LOS ANGELES — Growing up in Thailand, Fawn never got to see her culture represented in Hollywood films. But today, the film she worked on – full of colorful water markets, zesty herb-filled dishes, and benevolent water dragons is on screens worldwide.
Fawn Veerasunthorn is the Thai woman who leads the team of storyboard artists behind “Raya and the Last Dragon,” Disney’s latest movie that features its first-ever Southeast Asian princess.
“I never got to see my culture represented in the media with worldwide visibility. It kind of compiled into the feeling that my identity did not have a place in this world,” Fawn wrote. “And after years of living as an immigrant in the US, I never thought I would get to see Southeast Asia so front and center in a movie, let alone a Disney animated movie.”
The film takes place in Kumandra, a fantasy land that’s an amalgam of Southeast Asia, where its heroine Raya (voiced by the Vietnamese American Kelly Marie Tran) must find the last remaining dragon and bring peace to the disparate lands.
“I don’t think words can properly describe my feelings. I get pretty emotional just seeing young Raya wearing a sabai top when she was cooking with her dad,” Fawn wrote.
“Raya” has been the top-grossing film for two weekends in a row since the beginning of March, grossing more than 39 million baht since its opening March 4, according to Box Office Mojo.
Fawn has also worked as a storyboard artist on “Zootopia” (2016), “Moana” (2016) and both “Frozen” (2013) and its 2019 sequel.
Here’s our e-mail interview with Fawn.
What was your role in creating the film? How does the film represent Southeast Asian culture, including Thai culture?
As Head of Story, I lead a team of storyboard artists. We collaborate with directors and writers to deliver the visual storytelling you see on screen.
Our film was inspired by the way of life in Southeast Asia, especially when it comes to: the sense of community, the importance of water in everyday life, our love for the rain and the closeness of the family unit as expressed through food.
When I first saw the visual development artwork of the dragon river, as a Thai person, I thought of the Mekong River and how she ties our diverse cultures together through our beliefs in Naga.
As we dove more into the research, I learned that the belief in Naga also expands throughout the region. In creating the fantasy world of Kumandra, we take into consideration the commonalities in the cosmology found in South East Asia and they become the inspiration to our design principles of this world. I think Thai people will find many familiarities not only in the visual elements, but also the mannerisms of our characters.
How do you feel that elements of Thai culture are now in a film with the first Southeast Asian Disney princess?
As a child growing up in Thailand, I never got to see my culture represented in the media with worldwide visibility. It kind of compiled into the feeling that my identity did not have a place in this world. And after years of living as an immigrant in the US, I never thought I would get to see Southeast Asia so front and center in a movie, let alone a Disney animated movie.
I don’t think words can properly describe my feeling. I get pretty emotional just seeing young Raya wearing a sabai top when she was cooking with her dad, or taking off her shoes before entering a sacred place, or seeing people using the gesture of “wai” throughout the film.
Not a single scene went by without our filmmakers collaborating with our colleagues who are from the region and our Southeast Asian Cultural Trust.
I learned a lot more about the cultures of Southeast Asia now to understand that certain elements are shared among the countries in this region, and may not be exclusively Thai. But I can’t help but feel excited for my fellow Thais’ eyes, a lot of things in this film will remind us of home. I hope that after watching this film, Thai people will feel inspired and empowered to write/create their own stories.
What parts of the film are you especially proud of to have added your own personal, Thai touch?
Our production designers and visual development artists were super open to making sure we have real dishes, dessert, fruits, being seen on screen. I worked on the kitchen scene between Benja and Raya and it was important to me that we hear the real ingredients being put into the soup. The soup itself is Benja’s own Kumandran concoction, but I hope the audience will look into the ingredients which are parts of many wonderful Thai dishes, including Keang RanJuan, and let this scene be the introduction into Southeast Asian cooking.
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Is it true that the character was inspired by Urassaya “Yaya” Spurbund, the Thai actress?
We have a lot of inspirations for the look of Raya’s character and it’s a collaboration that happened across multiple departments from directors, character designers, modelling artists and heads of animation to bring her to life. Our research trips also made a big impact on her design.
That was when our visual development team really honed in on the specific features and skin tone that celebrate the people of Southeast Asia. As for Yaya, me and my coworkers (including non-Thai, which is amazing to know of Yaya’s international reach!) know of Yaya’s work and we are excited that she was chosen to be the voice talent of Raya in Thailand.
“Raya and the Last Dragon” is in theaters nationwide now. Follow Fawn on her Instagram here.