Writer-director Dean DeBlois steers Hiccup, Toothless and the rest of the Vikings of Berk straight into trilogy territory on a large scale with How to Train Your Dragon 2.
DreamWorks Animation’s How to Train Your Dragon was an unexpected hit when it was released in 2010. Co-directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders had taken over the film just a little more than a year out from release and revamped the story from the ground up. Earning positive reviews from critics and audiences, the film earned nearly a half-billion dollars at the box office and put the question of a sequel front and center.
When DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg asked DeBlois if he had ideas for a sequel, DeBlois came back with a bigger idea. “If the first movie was the first act, this second film could be the middle act, but we would need a third to bring it to conclusion,” DeBlois says.
The trilogy proposal intrigued Katzenberg and, with Sanders having moved on full-time to The Croods, it was a chance for DeBlois to step up and write and direct on his own the sequel, How to Train Your Dragon 2, out June 13. “It was a healthy bit of growth for me to be honest,” he says. “It’s one thing to be a team and backing each other up, and it’s a different matter entirely when you have to trust your convictions.”
DeBlois says as a viewer he has an aversion to sequels because most of them are disappointing in that they don’t live up to the original or are too much of a retread. He looked at the few sequels he thought really worked and was most inspired by one of the most-universally admired and successful sequels of all time: The Empire Strikes Back. “It took everything I loved about Star Wars and expanded it in all the best ways,” he says. “The fun became that much more powerful, there were new gadgets and new characters and the peril and the scope were bigger without losing sight of what it’s all about.”
Knowing that DreamWorks was committed to a trilogy was useful in coming up with the story for Dragon 2. “I looked back at the first movie, and it’s a complete experience unto itself,” he says. “If we were going to tell a grander story, there were elements that had been slightly glazed over, like [what happened to Hiccup’s] mother. That was a story thread we could draw out.”
Another key decision was moving the story and the characters ahead five years. “Fifteen-year-old Hiccup is quite happy — he earned his father’s admiration, was accepted by the village, got the girl and got a super cool dragon. By the end of the first movie, it’s all resolved,” he says. “Now, five years later, he’s the town hero and there’s the expectation for him to step into his father’s shoes. He’s got that restlessness, standing on the cusp of adulthood. It’s Hiccup defining himself.”
The result is an epic tale that expands the story of Hiccup, played again by Jay Baruchel, his trusty dragon Toothless and the Viking land of Berk. Having fully incorporated dragons into their lives following the events of the first movie, exploring new frontiers tempts Hiccup more than following his father Stoick’s path of leading the tribe. What he finds is both personal and epic, as he encounters the threat of dragon hunters in the service of Drago Bludvist, played by Djimon Hounsou, and a kindred spirit in his long-lost mother, Valka, played by Cate Blanchett. The movie also introduces Eret, voiced by Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington, and features the return of the original voice cast: America Ferrera as Astrid, Gerard Butler as Stoick, Craig Ferguson as Gobber, Jonah Hill as Snoutlout, T.J. Miller as Tuffnut, Kristin Wiig as Ruffnut and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Fishlegs.
DeBlois, who wrote the movie based loosely on the books by Cressida Cowell, says the biggest difference between working on the first and second film was the second film had the luxury of time. “Chris and I both came into Dragon 1 about 14 to 15 months out from release,” he says. “We took the assets that had been built, the characters and world and used as much of that as possible. However, it didn’t have all the bells and whistles we could have afforded if we had a longer, standard production time and a full budget to work with.”
With four years between release dates, DeBlois says they were able to rebuild the characters from the ground up and incorporate a new generation of software into the DreamWorks pipeline called Apollo that vastly improved the toolset and interface for the animators.
“While we were finishing up the first Dragon we had some conversations with the developers and they gave us kind of a window into the future,” says Simon Otto, head of character animation on the movie.
The animators were consulted on what they wanted from animation software if it were to be re-created from the ground up. The overall message was for an intuitive system with a user interface that allowed artists to more directly interact artistically with characters and see them render and move in real time, and reducing or eliminating the need to wrangle data, Otto says.
The result, with artists working via a stylus on a touch-screen display, was liberating for the animators, Otto says. “It feels a lot more like a computer game. We spend very little time doing anything besides pushing the characters around, and we don’t have to manage data the way we used to.”
That allowed animators to spend more time exploring ideas and refining their work and having a toolset that supported those ideas. “You can find your way to the performance, which was kind of hard before,” Otto says.
The results are easily seen in the final film, where the character performances achieve a level of detail and subtlety that sets a new standard for DreamWorks. “A lot of it comes from having the time, having talented animators and giving them the time to go back and tweak on the most minute levels,” says DeBlois.
Especially key is the interface, which removes the need to wrangle data and re-render and allows animators to use a stylus and touch-screen display to work directly with characters in real time. “It’s like the digital equivalent of a stop-motion animator working with a clay puppet,” DeBlois says. “It’s putting a tool back in the hand of the animator.”
Those changes were key in developing Valka and Drago. “They were both incredibly challenging and it was a journey and an adjustment to find the characters,” says Otto. Valka had to be mysterious at first, having spent so many years living among dragons, but ultimately likeable when she revealed herself as a Dian Fossey-style protector of the creatures.
“We went a little crazy at first and went too far,” says Otto. “We had to tone her down and bring her back a bit.” He says they found the character through animation, and only after trying out a few versions of her sequences did they find the right balance.
Drago, meanwhile, got a boost from the casting of Hounsou as his voice, which inspired separate design takes to come up with the dreadlocked look the character eventually developed, Otto says. He also had to move in a very specific way due to a plot point in the movie, requiring an idiosyncrasy in his performance.
As for the dragons, the sequel presented an opportunity to improve their designs and expand the number and type of dragons almost exponentially. Otto says they wanted as much diversity as possible, starting by basing designs on more traditional dragon looks and then stretching the idea as far as possible. Each one was grounded in some way with an animal and designed to be as instantly recognizable as possible.
For example, Valka’s dragon, Cloud Jumper, had a kind of alien but mesmerizing look, Otto says. “We started looking at owls. We were really grounding the idea of that character in an idea we knew the audience would know.”
The movie deftly handles its epic battle sequences as well as it does its character moments, again upping the ante in a massive dragon battle in which opposing forces backed by giant dragons engage in a beachfront battle. Again, the new technology was essential in bringing a new level of complexity to those sequences. “That type of shot wouldn’t have been feasible in the past,” DeBlois says. “We could barely have a few characters on screen at the same time and the animators would have to turn off any other characters they were working on.”
Creating those action sequences was a long process of refinement. Each character, for example, has their own storyline within the sequence and there was a lot of whittling down and rethinking how to present those individual stories as it developed.
“It’s definitely trial and error,” says DeBlois. “We had big ambitions; we wanted a full on Lord of the Rings type battle and I think it has a great sense of scale.”
As with the first film, there is a healthy dose of comic relief in Dragon 2, an element DeBlois says he finds refreshing and invigorating when working on such a long project. “It’s such a key ingredient in the soup,” he says. “The comedy just adds a refresher [to the process] and reassures you.”
DeBlois says the high bar set by original movie and everyone’s desire to ensure the sequel matched it was an important reality check. “We would constantly check with ourselves, is this good enough? Is it equal to and better than the first movie? It kept us honest.”
Having completed the second act of his trilogy, DeBlois is anxious to see how the film is received. Early reviews have been positive and the film was extremely well received at the Cannes Film Festival.
He’s happy with the film and ready to take a break before jumping onto Dragon 3, set for release in 2016, even as he’s keenly aware of the challenges the third chapter — for which he has a well-referred-to outline — will pose.
The long haul of making an animated movie can be difficult, especially when you’re reviewing a sequence or scene dozens of times. “It really is a part of the discipline of directing an animated movie and remembering what was really successful about an idea,” he says. “You have to remember that first response, and then as the movie develops, some ideas get squeezed out.”