The Valka (Cate Blanchett) reveal in the dragon cave is one of the crucial scenes in the Oscar-contending How to Train Your Dragon 2 (watch the clip below). Thematically and visually it embodies everything that’s significant about Dean DeBlois’ ambitious vision for the trilogy, and it couldn’t have been possible without DreamWorks’ new Apollo platform (including Premo animation software and the Torch lighting and renderer). I discuss the scene in a roundtable discussion with DeBlois, animation supervisor Simon Otto, production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent, and VFX supervisor Dave Walvoord.
Bill Desowitz: Let’s start at the beginning with the advent of the scene.
It was part of the original pitch that there would be this masked, mysterious character that actually, when disguised, is unrecognizable as a woman, and Hiccup was excited and interested in the idea that there would be another dragon rider out there doing benevolent deeds in the face of all these trappers and Drago’s maniacal plans to have a dragon army. But it was always meant to be a mid-second act reversal that Hiccup would not only find out who this person was but had the shock of seeing his mother in front of him for the first time. And we had played with the idea that she would be quite feral, 20 years living with dragons, and there would be a lot of animalistic behavior in the way that she moved and sniffed him out. It’s a shocking reveal but it comes with all of this wonder because Hiccup meets the other part of his soul and someone who’s completely immersed in this dragon world but completely free to her own will and not bound to being home and being a chief. And then, of course, there would be a lot of questions.
BD: Let’s talk about designing the cave, which becomes a prelude to the larger interior of this dragon oasis.
Pierre-Olivier Vincent: The set was actually complex and minimalistic at the same time because we had to support this very dramatic moment. But it’s such a strong character moment that you don’t want the set to steal the show. So we wanted some space that was mostly abstract with some ice and some rocks but mostly covered by dragons. At this moment it’s essentially scary, a cave, with just a little bit of light and playing with silhouettes in revealing Valka.
BD: And the use of fire is so beautiful and dramatic.
Dave Walvoord: A funny thing: When we screened the movie, every time the audience remarked on that scene with the fire change. And nobody ever talks about that at screenings, or notices lighting. We were pushing it so much we didn’t care that you didn’t see everything. You can still read the acting but we were willing to sacrifice some of the reads ahead just to make that last moment when it happens as big as possible. I think that’s why it works so well.
It was also a chance to explain this Dragon blade that Hiccup carries around because until then he pulled it out and fired it up but there wasn’t an explanation, so visually, popping it open and revealing that it has the two canisters — one administers gas and the other is a flammable saliva — it’s a cool use of it where we get to see Hiccup deploying it as intended when surrounded by hostile dragons.
Only to have Valka take out Toothless with a sleight of hand and that impresses Hiccup. It’s like a stand-off, in a way. And then when she notices his scar, it all makes sense to her. Nothing is said, but to the audience it communicates clearly why she’s reacting the way she does and he’s reacting the way he does. For Valka, we were looking at Dian Fossey. But one reference I had was the French woman in Lost
who’s kind of crazy. So we wanted to make Valka a little crazy and has lost connection to the human world, and her social behavior has faded away.
And we were talking about Tarzan, but the difference between Tarzan and Valka is that Tarzan had lived with the apes from childhood on. And this is a woman that had lived with humans and had social interaction but it went slumbering. And we wanted to play with that slowly coming back, dancing with Stoick and slowly becoming the mother again and the wife and all the things that she once was. And we were playing with the gradual reveal of the feral, animalistic communication with the dragons through gestures and always how feminine her face is down to her neck.
BD: And what happened?
SO: It was a finding process, shot by shot. Is she too feral? Is she too feminine?
DD: We actually cut a few shots that were lit, beautiful shots, that had a little too animalistic, at a moment when we were feeling particularly from the mothers in the audience that she was a controversial character and they didn’t want to forgive her for abandoning her son, even though it wasn’t by her own free will. The fact that she didn’t go back there and lived with the dragons for 20 years was a hot button issue. So the sooner we started warming her up and letting the audience see the human side of her, the more she endeared herself to the audience.
SO: We needed to figure out a most elegant way to get them into the dragon cave with all the dragons, so as she’s realizing this is my son and he clearly has a connection with dragons, instead of explaining all the things that happened, she decides to show him her world and takes him into the dragon cave and dragon oasis and lets him see it. And that lets us leap forward so they understand that they are not threats to each other and they have different perspectives on their worlds.
BD: Talk about the tricky combination of fire and lighting.
DW: It was tricky to coordinate between departments. The fire was being driven by animation and crowd animation based on when the dragons open their mouths. So it was animation driving effects and effects ended up driving lighting. And each department kept passing their work down to the next one until it all came together. In the beginning when the dragons were opening their mouths, we don’t see the fire. And once she’s revealed, Valka changes personality a lot. So we did the same thing in lighting where she’s backlit and as scary as possible up until the moment she takes her mask off. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, she’s got beauty lighting coming from the front. And our goal was to make her as pretty as possible.
BD: That’s what happens when you have a movie star in Cate Blanchett.