Carlos Lopez Estrada at "Summertime" premiere
Carlos López Estrada, co-director of Disney's "Raya and the Last Dragon," speaks at the Sundance Film Festival premiere of "Summertime," an indie film he directed, co-wrote and co-produced.

Carlos López Estrada ’12 Brings His Unique Creative Voice to Disney Animated Features The filmmaker's approach springs from his indie success and “the practical edge” he gained during his collaborative experience at Chapman.

Maybe it’s the Disney influence, but filmmaker Carlos López Estrada ’12 seems extremely happy these days as he moves through a variety of creative and enchanted lands.

He still has a foot in his familiar worlds of independent filmmaking and music videos, even as he works on his second feature project for Walt Disney Animation Studios. López Estrada recently enjoyed a breakthrough opportunity to co-direct the 2021 animated release “Raya and the Last Dragon,” starring Awkwafina, Sandra Oh and Kelly Marie Tran.

“Raya” is the first Disney animated film to feature Southeast Asian characters, and reviewers called it “sumptuous,” “engaging” and “a vibrant action-fantasy with a revolutionary heroine.”

It was also López Estrada’s first experience working with a big budget and a crew of about 500.

“I’m used to working with friends making something substantial out of very little,” says López Estrada, a native of Mexico who earned a degree in film production from Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. “There are a thousand people at Disney Animation, so the scale is impossibly different. There was a lot of learning and a lot of adjusting.”

López Estrada credits “Raya” co-director and Disney Animation veteran Don Hall for “serving as my guide into this world,” he says. “It took about a year to find my bearings and understand how things work.”

"Raya and the Last Dragon" image
Disney’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” provided Carlos López Estrada with his first experience directing a big-budget feature.

All the while, López Estrada was also at work on the home-grown, shoestring- budget project “Summertime,” which he directed, co-wrote and co-produced for the independent studio Good Deed Entertainment. The well-reviewed film, which opened in theatres in July, interweaves the stories of 25 Angelenos from diverse backgrounds and neighborhoods, drawing inspiration from their poetry.

The Disney and indie experiences “overlapped quite a bit,” López Estrada says. That’s the way he likes it.

Thriving in the Overlap of Indie and Studio Experiences

“I feel everything is about finding that balance,” he says. “The [independent and studio] experiences are not mutually exclusive. I feel like a happy place for me is to thrive in both of those universes.”

Carlos López Estrada, with "Summertime" executive producer Kelly Mari Tran, says he seeks a creative balance in his filmmaking life.
Carlos López Estrada, with “Summertime” executive producer Kelly Mari Tran, says he seeks a creative balance in his filmmaking life.

López Estrada can’t yet say much about his new Disney animated film, for which he is helping to develop the script. He started at the studio in 2019 after a scout in the Disney development department saw his debut feature “Blindspotting” and invited him to meet with new Disney Animation Chief Creative Officer Jennifer Lee.

“They were looking to diversify their directing department, and they wanted to bring in young voices from the outside,” López Estrada says. “I guess they saw something in me that caught their eye.”

Contributing to Disney’s Focus on Inclusion

Beyond his influence as a filmmaker at the company, López Estrada is helping to shape the Disney culture as a member of its Creative Inclusion Council.

“Disney is making efforts to tell stories that are more inclusive and from more diverse perspectives, and I feel like I’ve been able to become an important voice in that initiative,” he says. “I’ve learned so much as I’ve been exposed to the different departments.”

Building creative teams comes naturally for the filmmaker, who says that “most of my closest collaborators are people I met at Chapman.” Even as a student, López Estrada was directing high-profile music videos as he built a creative portfolio that has grown to include projects with artists such as Billie Eilish, Katy Perry and Carly Rae Jepsen.

“There are so many ways that my experience is rooted in what I took away from Chapman,” he says. “I developed my voice making movies right from the start of my student experience. Whether it was on sound stages or in editing suites or with professors who made themselves available, I feel like I gained a practical edge that became the foundation for everything I’ve done.”

Back then, he didn’t envision himself directing Disney animated films. But now that he is, he’s finding rewards in “bringing aspects and edges to their films that are unique to me,” López Estrada says. “I’m exploring ideas I care about. It really does feel like it’s where I’m meant to be.”

Dennis Arp