HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON THE HIDDEN WORLD
About The Production (Cont'd)
Process and Methodology
Creating the Magic
Whereas Valka lived in a hidden sanctuary-the oasis home of the
Bewilderbeast-which was greenhouse-like and wrapped in a layer of ice, the
Hidden World of the Caldera is the mythical home of dragons. This network of
chambers and tunnels that wrap around the Earth is where these majestic
creatures-who are born out of steam, heat and magma, the internal elements of
Earth-live to this day.
n Hiccup's time, they've come to wander the upper world of humans...and get into
trouble. The process of bringing the Caldera, as well as every other sequence in
this ultimate chapter, has been equal parts painstaking and labor of love.
Now that he has lived within the world of Berk and dragons for the better part
of a decade, DeBlois is able to be reflective about the endless editorial
decisions required to craft this massive universe, and the number of voices he
must filter. "Stories are specific, 90-minute, emotional equations," he says.
"There are lots of depths within these arcs and relationships, and new ideas
must be diagnosed. We are servants toward the story, so any constructive
criticism challenges me to decide whether I like an idea. We have to ask
ourselves if it revelatory toward the depth of a full idea...or if it's merely
Despite the decade of work behind him, DeBlois is quite Zen about the evolution
of his epic adventure. "The story eventually tells us what it wants, and this
gave us Toothless' coming-of-age tale. He has grown from being mostly an
animalistic sidekick-and a danger that turned into a cuddly pet-to a stalwart,
consistent buddy. This film represents the rise of Toothless and the dragons'
return to their subterranean world...as well as a promise of days to come."
The filmmaker says that the nature of animation is an iterative one, and fortune
favors the patient. "There is a lot of scrutiny on the story and time to test
the different directions and to find worth in experiments," DeBlois says. "The
moment we start storyboarding, we encounter problems with pacing, character
interactions. As we move into editorial, issues, developments- both problems and
solutions-present themselves." He pauses: "The greatest challenge in making an
animated film is to stay constantly attuned."
Lewis owns that the production's greatest luxury has been its process and
methodology. "Dean can try out permutations of ideas within the script. He'll
refine the message, concept and emotions through every one of those iterations.
Then he'll continue to refine it as we move through production. From the story
stage to the animation and voiceover ones-from storyboard to 3D-camera layout to
the visceral-making this film has been watching a rose blossom. We fill that
with color...and we end up in tears during score week."
For Cowell, the creator of the How to Train Your Dragon phenomenon, watching the
evolution of a labor of love she began so many years ago has been cathartic. She
calls out the leadership of DeBlois in particular. "It's very unusual to have
one person directing an animation trilogy because they take such a long time to
make," Cowell says. "I can't believe how lucky we have been to have somebody
with such a strong creative vision at the helm-who can tell a story visually but
also with emotion; Dean can do the action and the heart. We've also had that
strong leadership write through all three movies." She pauses. "We're also
backed up by this team at DreamWorks, who are at the forefront of what you can
do in animation. I've always felt-right from the beginning of walking into the
studio-that feeling that you can make the impossible happen; that's the thing
about going into the cinema that I love."
Revolutionizing Shadows & Light
DWA Launches MoonRay
Because a feature-length animated film is made up of approximately one-half
billion digital files, DreamWorks Animation movies rely heavily on technology.
In some parts of Hidden World, there are more than 100,000 digital files for one
single frame. This massive undertaking is all driven by an onsite processor at
the DreamWorks campus in Glendale, which houses 48,000 processing cores.
For far too long, lighting has been the bottleneck that restricted the ambition
of animated films, even for a studio leading in technological advances. "Now, we
have a powerful tool at the back end that allows us to deliver on the promise of
huge worlds-full of lush, beautiful settings and many more fully formed
characters than we've ever been able to render," says DeBlois. "What once
required starting anew every time a shot was delivered is now significantly
The director gives that nod to the creators of DreamWorks' proprietary MoonRay,
a revolutionary ray-tracer whose function forever changed the lighting process,
rendering shots in real time. A brilliant tool that calculates light as it is in
the real world-mirroring how shapes bounce off of fabrics and surfaces-MoonRay
injects billions of light rays into a scene and gives sense to light and shadows
based upon the path they naturally take. Indeed, this step in the CG animation
process is what brings images to life in near-realistic splendor.
DeBlois walks us through the process: "MoonRay is this advanced form of lighting
our movie, which is the last step. When Hidden World was in preproduction,
MoonRay potentially wasn't going to be ready in time to use. The technology
teams were given a mandate that whatever had to be done to make this
groundbreaking tool available just had to be done. MoonRay allowed us to create
final images that are so rich-both in terms of complexity and in subtlety."
For DreamWorks, MoonRay marks the first on-screen representation of its updated
workflow involving two very powerful tools: the animation tool of Premo, and
MoonRay, its first ray-tracing renderer. Supported by fantastic third-party
tools, MoonRay makes DreamWorks a more nimble company, as well as one that can
innovate and grow in the areas in which the audience is most likely to perceive.
The producers and DeBlois proudly admit that their ambition for the look of this
epic adventure grew with this fascinating new tool. "Now we can handle vast
amount of characters, as well as the rich, intricate detail of our dragons," the
director says proudly. "Where we might have had to avoid contact with all sorts
of rich, lush foliage in the past, our characters can walk through ferns or
effortlessly brush against tree limbs. It's astonishing what it has freed us up
While lighting is one of the last steps in animating, the filmmakers admit that
a commitment to streamlining kept everyone sane. "Our visual effects supervisor,
Dave Walvoord, made a choice to allow us to become more collaborative across
departments," says Lewis. "Animation has typically been siloed, resulting in a
hand-offs approach from department to department that had been tough to overlap.
Now, we have a new workflow where multiple departments can simultaneously work
on a problem from other departments. This resulted in more collaboration among
the crew, all artistically designed."
The Fire This Time
A Technological Breakthrough
MoonRay not only make details crisper and gives artists the ability to design
new elements, for Hidden World, it also allowed them to create photorealistic
fire on screen for the first time ever. Not only are the dragons blasting and
belching fire, many scenes throughout Berk and New Berk are lit by the element:
candles, torches, dragon fire-even a chandelier of fire.
Head of lighting Pablo Valle knew from the beginning of the franchise that this
posed a potentially impossible challenge to all on the DreamWorks campus. Before
MoonRay, the artists created a fire effect using red, yellow and orange
lighting, rather than crafting and rendering "actual" fire. "We tried to mimic
fire using a variety of techniques, but it never looked as realistic as we
wanted it to be," Valle says.
Prior to the ray-tracing tool, part of the reason "real" fire wasn't possible
was that it was too complicated and time-consuming to render. With MoonRay,
however, the "time-to-first-pixel"-the time it takes until the artists see the
first pixel appear, to measure how fast the image is being rendered-is nearly
instantaneous. "Now, this short turnaround allows the artists to focus on the
art," Valle says. "You can change your mind. You can try new things. You can
explore. The speed has truly opened up a whole new universe for us."
The visual-effects department starts by creating the simulation, and the
lighting team brings the image to life. The result is a photorealistic fire that
bounces and flickers as it would in real life. "What you get is an incredible
subtlety of color, of flicker, of fire feeling alive," Valle says. "You get a
very believable scene that has all the range of realistic fire, with colors and
shadows moving around."
Larger Than Life
Creating Grand Landscapes and Vistas
With the technical capabilities of MoonRay, DeBlois' awe-inspiring vision is
taken to the next level in the final film in the trilogy, particularly in the
Hidden World of the Caldera environs, which has cascading waterfalls and glowing
foliage, as well as in Berk, elevated at 52,000 feet and filled with towering
trees and hefty clouds.
"These environments are significantly larger than anything we've done before,"
Walvoord says. "MoonRay grants us the ability to put everything we want into our
world. It's incredibly liberating for filmmakers."
One example of the film's grand scale is a scene that takes place in the Hall of
Berk, where Hiccup and Astrid rally their people. Here, we see nearly 200
characters dining together, many sporting beards or wearing fur-elements that
require a great deal of computational resources. In this one scene alone, there
are more than 150 mugs, 200 spoons and bowls, 350 apples, 10,000 rocks and
60,000 strands of hay. In addition, the camera is following a group of main
characters walking through the crowd. This means that any member of the crowd
that appears close-up with the main characters must be portrayed in the highest
detail. "Cheating" with lower quality versions of the characters just wasn't
"Those are really complex challenges," Walvoord says. "We wanted to push the
boundaries with the number of characters shown in a single shot, their wardrobe
and their interaction with the environment. I've never worked on a movie that
had this much intricacy."
Dragon in the Details
Designing 65,000 Dragons and 68 Million Mushrooms
Collaborating closely with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins,
Walvoord and his VFX team were able to create scenes that were detailed but not
over-stimulating for the audience. They worked with Valle and the lighting team
to use light to accentuate certain elements and draw the viewer's eye to what is
important. It's a welcomed problem to have; a renderer that can create images so
realistic, the images have to replicate the real world.
That new artistic freedom that MoonRay provides is seen not only in the grand
scale of the film, but also in the minute details throughout. For instance,
there are 2,000 unique character pieces in Hidden World including hair, clothing
and accessories. In the village of Berk, the blacksmith shop alone contains
1,097 unique props and assets. There are even 756 nails in Hiccup's house.
MoonRay allows for complicated details to be brought out on film; for instance,
Hiccup has 3,620 of Toothless' discarded scales comprising his body armor. In
the first movie, there could only be eight dragons in a single scene or the
system would crash. This time, there are more than 65,000 dragons in one shot of
the Hidden World of the Caldera-the most of any shot in the film. Additionally,
in the Caldera, there are a mind-boggling 68 million mushrooms and 79 million
In Hidden World, Hiccup is not the only principal character to use the fallen
scales of his dragon to create fireproof armor. Rather than design a new suit
that mimics the dragon scales, the artists took the exact previously modeled
dragon scales and "glued" them onto the armor. "We were able to build those
suits with a completely creative approach, knowing MoonRay could render the
complex images," Walvoord says. "We wanted the world to feel like it was a
continuation of the characters. We want the audience to be emotionally invested
in everything. You don't think about technology supporting emotion in a story,
but it really does."
Bathe in the Sounds
Compositions of the Film
From world-famous Studio 1 at Abbey Road Studios in London, DeBlois was joined
by trilogy composer John Powell with 98 musicians on the floor-a hand-selected
orchestra that Powell has been refining over years. With all their favorite
players gathered together under one roof, the director and composer reflected on
the journey they began together more than 10 years ago...and the satisfaction that
comes from discovering where two best friends will arrive.
For DeBlois, scoring represents the stage of Hidden World where we can put his
work into the world of Powell, allowing the composer to create a custom
soundtrack that refreshes everything. "I'm a big believer that music is half of
storytelling," says DeBlois. "Putting it in the capable hands of these musicians
and John elevates every moment in the story. So much is communicated by way of
the music that dialogue, and even acting, cannot do. We've created sequences
that are not only supported by the music, they're actually driven by it."
For a medium that takes so long to come together, this step is the light at the
end of the tunnel for DeBlois. "You think 'No matter how tough it is and how
complicated it gets in the making of the movie, one day we'll be at Abbey Road
with a hundred of the best musicians in the world with John writing and
performing a score that's going to elevate.'"
DeBlois acknowledges that he's come to rely upon Powell's canny ability to often
carry an idea over the finish line. "John has his own thematic material that
weaves almost like a harmony with the story and themes," says the director.
"Often, he'll come up with a subset of themes that support and bolster those
characters-echoing what we're trying to say in the overall story. He continually
tries to outdo himself, and this is his last opportunity within the trilogy.
It's spectacular and his best work yet."
Nowhere is that more evident for the director than with the most poignant
selection of the film: the dramatic theme for Hidden World. "This theme is
everything you hope it will be," DeBlois says. "It's got breadth and grandeur;
it's full of discovery and exactly what we wanted that sequence to be."
As DeBlois has involved his composer all these years, Powell has spent much time
considering how to end the trilogy. "After the second film, Dean told me a bit
of the story and I've been thinking about it ever since," says Powell. "The main
approach is asking ourselves, 'how do you end anything?' Musically, everything
is set up for the finish of a relationship with somebody, how to leave. That's
the hardest thing we've got to do, the transition.
"It's not just finishing it; it's a conclusion," the composer continues.
"Musically, I've been able to be compositionally rigorous, which means that I've
been able to think more carefully about how to use all the old and new themes.
This allowed us to make sure they all wrap up in the right way. I realized that
for the past two months I've been working hard to make sure everyone cries."
For Powell, his aim is less about working with instruments to achieve signature
sounds as it is about melodies and harmonic content serving the story. The
introduction of Light Fury and Grimmel in particular allowed him to open up the
Dragon musical canon. "We have the tunes from the first two movies, which I'm
using very carefully," he says. "But we have created new melodies such as the
fate theme and riff. I'm trying to bring those to the full potential, but, then
hold back and use the old tunes so that they mean something."
One of Powell's signature decisions is the sparing, timely use of music to
punctuate the precise moment that allows the audience to experience what the
characters are feeling. It's vital to him to musically lead, and not to push.
"It's important to stay behind the audience," he says. "If you've got a funny
scene, try not to let the music be funny before it's funny. Otherwise, audiences
feel manipulated. It's the same with emotion."
When it came to the timing of where the music gets to support the tears, Powell
believes he cannot introduce key music until he feels, as an audience member, he
is ready to well up. "Then you try and hit that moment. Not be in advance of it,
because otherwise, it's like flagging it. 'Okay, we want you to cry now,' which
a lot of Hollywood films do traditionally. I don't like that, so I try to stay
just on the backside."
Powell admits that the most difficult sequence to compose in this chapter is
Toothless and Light Fury's first date. "It's a symphonic poem-a piece of music
that I had to make complete, even though it's very descriptive. Once again, it's
following the action. It had to make sense from beginning to end. In theory, if
you listen to it on its own without picture, you should be able to tell what's
Those instruments and performer at Abbey Road included everything and everyone
from a Celtic harp, played by Scottish player Maeve Gilchrist, and Eric
Whitacre's choir handling all choral work to vocalist Yonzi and bagpipers.
DeBlois and Powell join those artists before them who found the studio a simply
magical place for sound. "If you just walk across the studio, your footsteps
sound like they are instruments," says Powell.
"It took them to the '60s to perfectly tune this incredible room, and they've
not changed anything since," Powell says. "You'll cough and just bathe in the
lovely sound. Most of the composer's life is sat alone in front of screens. This
is when you get to come out of your hole and realize what you've been dreaming
of and what you've been imagining-trying to hint at for the directors and the
END OF A TRILOGY
A Bittersweet Farewell
Saying Goodbye to Berk
As the trilogy based on the world she created comes to an end, no one has deeper
feelings about saying goodbye to this chapter of Toothless and Hiccup than their
creator. "It sounds very unlikely, but it's based on my own childhood," reflects
Cowell, "and the Isle of Berk is a real place where I grew up as a child. Stoick
the Vast is based on my relationship with my father. Of course, the ending,
'There were dragons when I was a boy,' are the opening words of the books that I
wrote 20 years ago when I just had a child. I tell the story from the point of
view of the boy growing up, looking back to my own childhood, and Hiccup is a
father to Toothless. The themes are so enmeshed with my own life that it's
Series architect DeBlois has spread his love of Cowell's world to anyone he
meets. For the writer/director, the most gratifying part of his time with How to
Train Your Dragon has been introducing newcomers to this intricate universe, as
well as encounters with fans who share how the movies and shows have served as a
lifeline. "These characters and storylines are an escape I never anticipated for
people," he concludes. "It's been an ongoing theme in my interactions that our
heroes-especially Hiccup and his square-peg-in-a-round-hole existence-give
comfort to people in a world that can reject them. I realize that we have a
responsibility to keep them in mind with every decision we make."
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