Coming of Age
Issue: Volume 37 Issue 3: (May/Jun 2014)

Coming of Age

People who read books often eagerly anticipate a second volume because they are keen to revisit a world and its characters. So, why are film sequels expected to be less satisfying than a first film? Is novelty more important in film than in literature? Or, have film sequels too often revisited earlier worlds without expanding the story?

"When we finally got a green light to do a second movie, we had a choice," says Simon Otto, head of character animation at DreamWorks for the 2010 film How to Train Your Dragon and the sequel How to Train Your Dragon 2, scheduled for June 2014. "We could reshuffle elements and tell the same story in a different way. But, Dean [DeBlois], our writer and director, said that he wanted to do a trilogy, and that this second chapter would take place five years later. For his navigational tool, he looked at how The Empire Strikes Back in the first Star Wars trilogy opened the scope and expanded that world, evolving so there was a true progression in time."

THE RELATIONSHIP between Hiccup and his dragon Toothless forms the emotional heart of the story.

In many ways, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has as much in common with live-action dramas as animated features. Says DeBlois, who also wrote and directed the first Dragon, "I was a Star Wars kid. It seemed like that universe could go on and on, and that was compelling. I love the fact that these films are set in a mythic Nordic land with islands and dragons yet to be discovered. Hiccup has the mind of an explorer. He is on the edges of Viking land, moving into uncharted worlds, exciting worlds that go on and on."

Sympathy with the Dragons

In Dragon 2 Hiccup is five years older, accepted as a Viking, and a hero of his village for having created a utopia in which the people serve the dragons and the dragons help the people. Actor Jay Baruchel voiced Hiccup, as he had done for the first film, and America Ferrera returns as Hiccup's girlfriend Astrid.

"Visually, Hiccup is clearly a more attractive, leading man type," Otto says. "But as animators, we didn't want to lose the slightly awkward kid who talks more than he should and overcomes challenges through wit and intelligence. So, how do you do that and present a slightly more heroic and grown-up character? The balance is incredibly challenging."

The team decided to show that the 20-year-old would still have some of the 15-year-old's behavior. "We had conversations with the director and ended up writing a scene early in the film where Astrid mocks Hiccup's geekiness," Otto says.

Also helping round out Hiccup's character is his dragon Toothless. At the end of the first film, Hiccup had lost a leg and his friend Gobber had fitted him with a prosthetic. That gave Hiccup a special synergy with Toothless, who has a prosthetic tail fin, as they moved into the second film.

"The rider and dragon are symbiotic," DeBlois says. "They are best friends. Hiccup is an ace flyer. Toothless has a certain amount of dog behavior. But, he has feral cat and domestic cat behaviors, too. Partly because of his design, he has a lot of black panther quality." 

Otto sees the relationship between the two as key elements in the film." Toothless and Hiccup have lived together for five years now, so they are more like college roommates," Otto says. "There is playful banter between them."

He describes a scene in which the dragon mimics Hiccup's big-talking attitude, and in return, Hiccup teases Toothless when he pouts, suggesting he's a big baby.

"The magic about Toothless is that he's a puppy dog on one hand and a fierce dragon on the other," Otto says. "On one side, he's 100 percent innocent, and yet he's the most dangerous weapon one could have. For me, the key relationship in the film is between Hiccup and Toothless. That's the emotional heartbeat throughout, and we challenged that relationship. Hiccup meeting Toothless is a talisman of our world. You believe in that to the point where you love the dragon and you want one of your own. The more tangible that is, the more people let go and enter this world."

Dragon Mother

Making her debut appearance in Dragon 2 is Hiccup's mother Valka, marking this animated film as one of the few in which a character's mother is alive and has a starring role. Cate Blanchett voices the reclusive vigilante.

TOOTHLESS SOARS through an even larger world than in the first film.  Animators used a new system to create the performances.

"I thought it would be fun to bring a parent back from the 'dead,' rather than to kill a parent," DeBlois says. "We didn't explain what happened to her in the first film, so she was a mystery. It was fun to delve into that. We find out that she's a wild Dian Fossey type who lives with dragons and rescues them from evildoers. She is the ultimate dragon whisperer."

The idea is, as we learned in the first film, Vikings considered dragons to be enemies, so they hunted and trapped the dragons. Like her son many years later, Valka understood that dragons were not the enemy. She freed them and hid them away.

Hiccup meets his mother in one of the film's key scenes. "I think his discovery that the mysterious dragon rider is his mother has a different flavor in the film than the scene in the trailer," Otto says. "It's definitely a pivotal scene. She's been gone for 20 years. She lives with dragons. How does that change her behavior?"

As he had for the first film, Otto assigned supervising animators to particular characters. "Some were on the first movie, so they took on the same characters," Otto says. "They knew more about the characters than the director did. The director has to think about 15 characters, the story, the plot, what effects should do, how to stage a scene. An animator thinks about one character 24 hours a day. Dean [DeBlois] would give them the purpose of a scene, the emotional points, and say, 'Go play.' So, it wasn't 'move something 30 degrees over here.' It was much more like live action."

In addition to the main characters, the actors voicing Hiccup's peers are back, as well: Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Gobber (Craig Ferguson), the twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut (TJ Miller and Kristen Wiig), and Hiccup's father Stoick (Gerard Butler).

Like Hiccup, each character has his or her own dragon, and in addition to her dragon Cloud Jumper, Valka has a nest of dragons. Thousands of dragons. "I didn't count the full number," DeBlois says. "Our hero dragons have detailed rigs that make them capable of more performance and acting than the ones in her nest.  For the nest of dragons, we took a standard body and changed tails, heads, spikes, wings, and colors to create variety."

To ground the fantasy and help audiences believe in the world, the modelers and animators gave every dragon animal behaviors and real-world characteristics. "We needed armies of dragons," Otto says. "The difference between a dragon created for live action and the dragons in our world is that we can create humorous dragons. But, we still want to make them believable."

Thus, the designers caricatured animals and objects from the real world. A dog. A crocodile. A cement mixer.

"Grump, who is Gobber's dragon, is an oversized sea elephant mixed with a concrete mixer," Otto says. "He's a traveling trash can. We wanted to give the audiences a caricature of something they know. It's a whimsical world, overdrawn, oversized, but we wanted people to believe in the existence of the dragons."

DeBlois helped provide Grump's voice. "We recorded one of my French bulldogs, and his sound made its way into the sound design for Gobber's Grump," he says. "My dogs have been featured in movies as far back as Lilo and Stitch."

Tooling the Performances

Helping animators create believable dragons and engaging characters was a new generation of animation tools the studio has named Premo, and a new rigging system designed to take advantage of fast graphics cards. The crew on this film were the first to use the new system.

"It's revolutionary," DeBlois says of Premo. "The artists can work on tablet screens, like a [Wacom] Cintiq with a stylus, and manipulate a character like a stop-motion puppet. Before, they had to select what they wanted to move and input degrees or percentages. It's amazing that they were so proficient. Now, they have a seemingly unlimited ability to grab any part of a face or body and move it where they want. [Premo] allows them to work faster and more intuitively. Being able to work faster means they can refine the performances more."

AT RIGHT, TOP TO BOTTOM: Hiccup discovers Valka’s nest of dragons. Hiccup with his reunited parents. Each Viking in the village has his or her own dragon.

The visual complexity of the shots put the new system to the test. "Hiccup has the most complicated character rig we've ever attempted," DeBlois says. "He is in shots with Toothless and six other characters, and we also have the flight rigs and the saddles. It should break a system, but Premo is very powerful. It worked flawlessly."

Like the first film, Dragon 2 has a live-action look that DeBlois attributes in part to Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who was a consultant. "His bold, uncompromised style influenced the look," DeBlois says.

Helping the lighting team achieve that look was a new-generation lighting system the studio calls Torch. "Lighters can see quick renders of their setups," DeBlois says. "They can manipulate and tweak the light in each shot. It allows more subtlety."

As the animators work, they can see keyframes rendered in real time with a standard lighting setup that gives them a sense of volume, dimension, light, and shadow.

"Before, we had to simplify the workflow, turn on details, render the frames, and then see the work," says Otto. "Now, we can create more sophisticated characters and more detail-oriented work, and run them in real time. It's one step short of seeing frames lit and finished. We see full resolution and geometry, and can interact with the characters live. It's more playful. We can iterate more, test things out, try a slightly different gesture, and find things we otherwise might not have found."

Once approved, animated sequences travel to the character effects department for cloth and hair simulation. "Animators can see enough of that to know the animation is working and the movement is correct, but they don't see the final surfacing," DeBlois says. "The nuances are yet to come. The character effects team moves the hair and fabric, giving it weight and believability."

Worlds Apart

The expansive dragon world provoked big creative as well as technical challenges. "Most of our dragons have wings and tails," Otto says. "Some have multiple wings. Some are gigantic, some are tiny. We had numerous dragons, dragon armies, and human armies. Armies from different areas of the world. Bringing that through rigging and animation into lighting scenes with thousands of characters put a giant burden on the pipeline, and then doing that with new-generation software was a technical challenge. But, we wanted to expand the dragon world."

"Even though it's a caricatured and larger-than-life world, we still render it with surfacing and textures that make it believable," De Blois says. "And, the special effects, the natural movement of water, smoke, and snow, adds so much credibility to the world. It envelops you as a live-action experience."

DeBlois imagines a next generation of tools that would bring the live action feeling even closer. "The next step might be having a setup in which the lighters work concurrently with the animators so they can animate to the lighting. They could make sure the shadows fall where they want, the light reflects properly in the eyes. Everything could play to the lighting setup as much as possible. And if lighters could tweak the lighting early while the animators are animating, it would be even better."

That's the next step. For now, DeBlois believes the generation of tools newly implemented for this film have had a big impact. "The decision to age up the characters by five years allowed us to redesign the characters," he says. "So, they have more nuance because we have more tools to give them subtle expressions. The biggest contribution of the new tools are that they allowed artists to work with their hands again, as if they had a clay model right in front of them. They can do multiple iterations and see immediate results. That allowed us to refine the animation to an incredible degree. And on top of that, we had real-time renders. The surfacing is amazing because we had time. If you compare the first film to the second, I think you can really see the difference."

The maturation of the animation and lighting tools, which has opened new ways of working for the animators and lighting artists, parallels the story in the film they worked on. "What makes me proud is that we managed to not do the same thing we did in the first film," Otto says. "We took it further. We grew up the world and the characters, we grew up the universe - even tonally. That was the pivotal thing."

Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer and a contributing editor for CGW . She can be reached at