The first thing you notice about How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a lot more detail in the characters as well as in the more expansive environments, which reflect a real world sensibility and the beauty of Norway. And a lot of credit goes to the new Premo software package, which empowered the artists to go further creatively than ever before at DreamWorks.
“The new Premo software gave us a new baseline to start talking about design in a different way,” explains returning animation supervisor Simon Otto. “Simple things made a huge impact on the film. Suddenly we knew we could be much more exuberant with the character designs, not only in terms of facial detail but also, particularly, in [Hiccup’s] outfit. With a single image we could make a statement that describes the progress of the character over the five years. He’s fine-tuned his flight pattern with Toothless and his peg leg. And when he takes his helmet off and you see him for the first time, the level of detail is striking. We could work on it live in our machines as opposed to the first movie where it was down res’d. There’s a tactile quality to it all.
“We rebuilt our system from scratch. Five years ago, the engineers discussed interactive possibilities on the horizon with the coming of parallel processing and cloud computing (in collaboration with Intel and HP). What if you could work interactively with the characters in real-time and are never interrupted by computing? And that’s what they’ve achieved. And we did weeks of design sessions with key animators and a developer. The key thing was we were all coming from different areas of animation: stop-motion, computer, hand-drawn. And we wanted to have what 2D animators have where your only limitation is your drawing skills. The result of that is you plunge into your work and completely forget about the process. It’s like a combination of hand-drawn, stop-motion, and CG: you touch the characters with your fingers, you’re looking at basically a final version of the movie, yet it’s infinitely editable.”
Premo anticipates your next step, which means that after moving a character around and release it, you’re done and it immediately calculates everything around it. You can play the movie while you’re rotating around, while you’re editing, and everything is live. “And I think that’s where some of the tactile quality comes from, not only in the way it’s rendered and surfaced and lit and built, but we also reiterate more easily,” adds Otto.
Meanwhile, there are some new wrinkles to Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), who’s now a restless teen as well as a budding dragon whisperer. He has new switchable appendages on his peg-leg that he can use for clicking himself into the saddle, which is much more streamlined. And Hiccup has the ability to fly sitting or lying down. “We had to be much more creative. It’s five years later and their flight capabilities are improved. We came up with the saddle tank or making handles as low as you can or Hiccup blasting fire to make himself go longer.”
Toothless was tricky because we didn’t have the same supervising animator. And there are more bits of business: Goose stepping while Hiccup is hanging from his neck at the beginning. Plus he’s becoming stronger and more powerful — a force to be reckoned with. One of the interesting aspects of Toothless is that he was more feline in the first movie and more canine in the second. This is because Dean [DeBlois] is a total dog person and desired that. So when we were coming up with ideas at the very beginning of the movie, such as when Toothless pats Hiccup on the head, we wanted to make that seem like a cat playing with a ball of yarn. But in the very next scene, falling down and licking Hiccup, he’s more like a dog. He’s pure, there’s nothing bad in him, but at the same time, he’s the most lethal weapon. There is something Miyazaki about him with this magical quality.”
For Drago Bludvist (Djimon Honsou), they brought in two designers that had not worked on the first movie. He is dark and Mediterranean-looking with long hair. He wears dragon skin and comes from somewhere between Turkey and North Africa. Both designers came up with the Dread look idea and slightly Balkanesque profile that he has. “It’s very hard to come up with original-looking villains,” Otto insists. “We struggled in animation to not make him look like an alien.”
Valka, Hiccup’s mother, is the most complex human DreamWorks has ever attempted. And the Oscar-winning Cate Blanchett infuses the androgynous-looking dragon whisperer with a combination of mystery, strength, and sensitivity. Production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent (POV), who also returns, first envisioned Marlene Dietrich, so they got the next best thing. Her dragon, Cloudjumper, is very owl-like and also boats a T-shaped face and a double set of wings that are like the X-Wing Starfighter from Star Wars.
For the Bewilderbeast, they wanted to refrain from the typical badass dragon. DeBlois thought of crossing a polar bear with a mammoth, and whose stance is like an otter. And instead of breathing fire, it made total sense to have the Bewilderbeast spew ice that creates a micro-oasis. This was POV’s idea and it came early on before the design as a result of their research trip to Norway. It was a key decision that encompasses the North Sea environment and the VFX and adds contrast.
For instance, the scene when Stoic walks up to Valka and kisses her, he has a brilliant light that comes through his eyes, which creates a different color scheme. And three minutes earlier we were inside the green oasis where Valka lives.
Overall, Otto is proud of how they’ve re-imagined the notion of dragons as iconoclastic and inventive cross-breeds. “In a way, I think we have redefined the idea of dragons. Kids growing up today will think about dragons differently. There are different species and they range broadly from the look of a walrus to a bulldog.
And yet it all revolves around Toothless, who experiences a parallel rite of passage with Hiccup. “Toothless is more muscular and has more definition to his body. We streamlined some issues that we were always fighting in the first movie and the only thing we added was a little more detail in the face and obviously an improved underlying structure with the rig.”