A version of this story about “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” first appeared in the Oscar Nominations Preview issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
There are some film sagas that grow up with their audience, beginning when a certain generation is still having their hands held by their parents and ending when they are preparing to go to college.
For millennials, the film that marked their passage into adulthood was “Toy Story 3.” For Generation Z, it is “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.” For trilogy creator Dean DeBlois, creating a story that could deliver a final message to those who grew up with Hiccup and Toothless was essential when it came time to writing the script.
“When we did the first sequel we decided back then that we were going to visit these characters at different points in their lives, and in doing so we could tackle the universal crossroads of our lives that we all face,” DeBlois said. “That allowed our story to keep resonating with the kids who first discovered the series a decade ago.”
Not only has Hiccup and the audience matured, but so has the animation technology. DeBlois says that there are multiple scenes in “The Hidden World” that could have never been done with the technology available to him and his DreamWorks team when they worked on the original “How to Train Your Dragon” in 2010 or on its 2014 sequel.
One example is the film’s extremely crowded opening scene, where the camera floats and swerves over Berk, the Viking village that has become so overpopulated with dragons that you’d be hard pressed to find a single square inch of open grass.
“Every single dragon required its own rig and walk cycle. There’s no way we could have rendered so many dragons individually in one shot 10 or even five years ago,” he said. “When we had large dragon scenes before we had to cheat a bit using matte paintings. We revamped the back end of the production system with cloud computing that allowed us to rapidly render complex scenes with remarkable naturalism so we could meet our deadlines.”
But the “Dragon” team got some help once again from “1917” cinematographer and fellow 2020 Oscar contender Roger Deakins. While it might be strange to some that a live-action cinematographer would help on an animated project, Deakins has a long history of consulting on such films, working with Pixar on their 2008 Oscar winner “WALL-E.” He helped the team on every aspect of the animation process on all three films, from layout to lighting individual shots in a naturalistic style.
“Even when he was off filming a movie like ‘Skyfall,’ we were able to send him shots of what we were working on and get his feedback.”
“The Hidden World” also put individual dragon models to the test, particularly Toothless. While the Alpha Dragon’s most elaborate animation scenes in past movies involved dramatic flying sequences, the most challenging here was a scene that would launch countless internet memes: where he awkwardly courts his potential mate, The Light Fury.
While the Light Fury didn’t have a lot of elaborate movements, her white scales required completely new software to handle lighting for her scenes, whether under moonlit skies or the bioluminescence of the Hidden World. Toothless, on the other hand, was put through his paces by DeBlois and his team, flapping his wings, hopping around and skipping on his hind legs. Some of these movements “broke” the rig that Toothless’ model was based on, requiring the animators to paint over the model to make it look fitting for a single angle.
“If you turn the camera even slightly, the whole thing just falls apart. You see how we broke the neck in six different places to achieve that specific look. Sometimes if it’s too extreme, we’ll kick it back to the rigging department and ask them to modify the model for what we need, but many other times it’s just cheating to make sure it looks good on screen.”
The hard work paid off. The Toothless mating scene became so popular with “How to Train Your Dragon” fans that it turned into an internet meme. DeBlois is honored that his team has been bestowed online immortality. “It’s funny how you never really know what’s going to resonate with fans the most,” he said. “I was almost surprised that this was the scene that worked the most. The best we can do is make the movie we want and not speculate what might have the most widespread appeal.”
Read more of the Oscar Nominations Preview issue here.