrative influence, translating the cultures of Southeast Asia into a fantasy setting, was not simply emulation. Romo said, "We never really set out saying, 'This region's going to represent this place or that place.'" However, the team wanted the film to feel authentic and respectful, so the directors and a cadre of artists traveled to Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam to absorb as many cultural influences as possible. "When they are on these trips, they are logging everything with photos, and they're drawing. We sent a film crew out there as well, so they can capture so much reference. Then, when our directors and writers are on these trips, they can use all this reference to come back and say, 'OK, if we're saying this is going to be this snowy region, their lodging will look like this or that.'" When they got back to the U.S., they met with the Southeast Asia Story Trust, a group of artists, architects, performers, and cultural historians assembled by the studio to help craft the world into the diverse nations of Kumandra. Romo explained, "We'd say, 'Hey, we saw this on a trip, we felt that it worked in this terrain and this weather. Would this be something that would work or would be considered believable?' and then they would give us their thoughts, or say, 'This looks to me like it came from this region, but if you add this or that it creates your own spin.'"
The setting is not the only reason Raya is a landmark Disney: There's no classic irredeemable Disney villain, no Evil Queen, no Gaston for the audience to boo. There almost was, as early scripts had the formless, life-sucking Druun in that role, but, Romo said, "as we kept going on, and the characters of Virana (Sandra Oh) and Namaari (Gemma Chan) developed, it was like, 'Wait, we do like them being the antagonist that is at odds with Raya, but we should always try to side with them. There should be some reasoning with them.'" That was pivotal in the development of Namaari, whose pursuit of Raya became more than just a way to move the plot. "We don't want her to be following Raya just to defeat Raya," said Romo, adding that she had to have her own motivations. "She wants to protect her lands. She's very much like Raya. She's the daughter of a chief. What would she do if things were reversed?"
Those elements of diversity and unity, of finding common ground and understanding with those who seem to be enemies, were constants of Raya, no matter how the details changed in development. For Romo, that's what makes it a parable for our times. He said, "We're so quick to go, 'This is good, this is bad,' without ever really hearing points of reasoning."
Raya and the Last Dragon is available on Disney+ Premium and VOD now, and will be released on Blu-ray May 18.