Helmed by Oscar-nominated writer/director Chris Sanders and writer/director Dean Deblois (Lilo & Stitch, Mulan), the DreamWorks Animation SKG production of How to Train Your Dragon draws the audience into the fantasy world of the film by enveloping them InTru 3D. The larger-than-life adventure comedy – set in mythical lands inhabited by a myriad of fire-breathing dragons and the burly warrior Vikings who want to kill the beasts – is a heart-felt, coming-of-age story about a scrawny teenager who must prove to his chieftain father that he has what it takes to be a dragon-fighter. The complexity of the animated production required a dedicated crew to shape all aspects of the story into an intensely exciting theatrical experience.
Below the Line: How did you get involved with How to Train Your Dragon?
Dean DeBois: This film was different for Chris and I. When we came on, three years had already gone by. They had covered a lot of ground trying to adapt the book by Cressida Cowell. They had spent a ton of time developing the look of the world, designing characters, and modeling and rigging those characters. It had a of lot ready-to-go elements. It just didn’t have a story that was taking advantage of the promise of the premise with these multiple breeds of dragons, big burly Vikings and far-off settings. The plot of the book was too small and whimsical and young, for the studio’s aspirations. We were brought in to elevate it to a huge-scale fantasy adventure. That meant re-engineering a new story using elements that had already been built, standing on the shoulders of those before us in order to take the successes they had, and give it a story with some juice.
BTL: Do you usually work together?
DeBois: We do. We come from a storyboarding background. We write, but with a storyboard artist’s mentality, so it’s very visual. If we have time, we storyboard ourselves. In this case, since we were up against the wall time-wise, we’d spread out written pages to a team of storyboard artists who generated the visual representation of the script that we then edited together before animation started.
Chris Sanders: We are comfortable with the idea of building places into the script, where we simply go into storyboarding. Three or four places in this particular story, we stop dialog entirely and let the music and animation take over.
BTL: How early do you start casting and does that effect the visualization?
Sanders: Definitely. There’s no set time. You cast as early as possible, because you want that voice to inform and infuse everything it can. Before we came on, everything had been cast save for the character of Gobber, who we cast with Craig Ferguson. He came up in a casting discussion. We latched onto him because we are huge fans, but he also had the same accent as Gerard Butler. We wanted Gerard to feel free to let his accent come through, so when Craig came on, we encouraged him to.
BTL: Animation workflow is different from live-action. Who on your crew do you rely on?
DeBois: Every department in our process has its leader. We have a few governing leaders on top of that. For example, in our character animation department, we have a character animation lead named Simon Otto. His job is to wrangle all of the character animation supervisors and talk about the general style of the animation, the depth of the acting and the sophistication of it. Below him are the supervising animators for each character. Attached to them are teams of animators that work on specific characters. That’s one department. Every department has leads whether it is lighting, matte painting, crowds or special effects.
BTL: How does your art department work with your animation people?
Sanders: Because it takes so long to build and rig characters, that happens early on so that the characters blend perfectly with the world around them, as far as shape, language and design are concerned.
DeBois: Our production designer, Kathy Altieri, was instrumental in developing the look of the film, and its environments. She worked with art director, Pierre-Olivier Vincent who we called “POV.” A lot of his tastes deal with size.
Sanders: He’s all about scale. He loves designing things that are huge. A lot of that came to play in the look of the film. The scene where Hiccup is going upstairs to his room – it has been dug out of a gigantic tree that’s been laid on its side. That’s very POV.
DeBois: Kathy was there from the beginning. She was instrumental throughout, in terms of prop design, surfacing and lighting. Craig Ring, our visual effects supervisor, not only worked with visual effects; he was kind of the captain of the lighting team. Kathy and Craig had equal roles executing the film’s look.
Sanders: I remember the look on Kathy and Craig’s faces when we told them we wanted Toothless to be all black – quite a challenge for lighting. Toothless was a latecomer to the movie, as far as bad black dragon design. The original Toothless is in the film, but he’s that little guy we called the Terrible Terror – an iguana-sized dragon straight from the original book. One of the adjustments that Dean and I made to the story was to scale up the dragon that Hiccup befriends. One reason we made him look like he did was that we wanted a dragon that was even terrifying to Vikings that were used to fighting dragons. We wanted Toothless to be a bit of a ghost in the dragon world.
BTL: He’s an unusual character with his rounded snake-like head.
Sanders: That’s a good observation. It’s a vibe you get, especially when you see him in profile. We designed a lot of things into him and people who look at him sometimes see their own pets. They see dogs, cats, even horses in his look and behavior.
BTL: I don’t have a snake.
Sanders: We don’t get that a lot. We didn’t put a lot of scales on his head. We did at one point, but he looked too much like a snake. So we went back and gave him that smooth black skin. He’s textured and surfaced more like a manta ray than a reptile.
BTL: When did your editors come on?
DeBois: We had worked with Darren Holmes on Lilo and Stich, so we had a very comfortable relationship with him. Given the tight production schedule, the amount of work that needed to get done was more than Darren and his crew could handle. Dreamworks had great success with Maryann Brandon working on a few sequences. She came on to consult on a few action sequences. We had a great vibe together so she stayed through to the end. She brought her own brand of crosscutting and a live-action feel to some sequences.
BTL: How did you work with sound designer/mixer Randy Thom?
Sanders: We hadn’t worked with Randy before. We love him. It’s one of those lucky things that happen when you work in movies. You get to meet your heroes. There are many sorts of dragon species. We were interested in giving these species their own distinct personalities. One of the first conversations we had with Randy was about the dragons. We pitched the idea that, for example, the Gronckles are walrus-like, lazy, cranky dragons and Deadly Nadders are the parrots of the dragon world, much quicker and more bird-like in their sounds, language and motion. Monstrous Nightmares are the rock stars; when they fight, they really get into it. In particular we focused on Toothless. Randy started on Toothless. All the way through the mix, Randy and his team were enhancing Toothless. Much of the dragon’s personality came through his sounds.
BTL: When did you choose composer John Powell?
DeBois: John had been approached prior to us taking over the film, but there was no official deal. We had an opportunity to meet with him and pitch our take on the story to see if he was still interested. He was really excited and had great ideas. John is a lover of all kinds of music. He wanted us to think about musicians and music that we respond to – stuff we listened to while writing, anything that we found inspiring along the way. John’s very collaborative. He would play rough demos of ideas that he had, then hone and find themes that were going to stick with people. That was our directive, coming up with iconic bits of music that felt like they would be playing at the theme park pavilion for dragons. I think he’s created his best soundtrack.
Sanders: An amazing job. It’s one thing to ask somebody to create muscular, memorable powerful themes, another to actually create them, and he did.
DeBois: He did some delicate, beautiful sweeping pieces too.
Sanders: We love this part of the process when you go to scoring sessions. The orchestra doesn’t see the music ahead of time, so they play it cold. We were there the first time they played the Romantic Flight. After they went through it, they all applauded. That’s a genuine tribute to what John accomplished. This is by far my favorite score that he’s done.
DeBois: John is extremely meticulous with the way he records music. We recorded the score for Dragon in London at a studio called Air, which is an old converted church. In the morning, it would be the woodwinds and the strings, then in the afternoon it would be the brass section. Another day it would be the male choir, then the female choir. His percussionists came at a different time. He records the elements separately, so that he can control how they fit together in the mix. He wants very precise control.
Sanders: John has an amazing ear. He’d kick off one of his giant themes. They’d play it through then stop. John would be looking over his music and he’d get on the mic and say, “Third bassoon, you were off by half a note on this one part.” He is not only in tune with what he wrote, but his ability to hear detail was astonishing. He’d make little adjustments on things that we didn’t even hear.
We learned from Alan Silvestri, who we worked with on Lilo and Stich, about how much storytelling you can hand to music. That was a huge learning curve. Alan said, “If there’s something you haven’t told the people on screen, hand it to me and I’ll get it across.” When we were writing Dragon, we recognized areas that were best handled by music and wrote those into the script. Music is the closest thing to magic that you’ll ever get. You can’t put your finger on what it does, but it does it powerfully and perfectly, so we recognized story turns that were best accomplished with the character’s mouth shut and music speaking.
BTL: Does John work with a music editor?
DeBois: He does, Adam Smalley.
BTL: On top of all the other technical challenges, this film was also 3D. How did that affect your workflow.
Sanders: It was an incredible new tool to use and exploit. For example, the gladiator-like sequences that we staged between the teenagers and the dragons when they’re learning to fight was an opportunity to put the audience right in with those teenagers to face those dragons for the first time. It was actually a pleasure to experience that whole part of it.
BTL: Have we missed any key people on your crew that you couldn’t have survived without?
Sanders: I have to mention Alessandro Carloni, our head of story. He literally worked night and day to bring certain sequences to life. The climatic battle at the end of the movie where Hiccup draws the Red Death up into the clouds, Alessandro ordered that sequence himself. He had a very strong vision for that particular piece of film. When he showed it to us, with the detail in which he storyboarded that sequence, it was fully staged. He had practically animated it. He locked himself away for weeks to accomplish that, but that’s what happens when you’re a story guy and you see something so clearly in your head. You want to see it through. He has a great personality, a very positive presence in the room.
We were blessed with an entire crew that had this great vibe to it. People were creating the surfacing or adjusting the surfacing or giving us new things that we asked. Matt Baer and his effects department are a great example of things that are going on simultaneous to what we’re doing.
DeBois: And Joe Finniman and his layout department…
Sanders: The effects department was on top of what they needed to do. We were so busy, we didn’t see them as often as we would normally. Effects approval was really just effects freak-out and scream, because we thought it was amazing! The things they were doing went above and beyond. In the scene where the mega Dragon has blasted a pillar of fire in front of him to try to incinerate Hiccup and Toothless, as he flies straight up through it, he twists and his giant wing cuts through that shaft of fire and smoke. It’s one of the most impressive things I think we ever saw! Period!
DeBois: And done without any direction from us. It’s hard to isolate anyone, because the entire crew – and there were over 300 people working on this movie – gave their all. We take our hats off to every department for not holding back, and understanding that all those hours and weekends and nights spent at the studio and not with your kids and spouses and friends, all that was going to add up to something worthwhile. To that end, we have to thank our crew. Everybody busted their butts to make this thing come together, all led by Bonnie Arnold, our producer. She was on the film the entire time. She held spirits together, kept people motivated and kept the production pressures at bay so the creative side could get done.