‘How To Train Your Dragon’ series writer and director Dean DeBlois reflects on his ten years with the beloved franchise, detailing how new technologies helped bring ‘The Hidden World’ to the screen.
DreamWorks Animation’s The Hidden World, the culmination of the beloved How To Train Your Dragon trilogy, flies into theaters this Friday, finally giving U.S. audiences their opportunity to see the long-awaited film.
Written and directed by Dean DeBlois and produced by Brad Lewis and Bonnie Arnold, The Hidden World delivers a heartwarming message about overcoming intolerance wrapped inside a tale about growing up, facing the unknown, and learning to let go. It also answers the burning question of what happened to the dragons that once populated the earth and lived in cooperation with humans.
What began as an unlikely friendship between an adolescent Viking and a fearsome Night Fury dragon has become an epic adventure spanning their lives. Now that Hiccup (voiced once again by Jay Baruchel) has defeated the villainous Drago and laid his father Stoick to rest, he appears to have achieved his boyhood dream of perfect dragon-human existence, but their home of Berk has become overpopulated, leaving dragons and humans alike vulnerable to a new type of villain, Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), whose pride and intolerance threatens their peaceful existence. As chief and ruler alongside Astrid (America Ferrera), it’s up to Hiccup to solve the crisis. When the sudden appearance of a female Light Fury coincides with the darkest threat their village has ever faced, Hiccup and Toothless must leave the only home they’ve known and journey to a hidden world thought only to exist in myth.
MoonRay + Premo: Freedom to Soar
The Hidden World is gorgeous on a truly grand scale, with stunning visuals powered by the studio’s new real-time lighting tool, MoonRay, paired with the Academy Sci-Tech Award-winning Premo animation system first employed for How to Train Your Dragon 2. “MoonRay allowed us to create final images that are so rich -- both in terms of complexity and in subtlety,” DeBlois says of the new technology. “Now we can handle vast amount of characters, as well as the rich, intricate detail of our dragons. Where we might have had to avoid contact with all sorts of rich, lush foliage in the past, our characters can walk through ferns or effortlessly brush against tree limbs. It’s astonishing what it has freed us up to do.”
Part of that freedom is the ability to be more specific with animators and other artists working on the film. “If I’m working with an animator, the turnaround time between taking a look at something that they’re working on, giving notes and seeing it again, is so much faster. It allows us to refine the subtleties of a shot before moving it on, because we have the time to actually tweak and make it just right,” DeBlois reports.
“And that holds true for the lighting department as well. Every artist working on the film can see their work so much faster,” he continues. “They can put as many characters as they want on screen. They can deal with far more complexity without systems crashing. And they can do it in a way that’s much more idea-to-screen. They don’t have to deal with something that used to be very technology-first, in the sense that the artist had to adapt to the technology. They had to learn to work in a numeric way, with sliding scales and graphs, to create expressions and poses. Now they can sit there and, with a stylus and a Cintiq, manipulate the character as though it’s clay. As though they’re creating stop-motion animation that’s pushing around expressions and creating poses. So it’s returning, in a sense, to the intuitive manner of creating images that a lot of these animators were used to in the old hand-drawn days.”
The studio’s new production pipeline meant that production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent and other story artists had free rein while creating the spectacularly detailed environments of The Hidden World. “We were able to dream big and actually put it on screen without a lot of compromise,” DeBlois notes. “Whereas traditionally, we would have to pull it back and say ‘Okay, that sounds very elaborate and nice, but physically we could never deliver those images on time, because they’re just too complex and too data-heavy.’ So, for the first time, we were able to talk about a very detailed and elaborate concept like the Hidden World, and realize it with no compromise. That was a pretty amazing experience for everyone involved.”
To bring The Hidden World to life, the filmmakers wanted to create a world unto itself. “If these dragons were going to disappear from our world, we didn’t want them to feel like they were banished to some sort of somber underworld,” says DeBlois. “It had to be magical and foreign but still retaining ideas of what we know of the biology and geology of our world.”
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A Decade of Dragons
Reflecting back on the decade he has spent with the How To Train Your Dragon franchise, DeBlois readily admits that in the beginning the goal was “really just to make a movie that worked.” Alongside Lilo & Stitch collaborator Chris Sanders, DeBlois had 15 months to overhaul and deliver a film that had already been in pre-production and production for two-and-a-half years. Following the success of the first film, the studio asked for ideas for a sequel. “But I tend to be a little allergic to sequels if they lack a purpose,” he notes, “so I really thought about it and realized that, well, we do have things in the storyline that are not really explained.”
It was Cressida Cowell, the writer of the book series from which the films are adapted, who helped spark the idea for a trilogy of films for DeBlois. “I had a conversation with her at one point when we were finishing up movie one and she said, ‘I’m going to explain what happened to dragons, and why there are no more.’ And I thought, as a goal, that’s very compelling, because it’s mysterious, it’s emotional,” he says. “So I adopted that into this idea of a trilogy, and that’s what I pitched back. I said, ‘Let’s do three acts of one story. And we will track Hiccup from that nuisance runt of a Viking tribe through to the wise, selfless chief he’s destined to be. And in the process, we’ll say goodbye to dragons in some mysterious and hopefully emotional and fulfilling way.’”
In the beginning, DeBlois spent a lot of time thinking about the most macro version of the story, and which thematic element would speak to people around the world. “Regardless of age, I think, in the case of the first movie, everybody’s felt like an outsider at some point. Like they didn’t quite fit in. And that desire to be like everyone else is often counter-productive. So Hiccup comes to learn, as many of us have, that simply being himself can change the world around him,” he relates.
“And with the second movie, I realized, well, Hiccup has everything he wanted, so by advancing the clock five years, we could move to a different universal rite of passage, which is the one of leaving behind childhood, and all that carefree abandon, and taking on the weightier consequences of adulthood,” he continues. “But with this one, just knowing where we were heading with the dragons going away and disappearing into legend, and the world returning to the one that we know, I thought, it’s a nice, safe, fantastical way to explore the notion of doing something that’s selfless and right for somebody else, even if it means saying goodbye.”
That rite of passage is something everyone experiences at various points in their lives, DeBlois observes. “Certainly parents with their kids as they head off to college or into their adult lives,” he notes. “And it happens to a lot of kids too. You go to a different school or your friends are separated and move into different classes. And there’s a sense of identity that comes with those that you hold close, and what happens when they go away. It forces you to look in the mirror and question who you are. So that, to me, felt like apt and universal material to explore with this film.”
Call of the Wild: Night Fury Meets Light Fury
When DeBlois considered the engine of change for this final chapter of Toothless and Hiccup’s evolution, he began to wonder what coming of age would look like for the Night Fury as the dragon grows to yearn for a life beyond humans. “For so long, he has been Hiccup’s constant companion,” says the director. “But he has begun to stray from that bond as he is drawn by the call of the wild -- and by instinct and maturity.” To stay true to the narrative, the storytellers had to contemplate the unthinkable. “We asked ourselves if we could have their relationship completely fall apart, but still bring them back together, stronger than ever,” says DeBlois.
The Light Fury, a shimmering all-white dragon who exists on pure instinct, forces a crisis for Toothless and Hiccup, but her initial appearance is all innocence. “At first, Hiccup welcomes and receives her as fantastic news,” DeBlois recounts. “What a great development. Toothless, who they thought was the last of his kind, may have a mate after all. And he’s so happy for his friend and very enthusiastic about trying to invite the Light Fury into their fold, until he realizes that she has no intent of becoming domesticated and living with humans. She doesn’t like them, she distrusts them. She’s from the Hidden World, and she wants to take Toothless back there with her, and reintroduce him to the wild. To the life that he left behind.”
For the first time in The Hidden World Hiccup must now consider Toothless’s feelings against his own. “And in Hiccup’s case, he’s a character whose every success has been based on his bond with Toothless,” says DeBlois. “He became respected, he became formidable, all after meeting Toothless. Before that, he was inept and he was always in the way and incapable. And he secretly fears that he will be that same character should Toothless ever go away. So the struggle is that Hiccup has to undergo a change. He has to look in the mirror and really question his worthiness. And in order to transform and reach an epiphany, that has to happen with Toothless being drawn away. So the Light Fury, as charming as she is, and as fun as she is to watch on screen, she’s also there to force Hiccup to confront himself.”
Hiccup’s new relationship with Toothless is is manifested in a new, prosthetic tail for the Night Fury dragon that allows him to fly unassisted. “It’s kind of a screen writing convention that somewhere in the middle of the story, we see a hero who has to transform do something that is a whiff of the transformation that awaits him,” DeBlois explains. “In Hiccup’s case, he builds this tail, this tool of independence, for Toothless. Basically gives him the keys to the car in a very loving gesture. It’s foreshadowing the character he could become. But then it also sets up the worst parts of his self doubt. Because once Toothless goes and doesn’t come back, then we really start to see Hiccup struggle with who he is and what he’s capable of.”
For DeBlois, the friendship between Hiccup and Toothless forms the backbone of the How To Train Your Dragon series. “It’s the meat of the whole trilogy, because it represents the wish fulfillment of the idea,” he says. “To tell a story about dragons is ultimately to bring to life a fantasy that most kids have, which is, ‘What if I had this magical best friend?’ Whether it’s a dragon or some other creature. Or in some cases, even a dog or a cat. It’s a powerful bond with an animal that could protect you, that could cuddle with you, that could be your confidant, your best friend. And so it’s a relationship that I think we’ve cared for and nurtured over these three movies, to make it feel as familiar as possible, by channeling a lot of dog and cat behaviors into Toothless. And giving them a lot of quiet moments, so it definitely speaks to that boy and his dog convention.”
The challenge, for DeBlois, was how to separate Hiccup and Toothless “without the audience hating us,” he says. “Because they have to love them together, as they do the other characters and their dragons,” he explains. “I think the answer really, for me, was, well, we’ve got to take the audience on a journey. You have to have them emotionally be invested in the stakes and understand what it means for Toothless as much as what it means for Hiccup. So that hopefully, when Hiccup has that epiphany and decides to do the selfless thing, the audience is right there with him. That they understand, and they’re rewarded for it by going into that epilogue where we have the momentary reunion, and you see that Toothless thrived and so did Hiccup. That it was the right decision.”
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