The Fine Art of Domesticating Dragons

Co-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois reveal the triumphs and tribulations of bringing DreamWorks’ majestic 3-D epic How to Train Your Dragon to animated life.

When British author Cressida Cowell penned her popular book How to Train Your Dragon more than seven years ago, she envisioned a remote world in which the story is told in epic scale. ‘If you’re writing about Vikings and dragons, it has got to be on a grand scale,’ says the prolific writer. Cowell should have a big smile on her face these days because DreamWorks Animation’s majestic animated adaptation of her movie surely scales the heights of epic moviemaking.

Co-directed and written by Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (and co-written by Will Davies), the new 3-D movie centers on a Viking teenager named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his friendship with a mysterious, injured dragon named Toothless. Sanders and DeBlois, who met while working on Mulan and went on to collaborate on the popular 2002 Disney feature Lilo & Stitch, came on board relatively late in the game’in October of 2008.

‘Our first order of business was taking the colorful world that Cressida Cowell had created’which was populated with these various breeds of dragons and larger-than-life Vikings’and lift it to the realm of a big fantasy action-adventure movie,’ says DeBlois. ‘Our goal was to keep the names and characters, but not feel beholden to all the original plot points.’

As Sanders explains, ‘We made the decision that the basic storyline was between Hiccup and Toothless [the film's lead dragon]. We also made the choice that in the movie, dragons and Vikings would be mortal enemies, because it would be more powerful to have Hiccup cross this ancient divide.’

The directors believe that it was important for Toothless to be both mysterious and elusive”almost a ghost of a dragon, so that even the Vikings would fear him,’ notes Sanders. He had to be black to be able to hide in the night and aerodynamically shaped to fly like a sparrow or a hawk. Unlike most other movie dragons that have been reptilian, Toothless also took its cue from slick mammals like wolves and black panthers.

The funny thing is that when you first get a good look at Toothless, you are immediately reminded of Sanders and DeBlois’s previous otherworldly creature, Stitch. ‘I think different people see different animals in Toothless,’ says DeBlois. ‘He has these two enlarged black plates, which play the role of ears and key audiences to his moods. That could be the reason he resembles Stitch, because he had these big ears as well!’

For head of character animation Simon Otto, who has worked on 10 DreamWorks features to date, the project provided a unique opportunity to balance the majestic nature of dragons with comic moments and relatable character. ‘We looked at every vfx movie that had dragons in it’even Disney’s Pete’s Dragon‘but clearly, we didn’t have to match our creatures to a live-action project,’ says Otto. ‘The designs called for the dragons to be big and impressive and dangerous, but at the same time, we could have fun with them, because the movie offers a really fresh take on the dragon world. So we ended up with a creature who looks a little bit like a crocodile, flies like a humming bird and sounds like a Harley Davidson!’

Building an Ancient World

Critics have praised the movie for its breath-taking flight sequences and the way it depicts the poignant relationship between a boy and his dragon. ‘The connection that develops between the two is no cloying, smiley-happy animal-human friendship,’ writes Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman. ‘It’s more like the stirring bond you remember from Old Yeller, with an added touch of King Kong.’ DeBlois says he’s most proud of the way the film is being received. ‘They say it feels like a movie’it doesn’t feel like a cartoon, and that was something that was important to us. We wanted to have believable physics, stakes and consequences. Thanks to the amazing animation team and visual effects artist who worked on the movie, we have a world that we can believe in.’

DeBois and Sanders don’t deny the fact that in the beginning, it was quite daunting to walk into a project that had already been in the works for several years, under the guidance of original helmer Peter Hastings (The Country Bears, the upcoming Kung Fu Panda TV series). The studio had originally planned a version of the project that was a more faithful adaptation of Cowell’s book and targeted a younger audience.

‘We had major time constraints, and couldn’t redo the movie from scratch,’ recalls DeBlois. ‘We dropped in on the deep end and had to re-conceive the project, board the story and keep it on wheels’and it was difficult for everyone, but I have to say that everyone kept besting themselves and were pulling out all the stops, with the animation, the designs, the lighting, the effects’the whole sophistication that went into it’and did it all in less than 14 months.’

Directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders with producer Bonnie Arnold

As Sanders puts it, there was a certain amount of suspense that colored the entire time they were working on the film’would they really be able to pull it off? ‘Dean and I learned to cut to the chase every time we got together with the artists and the execs at DreamWorks,’ he admits. ‘We had no time to experiment: We had to make decisions, move on and live with those decisions.’

Old vs. New

Although the movie is set in the Viking era (8th thru 11th centuries), modern audiences can relate to the very contemporary attitudes and dialog spoken by the young hero and his friends. ‘We tried to strike a balance between having contemporary humor and staying away from anachronistic gags,’ notes Sanders. ‘Dean and I try not to do anachronistic gags, but when we screened the movie for Steven Spielberg, he pointed out a few turns of dialog that might take the viewers away from the period. So we strove not to do it.’

One factor that influenced some of the modern lingo and attitude was the cast’a mix of Judd Apatow’s regular players and Saturday Night Live comedians. As Deblois explains, ‘The Viking elders have Scottish accents [Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson], and the younger set [Baruchel, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wigg] are adapting their own accents, just like they would do if they live in north America. It’s a silly conceit but it helps separate the two generations.’

The directors credit the meticulous artistic sensibilities of Nico Marlet (who designed all the dragons except Toothless), Craig Ring, Kathy Altieri and Pierre-Olivier Vincent for making the Vikings’ world a believable place for audiences. Altieri and her team traveled to the top of the Washington coast down to Northern California, taking photos to get references for volcanic coastlines, while DeBlois referred to his trips to Iceland. ‘I’ve traveled to Iceland several times, and we tried to bring a lot of the lighting that’s present in that country to the film.’

The two directors also got to collaborate with one of their industry heroes, seven-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins. ‘He’s one of our favorite cinematographers and it was such an education to work with him,’ says DeBlois. ‘We approached him to do a couple of talks to the layout and lighting departments, so they could see how shadows can influence camera compositions, and then we were delighted when he could stay on as consultant. Roger influenced the lens choices, the camera work and also the sophisticated lighting’which you rarely see in animation.’

Hairy Situations

Although there are still limits to what digital technology can add to a project, How to Train Your Dragon represents astonishing feats in fur, hair and water representation. According to character effects supervisor Damon Crowe, ‘We were dealing with interaction with the fur when characters get touched or just touch anywhere on themselves, and in addition the bears need to interact with the garments. We tried to come up with some really good solutions to make the fur process more efficient in character effects, and we have some proprietary tools in the house that do the job really well for us, which we’ve been honing since Shrek 2.’

Of course, the fact that the movie was conceived as a stereoscopic 3-D project opened new ways to expand the storytelling. ‘We were a bit concerned in the beginning about the 3-D aspects,’ admits DeBlois. ‘Is this going to be the cart that leads the horse? We didn’t want to make shot decisions based on 3-D gimmickry. We weren’t going to poke audiences because we could and we were going to use the technology organically. For example, we have these dynamic flying scenes that really support the story.’

‘We had tools and opportunities that we didn’t have before,’ Sanders chimes in. ‘We could now integrate camera moves and angles that we were never able to do before this, and that felt like doing a live-action movie.’

Both Timely and Timeless

Beyond the visceral joys of the flight scenes and the sweeping landscapes and dragon designs, the directors tell us that they hope the message of the movie resonates with audiences. ‘We set out do a movie about an underdog hero who changes the world for the better,’ says DeBlois. ‘Despite what everyone thinks about him, he realizes that his weaknesses are strengths and he can do things that nobody else can. Besides that, the movie has a socially relevant message: It’s about seeing yourself in the eyes of the enemy, and looking beyond what you’ve set out to see. It’s about bridging the gap between enemies. We really didn’t have that message in mind when we started out, because it might have felt a bit preachy. It actually grew out of the story naturally.’

‘I grew up reading the Asterix comic books, and Dragon‘s story and setting reminded me of those classics,’ says the Swiss-born Otto. ‘We were just finishing Kung Fu Panda, and lots of doors were opening up in terms of animation design and modeling. The story itself is both whimsical and quite powerful. It’s an unusual movie for DreamWorks because the main character is a teenager, which is a first for us. I do believe that the emotional beats, the flight sequences and the climax of the movie are really powerful and leave the audience with the feeling that they’ve experienced something special.’

As Sanders concludes eloquently, ‘We journey into the heart of a dangerous world and an impossible friendship with ancient creatures that have only existed in the pages of books until now. You won’t forget these characters, and you won’t forget this place.’

Since Cowell has written six more volumes of these dragon tales and DreamWorks has a tradition of revisiting its popular properties (the fourth Shrek installment is coming our way this summer!), we are probably going to see a lot more of these beautifully drawn dragons and unlikely Viking heroes in the next decade. For now, we can just sit back, enjoy the ride and order our Toothless collectible toy as soon as we get home from the theater.

DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon opened in the U.S. and various major European markets on March 26, 2010.

A Field Guide to Dragons

Night Fury. Designed by Chris Sanders himself, the Night Fury (Toothless is an example) is distinguished by its dark color, yellow eyes, small size, heavy chest and short neck. It flies higher, faster and longer than any dragon, is very clumsy on the ground and breathes an unconventional fire that explodes its target on impact!

Deadly Nadder. This multi-colored dragon can cause a lot of damage both in the air and on ground. Its Achilles’ heel is its eyesight because its eyes are on the side of its head!

Monstrous Nightmare. This flagship of the species is red-and-black-colored and is known for its violence and tenacity. Although its size makes it an an easy target, it compensates with a slew of spikes and a kerosene gel fire.

Gronckle. This comical creature has a robust body and tiny wings that can flap at an amazing speed, allowing it to fly backwards and sideways. According to press notes, it divides its day thusly: flying 1%, eating 5%, complaining 10%, sleeping 84%!

Hideous Zippleback. Very easy to spot and aptly named, the Zippleback is famous for its two heads, each on separate necks that can ‘zip’ together! It’s the longest dragon, but has short wings and stocky legs. The males have a tendency to egg themselves on until they blow themselves up, while the females are smarter and live longer, very much like humans!

Terrible Terror. The smallest of the dragons, the Terrors are also the most common ones, because they have a high rate of reproduction. However, they lose the advantage of their large numbers because of their constant infighting. They have a non-confrontational attitude towards humans.