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How to Modernize Your Dragon

Supervising Producer Beth Sleven talks about the creation of DreamWorks Animation’s new CG series ‘Dragons: The Nine Realms,’ set 1,300 years after Hiccup and Toothless’ last adventures in the land of Berk; now streaming on Peacock and Hulu.

How soon they forget. One day you’re a renowned, if somewhat problematic, part of your cultural milieu, and then just 1,300 years later, people doubt that you ever really existed. Of course, this can all change when a geological anomaly opens an immense fissure in the Earth’s surface, and suddenly you’re not only rediscovered, but you have a lot more to worry about than simply being forgotten.

In Dragons: The Nine Realms – the latest iteration of DreamWorks Animation’s beloved How to Train Your Dragon franchise – a group of misfit kids uncovers the truth about dragons and where they’ve been hiding for the last millennium or so – but it’s a discovery that could lead to catastrophe if the wrong people find out.

For anyone who’s been longing for more reptilian humor and adventure in their lives, the six-episode CG-animated series, which premiered December 23 on Peacock and Hulu, couldn’t be a better Christmas present. For anyone who wants to know more about how this all came to be, Supervising Producer Beth Sleven has some illuminating answers.

AWN: How did the idea for the new series come about and what were the key considerations in extending the franchise?

Beth Sleven: DreamWorks reached out to me saying they wanted to expand the world of How To Train Your Dragon and bring it into the modern day. I thought that was a great idea. It meant we could open up the world in new exciting ways, and tell new stories. It also meant we would get to watch a whole new cast of riders as they discovered a life-changing secret while also dealing with the struggles modern-day kids face.

AWN: How did you integrate storytelling style and tone from previous shows into the new series – offering fans what they’ve enjoyed most, while taking them on new journeys?

BS: It was important to us that Dragons: The Nine Realms felt like a part of the How To Train Your Dragon world that we’ve all come to know and love. Tonally, I wanted the show to have the feel of the first film – I wanted it to have beautiful cinematic scale and scope. We filled Dragons: The Nine Realms with the action, heart, humor, and adventures that have been exciting Dragons fans for decades. And eagle-eyed fans of the films are in for some surprises along the way!

AWN: How were the character and dragon designs influenced by past shows? What should fans look for that’s new and different?

BS: We took our design inspiration from the films, and our team of designers, led by Nadia Vurbenova-Mouri, did an amazing job incorporating those influences into the show. The film’s design language is visible not just in the characters, but also in the world of the series as a whole. For example, the ICARUS station sits on the edge of a giant chasm, much like Berk sat on the edge of Norse cliffs.

The modern setting allowed us to try new and different things with both the designs and the situations the kids find themselves in. We asked things like, how would technology work for or against these new riders and their dragons? What would a scientific station in the remote wilderness look like? And how would the people who work there live? This new show gave us so many new opportunities for design and stories.

AWN: Where do your designers find inspiration for new dragon designs?

BS: We drew inspiration from the incredible designs of Nico Marlet [the character designer on the first How To Train Your Dragon film and other entries in the franchise].  He even did some explorational design work early on in the production. In addition to studying the dragons from the films and previous shows, we also took a lot of inspiration from the animal kingdom.

AWN: How did the pandemic impact the production?

BS: The studio shut down and sent everyone home the week we were supposed to officially start storyboards on the show. We were left scrambling trying to find ways to create a new production pipeline on the fly. It felt a bit like laying down train tracks while the train was already trucking along at full speed.

AWN: How did the production compare to past Dragon properties? Were there any specific innovations or new methodologies?

BS: Technology is always evolving, and we can do things now on TV shows that were unimaginable even five years ago. But the thing that made this show different from any other show I've worked on at DreamWorks was how the pandemic affected production itself. Having to do the entire production remotely meant that we couldn’t rely on “the old way of doing things.” If anyone, from the most senior leadership to the newest intern, had an idea about a more efficient or better way to do something in the production, we were all open and eager to hear it. And once we had a way that worked, it was never set in stone. If we found a better way to do anything in any department, we were all open to changing or modifying it at a moment's notice. The incredibly positive thing that came out of it all was that we pulled together and helped each other in ways I’ve not experienced on any other productions.

AWN: What’s your favorite thing about the show?

BS: I am so incredibly proud of this show. Every ounce of the crew’s passion, talent, and hard work shines through in every frame on screen. Growing up, I was the super-nerdy kid who reveled in getting lost in fantasy worlds, where danger and adventure waited for you around every corner. I can only hope that, with this show, I’ve helped to create a world like that for any kids (and grown-ups) out there who feel the same way!

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.