DreamWorks Animation veteran and series director Elaine Bogan details the production process from storyboarding through final delivery on DWA’s hit series that further explores the world of the ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ franchise.
The June 26 premiere of Dragons: Race to the Edge marked the launch of a new original animated series collaboration between DreamWorks Animation and Netflix. Set chronologically in between the two How to Train Your Dragon feature films, Dragons: Race to the Edge provides audiences much deeper and richer looks into the lives and adventures of Hiccup, Toothless and many other characters familiar to franchise fans, in addition to new dragons, villains, locations and storylines.
Netflix has just released the first 13 of 52 episodes planned to drop on a yet-unannounced schedule over a two-year period. Unlike previous DreamWorks network TV series, Dragons: Race to the Edge can be binge-watched in its entirety. The new series is centered on Hiccup and his fire-breathing best friend Toothless as they discover an ancient artifact known as the Dragon Eye. Secrets unlocked from the mysterious relic provide our heroes with critical knowledge about undiscovered islands and dragons, information that leads them to discover the Dragon’s Edge, an island they use as an outpost from which they launch their various adventures.
DreamWorks veteran Elaine Bogan was brought on as one of the series’ directors. Bogan has worked at the studio for 10 years, starting in storyboarding on the first Dragon film, moving from there onto various features, TV specials and other special projects before eventually directing on the TV series Dragons: Riders of Berk.
She has been at the helm of nine episodes on the new Netflix show. Much like a street performer juggling numerous flaming hoops, Bogan has been jumping back and forth and crossing paths with every department on multiple episodes spread between several directors. According to Bogan, “Being an episode director means that three other directors and I are cycling through the episodes as they come into production. The first two or three are fine, but then in the height of TV production in the middle of the season, I'm directing anywhere from seven to nine episodes at one time. All in different stages of production, so all the way from storyboards through to lighting, layout, animation, all that kind of stuff.”
Keeping a close working relationship with those other directors has helped insure the series stays consistent in both tone and story. “It's been pretty great working with the other directors on the show,” says Bogan. “We're fortunately all very willing to collaborate, so it might mean one or two meetings a month where we all sit down and talk about what we're up to. I like showing the other directors my work in progress animatics just to keep them up to date on what's happening throughout the series. I just think it's important for a nice consistent feel over the season. It's all about communicating and just letting everybody know what you're up to behind closed doors.”
Overlapping episodic production schedules means Bogan must keep focused not just on different areas of the production, but on different stories, characters and schedules. Her work on each episode starts from the moment she gets a script. “Essentially, the writers write the scripts and after they finish up and I get that script in my hands, I'm literally with that episode from start to finish,” Bogan says. “I lead a team of board artists for the first section where we create the storyboards. Then it goes into editorial, where I spend a lot of hours in the edit bay getting the animatics together, ready to ship to layout. After the animatics lock, I'll supervise and approve dailies for layout, animation and then supervise the lighting. From lighting we then do all the sound mixes. I'm there at the voice records for the actors as well. After all the lighting is approved is when I usually step back. Then it just goes through final actual sound mix and something they call ‘smoke,’ which is making sure all the color correction is perfect and ready to air.
“All these episodes are in different stages, nine at once,” Bogan continues. “If someone runs into my office and says, ‘Hey, what happens in this shot of this episode?’ you have to have crazy recall [to remember] back to whatever episode it might have been. It could have been six months ago that you worked on it last. It's just balancing all the different episodes and making sure everything's in order and keeping track of everything. But we're fortunate enough to work with a crew that’s also so jazzed about the new content coming up that everyone's very motivated and tasked oriented. I can count on the fact that everyone's around and doing their jobs.”
Each episode takes anywhere from six to eight months to complete, with production on new episodes starting at the beginning of a new month. Nine episodes means Bogan has started a new episode each month for nine consecutive months, with the last of the nine reaching completion close to 18 months after the initial episode began.
Keeping track of what’s needed on which episode is not an easy task. “It really is a spinning plates act,” Bogan says. “I have many helpful assistants in each department that keep my thoughts in order. I have lists that help me keep tract of, for instance, I'm having a problem with one episode, but I don't have to prioritize that episode because it's not locking first. It's really just relying on the crew and trusting that everyone's doing what they're supposed to be doing so I don't have to be stressing out about every single problem.”
Bogan admits that the production process can be formidable. “The production does get pretty overwhelming especially mid-production season which is why I make lists,” she explains. “I'm a little OCD about it now because I have to be very organized and a big part of my job is constantly having work for people. Nobody should be sitting idle because our schedule is so tight. It's important to balance and just delegate all the time. Then on top of that, I have to be doing what I have to be doing so it's a daunting sometimes.”
While Bogan’s previous credits include directing for the DreamWorks series Dragons: Defenders of Berk, her work on the new Netflix original series has been quite a different experience. “The Dragons show, Defenders of Berk, was my first directing gig, so going from there onto the Netflix series has been a huge learning curve for me,” she recounts. “But it was very helpfully growing up as a story artist. I've come from being a story artist and moved through into directing. Having that background really helps me understand how and why the process works instead of just coming in and asking for a bunch of ridiculous things that I don't even know are they possible. I do know what is and what isn't possible in a certain amount of time, so it really helps having that knowledge behind me.”
Ultimately, starting a new production, even with some key crew members who’ve worked together previously, is no small feat. It takes time for the artists to get a feel for the show’s pace, the director’s management style and creative sensibilities. “It's like the first episode or two are kind of like first dates where you're just feeling everything out,” Bogan says. “I was even still learning about my own director abilities because it was a new show. We had some new crew and it's just figuring out what my strengths and weaknesses are as well as what can the crew offer and help me with and what do I have to just trust and let go for them to do. That’s a big a part of the process. It's easy to get very precious about what you're working on and not letting anyone else touch it. But it's important that you put it out there and just let everybody do their job. That's what they're here for and they're here to help.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.