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‘How to Train Your Dragon’ animation style has shifted throughout decadelong trilogy

(Bridgette Baron/Daily Bruin)

By Kristin Snyder

Feb. 6, 2020 11:17 pm

The magic is hidden in the details when it comes to bringing dragons to life.

Nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, “How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” saw the ending of the the DreamWorks Animation trilogy. Animation technology has changed since the first film premiered a decade ago, but alumnus Bill Diaz, who worked on the film, said many of the same challenges remain. Animating humans often presents enough of a task, Diaz said. But the added details on dragons – such as their wings, tails, horns and fire-breathing abilities – create more difficulties to tackle. As an animator largely responsible for working on the dragons, he said his vast technical background provided him the skills to make imaginary creatures realistic.

“All of the characters need to be appealing,” Diaz said. “They need to engage the audience, but there’s also a level of physicality and realism that we want to achieve as well.”

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To achieve such realism, Diaz said he drew from a number of reference points, such as eagles landing and taking off. But while in the studio, he said many animators would utilize a room with mirrors and cameras to film themselves imitating their scenes – even those featuring dragons. Animators obviously could not create exact replicas of dragon movements, but Diaz said it was useful to provide more references for movements such as a heavy footstep.

Having two previous films to draw from also helped animators establish a cohesive visual style and focus on the story’s emotional arc, Diaz said. Producer Brad Lewis said having the visual context as well as the character background from previous films allowed animators to focus solely on expanding the world. Animators had to contend with how older versions of established characters would move and act while also working with new characters such as the Light Fury.

Because many of the film’s visual cues had already been established, rigger and animator Evan Boucher said drawing from such reference points made the process more efficient. However, he said the film’s live-action style – as opposed to a more stylized aesthetic – heightened the challenge. This led Boucher to focus on creating specific details, such as the belts and buckles on armor, that were necessary to create more true-to-life scenes.

“If something is more stylized or cartoony, you can get away with ‘swashier,’ sketchier things,” Boucher said. “But when your style is more realistic, you have to make sure objects look realistic as they move.”

To extend the realism even to the film’s background figures, Boucher created a system that would produce more visually individualized dragons. Most of the film relied on baseline species utilized in the previous films, but he said they wanted to see heightened variety in the figures. Thus, Boucher opted for a modular system that would add highly distinct dragon faces to the background of scenes. Boucher worked on a few dragons – ranging from the Crimson Goregutter to the Hobgobbler – to establish the world’s intricate details.

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But animators often had to juggle multiple figures in each scene while establishing dynamic, detailed shots, Diaz said. In the final battle scene, he said the sheer number of objects presented a challenge – there were falling contraptions, running characters as well as at least a dozen dragons.

Such wide-ranging scenes reflect the sheer scope of the film, Diaz said. Director Dean DeBlois was inspired by the initial “Star Wars” trilogy, which Diaz said is revealed in the film’s large-scale scenes and extended emotional arc. Lewis said the film’s scale – shots including thousands of figures, a new rigging system and the longest continuous shot ever accomplished at DreamWorks – allowed it to branch out creatively and expand the possibilities within the field of animated films.

“The thing about animation is a lot of times people want to put it at the kids table and think that we’re a simple genre,” Lewis said. “But I think if one really watches ‘Dragon,’ you’ll see that it’s got adult themes, mature relationships and great wonders.”

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Kristin Snyder | Podcast producer
Snyder is the Arts & Entertainment editor. She was previously the Theater|Film|Television editor.
Snyder is the Arts & Entertainment editor. She was previously the Theater|Film|Television editor.
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