For Louaye Moulayess, some of the finest life lessons he learnt as a child came from Disney films.
Aladdin taught him how to be himself and to value friendship. From Beauty and the Beast, he learned the importance of not judging a book by its cover. The Jungle Book showed him why it was important to face his fears.
These were lessons Moulayess carried well into his adult life after first encountering them in engrossing, magical worlds: in the fruit markets of Agrabah, the candlelit halls of the Beast’s castle and the forests of Seoni.
Today, the Lebanese animator has a hand in shaping such stories, working as part of the animation team on Disney's latest, Raya and the Last Dragon.
"This was the project I was waiting for. Of course, I feel that way about every project but I felt more weight working on this film," he tells The National, comparing the project to films such as Spies in Disguise and Frozen II. "It's still a fantasy adventure, but it has a bigger message and more serious tone."
The film takes place in Kumandra, a land based on South-East Asian cultures, but the division that grips the fictional nation is reminiscent of Lebanon, where Moulayess was born and raised.
He was 19 and studying computer science at a Lebanese university, when he decided to pack up his sketchpads and fly west to study animation.
“I had no experience in animation at all,” he says. “I didn’t even have a portfolio. I found an art school in San Francisco that had a philosophy of letting everybody in. You have to do well in your first or second semester. It was perfect for me. I studied there for four years.”
In 2011, Moulayess landed a Pixar internship that kickstarted his animation career. He worked on Cars 2 and soon landed a full-time job at Blue Sky Studios, where he worked on two Ice Age films as well as Rio 2 and Ferdinand. In 2019, he joined Disney.
The studio released Raya and the Last Dragon last month, a tale that follows a lone warrior as she tracks down the world's last remaining dragon, in a bid to stop a pack an evil threat.
If the film's message of unity was to stick, Kumandra had to be a fascinating, unforgettable place.
“I knew it had to be very, very precise,” Moulayess says.
In its ancient history, Kumandra was a thriving civilisation built along the banks of a sprawling dragon-shaped lake. Humans lived alongside dragons and enjoyed prosperity until the arrival of the Druun, a shadowy force described as a mindless plague.
Though the dragons sacrificed themselves to defeat the Druun, their disappearance resulted in the disappearance of a lion’s share of the kingdom’s waters. Humanity found itself living in harsher conditions, which became exacerbated after they divided into five separate lands.
And that's where Raya and the Dragon, starring Star Wars actress Kelly Marie Tran and Crazy Rich Asians star Awkwafina, kicks off.
Moulayyes says animating Awkwafina’s character, the clumsy and self-deprecating dragon Sisu, was one of the most fun parts of the project.
“We found inspiration in lizards, dragon lore and fantasy,” Moulayess says. He adds that the team wanted Sisu to come across as the archetypal, fire-breathing dragon but rather more playful and slightly awkward.
Animating a Disney production from home was a challenge. However, it also brought plenty of unanticipated inspiration to the project, Moulayess says.
“It’s amazing how we can adapt as artists. It became second nature ... But working from home and having those team meetings through Zoom, I just felt like we were all connected somehow. We’re all sitting down in our pyjamas and it was a different connection to the team.”
Looking back at the trajectory of his career, Moulayess says he has been “incredibly lucky", giving credit to a high school incident.
“In high school, I was drawing all the time and one day, I was sketching while climbing the stairs and a bully stopped me. He was like ‘what are you doing?’ and I told him I was just drawing. He then told me ‘oh, you like animation and stuff, give it a year or two. You’re going to stop liking it.’ I will never forget this because it was almost out of spite that I just kept with it," he recalls.
"And that would be my advice to anyone wanting to pursue a career in animation. The key is to do it, to keep doing it.”