Deskside Chat with the Tech Leads of ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’

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March 11, 2021

The fantasy world of Kumandra comes to life in “Raya and the Last Dragon,” thanks to the talented team at Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS). Artists and technologists collaborated to create this work of art about a lone warrior, named Raya, who’s on a mission to track down the last dragon to stop an evil force from threatening the land. 

Like all beautifully executed WDAS productions, there was much innovation involved. In fact, it was a culmination of the work from many past projects — bringing together tools from across the portfolio for one magical release.

For TIG Network’s new “Inside the Tech” interview series, we sat down with the all-female technical leadership team, Technical Supervisor Kelsey Hurley and Associate Technical Supervisors Gabriela Hernandez and Shweta Viswanathan, to talk tech behind the film. 

1. What were your roles on the film?

KH: I’m the Technical Supervisor, and in that role on the film it’s my job to make sure that we have everything we need from a technical aspect to make the movie. And so the three of us together lead a team of TDs [technical directors]. I also had a Tactics Team as well to help with optimizations. And we maintain the pipeline, making sure we have all the right tools and enough render capacity and disk space to create the film as well.

GH: As Associate Technical Supervisors, we are more directly interfacing with other [department] supervisors and technical directors on the show. I specifically had a focus on pretty much anything related to the characters, like…How does their hair move? How does their cloth move? How do they look? And how do they perform in the scenes? 

SV: I work with the environment-related departments, which [oversee assets, like sets and foliage, across all phases of the production pipeline] — Modeling, Environment, Look, Layout, Layout Finaling, Lighting, Effects, and Stereo. And we work with the department heads to make sure they have what they need to make the movie. We also interface with the engineers and Production Technology to make sure that whatever deliverables they’re hoping to deploy on the movie get integrated well. 

The TDs are called the “stewards of the pipeline,” so that means they help move the pipeline along. So in this way, they work with both the artists and Technology to make sure that the pipeline stays strong and robust to make the movie, and everybody has what they need from a technical standpoint to do so.

2. A majority of the shot production for “Raya and the Last Dragon” took place from home, which is a first for Disney! What tools and processes needed to change the most to facilitate remote work?

KH: We were fortunate that at Disney Animation we already had the ability to work from home before [COVID] started. We wanted to promote good work-life balance and so that was something that was available to us. The main thing was the ability needed to scale it for the whole Studio to work from home. And at the very beginning, honestly, only a handful of people could log on at one time, and so there were people and departments within “Raya and the Last Dragon” that did take priority. But I will say, by the end of about two weeks we were able to get the entire Studio logging on, all simultaneously. So that was a huge thing that we got running really, really quickly. 

As for changes on some tool sets, reviews were probably the biggest one that I had to deal with. We had an immense amount of work done on the technology side with something we used called Streamboat, [a video streaming system based on a collaboration with our friends at ILM]. We were able to do reviews for “Raya and the Last Dragon” using that tool, and we expanded on [our iPad-based] Mobile Dpix Review. Our directors loved that too! There were a lot of other things as well, but the main thing was, how do we get the directors seeing what they need to see in order to give notes? 

GH: Working from home, we have less screen space, so how can we be more efficient? And making sure that we utilize as much of the screen space real estate as we can. It was more cosmetic, but it was still very important for the artists to be able to have as much space and use it as efficiently as possible. 

Also, playback was a really big thing for animation, specifically. We wanted to make sure that we were doing things in real-time, 24 frames per second. And especially for a department like Animation, playing their animation and making sure that the dialogue and audio was synced up was really important to them.

3. Do you anticipate continuing any of the remote production practices after the office opens?

KH: We try to keep our meeting room super small in person and actually with Zoom, a lot more rooms were able to be larger because people could listen in. There’s also been some meetings where someone has to be there for that “what if” or “just in case” moment. And instead of having to leave their desk and their work for the hour-long meeting to be essentially on-call, they’re able to be there, but also be working on something else, maybe on the side. So having that flexibility, I think, would be really useful and beneficial, even if we are back in the building

4. What were some of the biggest challenges on “Raya and the Last Dragon,” and what were the new tech innovations that were implemented as a result?

KH: The main challenge on “Raya and the Last Dragon” is really the scale of the world. It’s huge. It has a lot of different environments, a lot of different characters, and everyone was represented in a different way. And so, the main thing was just how are we going to do that and make the world feel as big as it is, in only the short amount of time that we had?

SV:  We focused a lot on artists’ quality of life issues, efficiency in terms of publishing so that other departments would get one department’s published data a lot faster, and adjustability.

5. Can you talk about some of the character-based initiatives on the production?

GH: We were mostly focused on making sure that their tool set was robust and stable and cosmetic things, like user interface changes. And I’m really excited that the Hair Simulation team got the [SciTech] Award from the Academy. Super well deserved! We definitely used that on our show and we tried to just keep improving it. We were building off of the “Frozen 2” pipeline, and had a retrospective and made sure that all those issues or things that they wanted to improve were tackled on our show. So wherever you see hair, that’s definitely using this [tool]. 

I’m super proud of that team. They are great collaborators! Whenever we needed something, they were always there and willing to help, and always had the artist in mind and [thought about] how we can improve things for them. And even on the cloth side, we were trying really hard to optimize and make that faster for the artists to simulate the cloth. So, we were really focused on just more stability and optimization on that side.

6. How do these efficiencies help artists and their workflow?

GH: It gives them the ability to do a lot of different iterations and work more quickly, and show things faster…We want to give them as much control and just have them focus on their day-to-day and the creative.

7. How did you build upon work from prior productions?

KH: So, “Raya and the Last Dragon” was interesting because I kind of see it as the final version of the pipeline that we’ve been using and building on over the last 10 years, because it brought together a bunch of different technologies that began on multiple films before that. For example, we have Hyperion, which is our in-house final frame renderer that we first saw on “Big Hero 6.” We also have the water from “Moana” appearing. We have the advancements of our fur system that we saw first on “Zootopia.” And our upgraded volumetric system and environment tool set that we saw on “Frozen 2.” It’s amazing to see what “Raya and the Last Dragon” was able to do and how beautiful it was in the end.

8. Did being part of an all-female technical leadership team influence your work?

GH: For me, I don’t know if it directly influenced my work because I set a certain standard for myself on whatever team I’m on. But I do want to say that I know that being a female, I do have to work harder, especially in this more male-dominated industry. But I am happy to see that things are changing, and even in our department right now it’s more or less 50/50 women and men. So I’m really excited to see more of that in the future. I think this also helps me share my story. Hopefully more people can be inspired by this and it paves the way for more [women]. I definitely want it to be more diverse in the future and have [a female-led team] be more normal and not something that’s different.

SV: This wasn’t a conscious effort on the Studios’ part. We happen to be the best people for the job and that’s why we were picked for the role. I’m hoping that it’s not an exception anymore, and it becomes the norm. I’d like to use that platform as well to show people that STEM and science and engineering and computer animation can be fun. I did not know about this [TD] role growing up, so I’m hoping that this can help people connect the dots between computer animation, technology, and just the creative side as well.

9. Are you doing any outreach to schools — sharing different careers that Walt Disney Animation Studios has to offer?

GH: This actually came up during the recent period of racial injustice [protests]. We felt like we could do more as a department and as a studio. And we really found it important to reach out sooner to kids in under-represented communities and empower them. 

I also didn’t know that this was a career, so how can we raise awareness for that? Our department is starting different initiatives, like a mini series on “what is a technical director?” And just giving them as much information as possible and some advice. We’re also trying to do things like donating equipment to different schools, and also other TDs are doing career days at different schools. We’re just trying to get the word out and empower as many people as we can.

Check out “Raya and the Last Dragon,” available now on Disney+ Premier Access and in theaters.