Michael Talarico on RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON

I always wanted to be a cameraman,” Michael Talarico says over Zoom. “I was always into photography, and it was somewhere in my second year at [Colorado State University] that I … thought: I really want to be a cameraman. How do I do that?”

Answering that question would drive his next 40 years. Talarico, who first started working with photography on the Wheat Ridge High School yearbook staff, was also a keen drawer—a skill that would serve him well once he transferred to the University of California Los Angeles to study filmmaking.

“They were saying, ‘Well, filmmakers can’t draw,’” Talarico recounts, “‘But the art department, they can draw. So if you want to come, study animation.’”

Talarico graduated from UCLA in ’86 but left animation behind to work on commercials and films as a model maker—he’s credited in decades of Hollywood blockbusters. In 2013, Walt Disney Animation Studios came calling. They’d acquired a virtual effects company Talarico worked for and wanted him to join the studio.

“They said, ‘We’re trying to do an animated feature a year,’” Talarico remembers. “‘Would you be interested in coming back?’”

Naturally, and so Talarico joined Disney in the layout department.

“Layout was new to me, except for the fact that they were basically CGI cameramen,” Talarico says with a grin.

Frozen was Talarico’s first movie for Disney. Big Hero 6 followed in 2014, and Talarico graduated to layout finaling supervisor for ZootopiaMoanaRalph Breaks the InternetFrozen II, and Disney’s latest animated feature, Raya and the Last Dragon.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a fantasy film steeped in Southeast Asian imagery. Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) is a warrior guardian trying to unify a broken world with the help of a dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina). The vibrant colors in the film are striking, as is the photorealistic character movement—a challenge the Disney artist and technicians had to work through.

“We have a little bit more motion blur in it,” Talarico explains. “So, it’s closer to the reality of what happens in live-action.”

Motion blur is to CGI what squash and stretch is to hand-drawn animation: The illusion of natural movement.

“We knew there was going to be a lot of martial arts,” Talarico continues, “so early on, the directors and cinematographers decided that we were going to change the camera’s shutter … so that the fights would look more realistic and not as staccato.”

As Talarico points out: “We’ve never gone that far on an animated feature.”

And if that wasn’t enough, they had to do it all from home. Talarico joined Raya in late 2019 and in March 2020—well, you know what happened. And while the isolation was catnip for the artist, the lack of in-person collaboration made work much more difficult for supervisors like Talarico. Trying to move a character, or a piece of scenery, from one side of the frame to the other became a litany of directions.

“I mean, we’re talking about between 400 and up to 500 people, all working on the same project at home, spread out everywhere,” Talarico says. But, “People are just so driven at the studio to do great work. … They just overcame it. Hats off to them.” 

Raya and the Last Dragon is available to stream on Disney+. The above interview first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 28, No. 29, “From Wheat Ridge High photographer to Disney supervisor.”