DreamWorks and Cartoon Network join forces to deliver the further adventures of Hiccup and Toothless in the new series Dragons: Riders of Berk.
You know you have a timeless and crowd-pleasing movie on your hands when audiences want to continue to tag along with the main characters after the final credits roll. That’s exactly what the team at DreamWorks Animation wanted to do after they wrapped their delightful, Oscar-winning 2012 feature How to Train Your Dragon. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders knew that they would have to return to the world of the lovable lead Hiccup and his dragon Toothless. Not only were two sequels greenlit shortly after the release of the first movie, it was also decided that a TV spinoff series would help fill the gap until the arrival of the first sequel in 2014.
This fall, we are able to catch up with the main characters in a weekly CG-animated series that continues to focus on the group of dragon trainers and their magical creatures as they learn more about each other and fight new enemies in Riders of Berk. Premiering on September 4, the show brings back the cast of the movie—Jay Baruchel (Hiccup), America Ferrera (Astrid), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fishlegs) and T.J. Miller (Tuffnut) and introduces new characters voiced by Mark Hamill (Alvin the Treacherous), Tim Conway (Bucket), Stephen Root (Mildew) and Tom Wilson (Mulch).
Fans can also look forward to lots of new dragons: Torch, a baby Typhoomerang; Stoic’s own dragon Thornado, a Thunderdrum dragon that emits a sonic blast; as well an as an assortment of sea-dragons and non-flying dragons—many of which have specific designs and skill sets.
Riders of Berk show runners Art Brown (The Boy Who Cried Werewolf, Power Rangers Ninja Storm) and Douglas Sloan (Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers) worked closely with the movie’s creators Sanders, DeBlois and producer Bonnie Arnold and the book series’ author Cressida Cowell to stay close to the heart and soul of the characters as well as the tone of the movie.
“Our biggest goal was to preserve that wonderful balance between the humor and the action components that the movie had,” says Brown during our phone interview in August. “We started working on the show in the January of last year and really hit the ground running. We had this amazing set of character and a wonderful tapestry to work with. A lot of times, when TV shows are based on movies, they end up not looking as good as the movie, but we were really fortunate because we have this amazing team of animators and visual effects artists working on the show, and I think, visually, we come as close to the movie as we possibly could.”
One of the main reasons the series version of the movie was such a no-brainer was that How to Train Your Dragon ends on such a perfect note.
“When you watch the movie, as they fly away, you know that they are going to have great adventures together,” explains Sloan. “But you don’t know where they’re going and how the dragons will affect the life on Berk.” Brown adds, “In addition to Hiccup and Toothless, the rest of the kids in the movie also have their own dragons. You want to find out how their relationships will develop with their dragons. That’s been a lot of fun for us to explore in the series. Of course, none of the dragons can speak, so it’s been more challenging to spotlight the quirks and characters of each one of them.”
Brown and Sloan both mention that the team of storyboard artists and top-notch animators and technicians that work on the project in facilities in Sherman Oaks, Calif., Taiwan, India and New Zealand do their best to make sure the show exceeds what audiences have come to expect from TV productions in terms of visuals.
“To be honest, the biggest challenge for us wasn’t the animation,” admits Brown. “At the end of the day, DreamWorks does the animation brilliantly. We’ve come to expect that from the studio. What we had to do was tell stories that stayed true to the tone and spirit of the movie. We also had to make sure the storylines kept the characters on the right arcs, especially since the series takes place between the first and second movies.”
In addition to having meetings with the feature team, the show runners also revisited the original books by Cowell for inspiration.
“We always find the books to be a perfect place for source material,” says Brown. “We mine them for story ideas. In fact, our main bad guy in season one is Alvin the Treacherous, who was created by Cressida. Of course, we are thrilled to have Mark Hamill voice the character for our show.”
Even the show’s visual style and its music (by John Paesano) follow closely in the footsteps of the movie. Sloan says the show has been able to accomplish a lot although its budget is in line with other TV productions.
“We had 75 to 85 percent of the assets that we are using,” adds Brown. “But we have people working on the show who have come out of the feature animation world. Every day they are coming up with a clever new system that helps the show look better. Our vfx supervisor David Jones leads the way in discovering new methods and systems that help us accomplish our goals. The results have been pretty amazing.”
Sloan, who comes from a live-action background, says he’s been pleasantly surprised by the opportunities the animation world has offered him and his creative team.
“I used to work on the Power Rangers show and it was a huge money-making machine,” he says. “The philosophy was quite different for that production. DreamWorks really is about the artists and everyone having a voice in the final product. Everyone works hard and fine-tunes their part so that we have the best product we can put out there.”
Brown echoes his colleague’s sentiments.
“It’s good to know that you have the support of both DreamWorks and Cartoon Network,” he notes. “Now that we have seen the results of our work over the past couple of years, it’s great to know that we are able to tell these human stories that are funny, and the humor is coming straight from these characters. We surrounded ourselves with folks who are smarter than we are. You hire great people and get out of their way so that they can do the best job they can.”
DreamWorks’ Dragons: Riders of Berk premieres on Cartoon Network on September 4 at 7:30 p.m.