Lao-American Professor Discusses Creating Disney’s First Film Set in SE Asia

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Dr. Steve Arounsack signs a poster for Raya and the Last Dragon at a screening organized by the US Embassy in Savannakhet.

Dr. Steve Arounsack, the lead cultural advisor for the 2021 Disney film Raya and the Last Dragon, recently visited Laos and spoke to the Laotian Times about his experience of working on the first Disney animated feature to focus on Southeast Asian cultures with a strong emphasis on many aspects of traditional Lao culture.

Dr. Steve Arounsack calls his professional life a love story between him and his culture. He served as the lead cultural advisor and visual anthropologist for the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Raya and the Last Dragon, the first mainstream animation film to be set in Southeast Asia. He also directed the documentary Getting Lao’d, which chronicles the rise of Lao music and films. The documentary was made over a span of 13 years and has already been screened in several international film festivals.

But it hadn’t always been like this for Dr. Arounsack. He moved to the US as a four-year-old and grew up like a regular American kid. His only connection with his culture was eating Lao food at home and speaking the language with his parents. It was only after his father’s death when he was 16, that he came back to Laos for the first time and reconnected with his roots.

“My mom thought it was important for us to take a family trip to be closer to one another. But coming back here, made me fall in love with my culture again. It made me want to know the language better and gave me a passion and purpose.” 

“And knowing the language opens up everything, it’s like when you put glasses on and see everything clearly for the first time,” said Dr. Arounsack who has been traveling to Laos at least once every year since his first time back in 1994.

Growing up as a refugee, one didn’t know where home was. But having a culture and identity gave him a place to feel at home. When he was still a teenager, Dr. Arounsack started the first Lao-American magazine, Lao Vision, to connect members of the diaspora who lived across the US. This was before the internet, so it brought together a fragmented group of people closer to one another.

“I remember what it’s like being a refugee, not knowing how to navigate the system and feeling like an outsider. That experience made an early impression on me to remember the smaller voices, and raise the profile and visibility of marginalized communities, especially from Southeast Asia and Laos,” said Dr. Arounsack.

He went on to do a bachelor’s in Biology, and a master’s in Environmental science. He was also the only Lao-American scholar to qualify for the first batch of the Gates Millenium Scholars program to get a Ph.D. in Ecology focusing specifically on how Lao farmers took care of their environment. Currently, he is one of the very few Lao American academics in the US and is a professor of Anthropology at California State University.

Dr. Arounsack and his team’s work on Raya and the Last Dragon is nothing short of historic, either. For one, this was the first feature-length animated film that was completed at home owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. But as a cultural advisor, he weighed in on everything from the names of the characters to how the world of Kumandra looked and felt on-screen.

“When we looked at Laos, or Southeast Asia more broadly, we wanted to focus on the defining features of the culture. The first is identity, and it is tied to life philosophies which in turn is related to the environment where you are from. In Laos, the environment is the river and that played a big part in the movie. The dragon in the film is inspired by the Phayanak a water serpent god that is found in temples and is considered a protector of the people in the region,” he noted.  

A still from Raya and the Last Dragon.

Representing the traditions of 11 countries and 700 million people is no mean feat, so the cultural advisors worked on pattern recognition to focus on aspects like martial arts or the Phayanak that are common between several nations in the region. Items specific to Lao culture like the musical instrument Khene and the rice container Thipkhao are seen in the film as well.

“We also did something called constellation mapping, where each culture is treated just as special as an individual star in a constellation. When you observe them at the right angle or at the right scale it makes a lot of sense. If you get too close, it’s too specific and if you are too far, everything looks the same. So, we had to find this happy zone, a middle ground where we look at a place and recognize it as Southeast Asia, it has the aroma of Southeast Asia,” he said.

Albeit a visual spectacle with many tear-jerking and laugh-out-loud moments, Raya and the Last Dragon is a story that highlights how fragile yet important trust is. It may take years to earn it and just one second to ruin it. Dr. Arounsack feels that this foundational ingredient could also help a small country like Laos thrive in the region.

 “Without trust, you cannot get anything meaningful done. Somebody has to take the first step, take the risk, and then everyone moves forward until they meet each other halfway. Cooperation is a big superpower and it all starts with trust. Southeast Asia is a very complex region and there are a lot of ideas where people don’t see eye to eye but that’s why you need to trust each other even more,” he said.

Traveling with the film in Laos this month to cities like Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang, has been one of the most memorable experiences for Dr. Arounsack and the audience reaction has been beyond his wildest dreams. He has signed hundreds of posters, met thousands of fans across all age groups who saw themselves represented on-screen, and expressed how that made them feel confident to make their world and country better.

US Ambassador to Laos Mr. Peter M. Haymond, with members of the audience at a screening of Raya and the Last Dragon in Savannakhet.

“In Savannakhet, this was the first time a movie played in a theatre in 45 years, and that was historic. Even a legendary brand like Disney doesn’t give this kind of access easily, where we are able to do a free screening of a film and get files of graphics in the highest resolution possible to produce large banners. This was one of the most defining moments of my life to connect with my culture, and bring to them the message of trust, that will help them survive in the region,” he said.