How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World‘s Creators on the Trilogy’s Epic Conclusion

Director Dean DeBlois always knew How to Train Your Dragon would be a three-part series where fans would see its main character Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) grow up and bond with a loveable dragon named Toothless. Now in its final chapter How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World illustrates how the animation has matured in complexity and detail alongside its resonating story of friendship.

“Dean had his mind set on a trilogy that would conclude with Hiccup and Toothless learning how to stand on their own feet,” says head of character animation Simon Otto. “As filmmakers, we wanted to take this story visually where we haven’t gone before and tell it in the most exciting way.”

The series saw a big leap in its animation pipeline going from Dragons 1 to Dragons 2 where new technology allowed them to overhaul the characters including the eyes, the skin, the way the hair moved and the backgrounds we find them in. “It may have been small in difference, but cumulatively, it was a big step for us,” notes Otto.

For instance, when Hiccup and Toothless walked through wooded areas in How to Train Your Dragon (2010), backgrounds were flat with less detail, since, at the time, it was expensive and labor intensive to create scenes with rich vibrancy. That changed in the last two films. Not only are backgrounds life-like and covered with fern and vegetation, but they are reacting to how the characters walk through the location; enriching the environment.

With The Hidden World, the visual team took it a step further and fully embraced physically based rendering and switched to a ray tracer for the first time dubbed MoonRay; built from the ground up by DreamWorks. Ray tracing is the process of firing light into the scene and it calculates how light and shadows should look in the real world. With MoonRay, animators used the tool to inject light into a sequence based on the path of a character giving it a realistic splendor – the results of which are rendered in real time. Faster rendering times meant the animation team could add rich detail.

“It freed our best artist,” says visual effects supervisor Dave Walvoord. “Things that might have been technically difficult before were no longer the case. With this new pipeline, we didn’t have to limit ourselves. We could handle more scale and our technical barriers and limitations disappeared.” The ray tracer also allowed multiple departments including lighting and surfacing to collaborate at one time instead of the very linear process animation is accustomed to.

Similarly, the scale could be further explored with animators pushing the limits of how many dragons could be in a scene or how long a shot could appear on screen. Traditionally, the longer the shot, the longer it takes to animate. In How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) a longer shot only occurred once. Now in The Hidden World, they were able to accomplish a dozen complex and expansive scenes.

To put it into perspective, in order to animate 5 seconds of screen time with two or three characters, it takes about a week. To animate 50 seconds with 25 characters, the animation team needed to put 5 different animators on the sequence for a month and a half. “It’s a big slice of time you’re investing when you have a production time of 14-18 months to get the film done, but we were able to accomplish it because the technology allowed us to reiterate faster,” says Otto.

Even though the team had new tech at their fingertips, they kept the design language the same. “In terms of scale, the design principles of the films are imagined through the eyes of a child. Humans are human-sized, but when you’re a child, a doorknob is at eye level. You see the world bigger than it really is,” explains Walvoord. “We kept a consistent shape, color palette and used the same laws of physics we applied in the first two films for The Hidden World. We kept tabs on how the Vikings, dragons and everything else moved. It was important for us to have consistency while exploring what we could add visually to scenes.”

The rules for its cinematography evolved too but were always visually grounded to the story. In Dragons 1, the camera stayed on the ground until Hiccup and Toothless became friends. Then bigger spectacle shots were balanced with camera angles that were in and around them as they flew through the sky so the audience would share the same experience. As the story moves into Dragons 2 and The Hidden World, the camera becomes more lyrical and solid between Hiccup and Toothless.

“We wanted the camera to feel as if a human operator was behind it,” says head of layout (cinematographer) Gil Zimmerman. “In animation, computers allow you to work using perfect curves, and while the films do utilize some of that perfection, we generally used camera operators to shoot the scenes, including all the panning and tilting to use in the animation.” Slight vibrations were even added to computerized dolly shots for when the dragons fly straight up to give a sense of turbulence to the camera. Instability was also added to the frame when Grimmel ( F. Murray Abraham) comes into the picture as he poses a great threat.

Hiccup’s journey from childhood to becoming a leader touts its own unique arc. After losing his left leg while falling into the Red Death’s inferno in the first film, animators studied movements of amputees and grounded Hiccup’s performance from what they learned. “We didn’t want to hide that about him,” says Otto. “He’s a broken character physically, and with Toothless, they strengthen each other through the series. We tried not to draw attention to it but not shy away from it either. By the end, Hiccup uses it almost to his advantage, like a Swiss Army knife in a way.”

We also find out Toothless is not the only Night Fury in the ethos as a female makes an appearance cleverly named Light Fury after her pearl white skin and ability to blend into the clouds and daytime sky.

Animators have looked at Toothless as a blend of a black panther and a small bird of prey like a bat; adding in behavior traits found in cats and dogs. For Light Fury, inspiration was drawn from the snow leopard, axolotls, and terns; a seabird found near wetlands. In fact, all the dragons were matched to an animal we know in the natural world, making them recognizable but unable to pinpoint them exactly.

When Toothless and Light Fury first meet, the script gave animators a jumping off point to guide their interactions with one other. “We looked at Toothless as a male lion that’s become a domesticated animal because of his relationship with Hiccup. Light Fury is this shy lioness that won’t come near him no matter what,” says Otto.

One scene that posed a challenge was the mating ritual performed by Toothless for Light Fury. There’s no dialog in the scene so animators needed to dial in an expressive performance for the audience to believe the moment. “You can’t wish for a better scene. It’s pure pantomiming,” says Otto. “We ended up writing temp dialog to what they were thinking which allowed us to animate the sequence. Once we got it down, we found there’s a lot of comedy that comes from not having any dialog and looked to push it further.”

Zimmerman further added to Light Fury’s character by using more s-curve to the camera movements instead of rigid angles. “Her role is to remind Toothless of his wild side. She has to lure him away from the human camp. She has to influence him since Toothless has lost his instincts and relies on Hiccup,” says Zimmerman. “As their relationship grows, the camera movements between them become more circular, especially during their first flight together.”

To create the secret world that lies beneath the earth where Light Fury takes Toothless, giant models were created from concept art. “We tackled it step by step, section by section,” says Walvoord. “The world is enormous with thousands of dragons and millions of mushrooms and corals spread everywhere. We needed to make a library of elements so we could add them to our hero set pieces in ways that weren’t repetitious.”  In comparison, the first movie only saw eight dragons in a single shot, now there are over 65,000 in one shot for The Hidden World.

“We were able to push the results further beyond our original intentions,” says Walvoord. We didn’t know how much our artists we being held by back the technology. It was liberating and made for a fun experience for all of us. We’re really proud of what we were able to accomplish collaborating with Dean and the entire team.”

Featured image: Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his Night Fury dragon Toothless lead the Dragon Riders in DreamWorks Animation’s “How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” directed by Dean DeBlois. Photo Credit: © 2019 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved.
© 2019 DreamWorks Animation LLC.


Daron James

Daron is a veteran journalist, who has been writing about the film and television industry for over a decade.