Head of character animation Simon Otto helps bring more than 65,000 fantastical dragons to life for one of the biggest sequences in the culmination of the studio’s ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ trilogy.
The culmination of the animated How To Train Your Dragon trilogy launched in 2010 with series writer and director Dean DeBlois, DreamWorks Animation’s The Hidden World arrives in U.S. theaters on February 22. Already taking flight overseas, the very highly anticipated animated feature has already been a hit with critics, including Variety’s Peter Debruge, who noted the richly stylized world and characters of the films in his review:
“From its inception, this series has insisted on a widescreen style different from that of other animated features, attempting to map the live-action idea of ‘magic hour’ onto virtual landscapes and stylized human figures. Here, the visuals outdo anything we’ve seen before, to such a degree that we might almost overlook the subtler innovations in the character animation: the nuances of expression on both the human and reptilian faces, and the wonderful nonverbal tactics the artists use to convey emotional intricacies neither Hiccup nor Toothless has had to communicate before, all of which pays off in an unforgettable final scene.”
Director, animator and story artist Simon Otto, known for his work as the head of character animation of DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon movie franchise, has been instrumental in developing the look of the characters, their personalities, and the overall style of the animation in all three films, as well as working in the story department on the second and third films. He was recognized with a VES Award for Outstanding Animation in an Animated Feature for the first film, in 2011, and was nominated again in 2015 for his work on How To Train Your Dragon 2.
Born in Switzerland, Otto studied animation at France’s famed Gobelins institute and has been an important part of DWA’s character animation team ever since he joined the studio in 1997 to work on their first animated feature, The Prince of Egypt. He worked as a supervising animator on many of the studio’s animated features both in 2D and CG, including Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and the Aardman co-production Flushed Away, and also worked as a character designer on Over the Hedge. In addition, Otto has directed episodes of DreamWorks Television’s Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia and Dragons: Race to the Edge, and recently served as an animator on the William Salazar’s Bird Karma, the first project to emerge from the studio’s short film program.
Growing Up with Hiccup & Toothless
For Otto, one of the many unique things about How To Train Your Dragon is how audiences have been able to observe the characters -- Hiccup (once again voiced by Jay Baruchel) in particular -- as they grow from being young kids to mature adults. “As artists, that’s something unique we don’t really encounter very much in our careers, so we embrace it and love that challenge,” he notes.
“I guess it comes with a lot of tricky bits, particularly for us in animation,” Ott continues. “You can design a character, and you can compare the designs as you’re preparing it, as you’re building it. You can say, ‘Yeah, that looks like a young Hiccup, that’s looks like old Hiccup, and this is what his beard could look like.’ And that’s a design challenge, but from an animation point of view, you also have to understand behavior and movement,” he explains.
Otto insists that it’s not just about creating funny moving characters. “We want to create characters that are idiosyncratic and really different from one another,” he says. “You couldn’t put Hiccup’s animation onto another character and have it look right. It would look totally wrong. So that’s a challenge in itself. But then how do you make a 15-year-old, gangly, ill-equipped runt of the litter kid become a hero, become a leader of a tribe and still recognize the character that he was when he was 15 years old?”
One of the ways the filmmakers met this challenge was to establish a set of specific rules for each character. For instance, “Hiccup is always a little tense in his shoulders,” Otto details. “He bounces around a little faster than the average character. And there’s a certain style of performance that he brings that makes him unique and makes him charming, but also you still recognize that slightly nerdy kid that is really into knowledge and how to design things. And there’s an engineering spirit in him, and that he has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder in the burden that he carries through the movie.”
The designs for Hiccup as a grown man also had to take his missing leg into account. “We didn’t want to make him handicapped to the point where it’s front and center all the time, because we want to focus on the story and the character, but we want it to be real and not just like something you forget about,” says Otto. “And that’s an important part of that mutual symbiosis that Hiccup and Toothless have together.”
Designing the Dragons of The Hidden World
The same level of care that went into the designs for Hiccup was also lavished on the thousands of dragons that populate the film. One shot alone -- in a sequence inside a vast Caldara housing the spectacular Hidden World of the film’s title -- contains more than 65,000 dragons.
“The dragons were heavily inspired by what we observed in nature. We all spent a lot of time studying the flight of birds and the behavior of various other types of creatures,” Otto shares. “Toothless, for example, is a mixture of a black panther and a small bird of prey, with maybe a little bit of bat behavior mixed in there.”
But in terms of who Toothless is, and how he acts, Otto says the Night Fury dragon is still at heart very much a pet. “We all have a very close relationship to our pets, and in the first film we wanted our audience to fall in love with Toothless the same way that Hiccup does,” he explains. “We wanted to tap into a maximum amount of recognizable behaviors. And so, Toothless is really a mixture of cat, a dog, and a horse, in the way he acts, in the way he behaves himself.”
Astrid’s dragon, a Deadly Nadder named Stormfly, meanwhile, is “a mixture of a parrot and a T-rex,” according to Otto, and Fishlegs’ Gronckle dragon, Meatlug, is a mashup of a crocodile and a bulldog. The Crimson Goregutter, a gentler creature than its fearsome appearance would suggest, blends features of a prehistoric elk with a perch, a type of fish; the adorably piranha-like Hobgobblers -- newly introduced in The Hidden World -- combine the bullfrog, a French bulldog, and a beachball.
“So we could be really creative that way, and it helped us create something that felt real, but that was also absolutely unique,” Otto relates. “I strongly believe that with this approach -- and having done three movies that have been out there -- we were able to redefine a little bit for the Western audience what dragons could be like, because in some of the Disney movies and some classic fairytales, dragons look a certain way. Maybe you had an Asian dragon, maybe you had a Western dragon. What we tried to achieve is to create an entire new world of dragons that could be completely different from one another but belonged to the same world,” he says.
“We called it the mixing bowl of characters,” he laughs. “We also looked at things like Harley Davidson motorcycles, the way they shake and the way they rattle,” he continues, “It all helps to give you that flavor, and animators really get that. They see how this character is a caricature of those elements. And I think the audience recognizes it too. They might not be immediately able to point at what the reference is, but they see something that they recognize from real life, and that’s the important part.”
That mix-and-match approach carried over to the dragon generating system Otto and his team developed to help create mid and background characters for The Hidden World. “I don’t think we gave it a name, but we had an ancillary dragon mixing approach, where we could take a crown and spikes, for example, along with certain types of accessories that we would attach to the dragons, and they would fit onto different body types, with different claws, different wings,” Otto describes. “And then we surfaced them differently, and colored them colored differently, so that there’s almost an infinite number of different types of dragons.”
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