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Immersed in Movies: Dave Walvoord Talks ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ VFX

Immersed in Movies: Dave Walvoord Talks 'How to Train Your Dragon 2' VFX

The Oscar-contending How to Train Your Dragon 2 has also garnered four VES noms (including outstanding effects simulations for the Bewilderbeast battle). VFX supervisor Dave Walvoord discusses the challenges of DreamWorks’ biggest extravaganza (watch three exclusive making of videos below).

Bill Desowitz: There’s quite a difference between the two films, isn’t there?
Dave Walvoord: In some ways it’s surprising how simple the first one is. It’s a beautiful character piece. As part as Dean’s vision for how the trilogy plays out, this was the effects extravaganza and epic in scope and battles. That set a huge challenge for us. We had to do a lot more and everyone was focused on how we get everything on screen. And that’s where the Apollo suite helped us with that. We had tools much more advanced than on the first movie that helped us realize that vision. There’s that really long, 800-frame shot at the beginning of the Bewilderbeast battle. You couldn’t really imagine doing those shots on the first movie. And while it stretched us, now it was possible and really looks great.
BD: Talk about the impact of the new Torch lighting tool as well.
DW: Torch was designed to handle complexity. So it was designed to scale up to much larger shots so that we could have much bigger crowds, much bigger sets. On the effects side, we took a different route. Our core tool is Houdini but on top of that, our R&D team have made custom solvers for fluids so you can do fire and water in a much more believable way. 
BD: How difficult was the creation of ice as part of the Bewilderbeast arsenal?
DW: Ice is very challenging and it’s something we’ve always had difficulty with. It’s such a unique surface and has incredibly complicated shading characteristics. Ice has no color, what it’s doing is taking the environment and refracting light, absorbing light, and scattering light. And all those things are global effects. Fire’s very difficult from a motion point of view, but in many ways the shadings are simple. There’s almost a 2D look. But ice is the opposite: it’s very dimensional and the properties just don’t live on the surface, they live all the way through it. And you can see all the way through it. And so algorithmically it’s very challenging and creatively it’s very challenging. And we had to do it in a way that no one sees ice behave. No one sees water turning into ice in a split second, which is what we were doing. Ours is a hyper-sped up kind of effect that we didn’t have a lot of good reference for. The concept physically didn’t even work. The idea that the Bewilderbeast would spew all this liquid out and it freezes. We did a lot of R&D, a lot of look dev. In the end, it fits our world and it’s a really cool effect.

BD: Talk about the battle.

DW: It’s our biggest effects sequence by far. And I think it was unique in animated film for being so effects driven with explosions and ice and dragons coming out of water. And it’s stunning where you have the Bewilderbeast rising out of the water, knocking over boats and the water cascading over and falling on the ground. And it’s beautiful too. It’s not just impressive that we blew something up and it feels so organic and natural.Animation tends to have a lot of acting shots and you approach them all in a similar process: you go through layout, you go through animation, crowds does their work, effects does their work. This sequence is really unique. We worked more like a visual effects house. There was a lot of back and forth between departments. Animation would do the Bewilderbeast and then effects would put the blast in and then it would go back to animation and they would do all the reactions to the blast. And then effects goes back and does the blast on the people reacting and running away. And then you can imagine what it’s like when you throw crowds into that. We were meeting early and regularly just working out the communication. We had three complicated scripts for every single shot. But then our scripts quickly became out of date because some animator would be working on a shot and have a great idea and we’d have to redo it. In some way, it was like complicated choreography.

And it varied a bit. First of all, what are we destroying? What angle are we seeing it from? That was something that really caught us off guard, I think. We vis-dev’d it and the next thing you know, layout has it so it’s coming straight at the camera. And we kept having to figure it out. And one of the most complicated ones was when the Bewiderbeast throws Hiccup and Toothless, which is such a big moment in the film. And actually reading so Hiccup and Toothless were inside it ended up being such a huge challenge because at first all you see is just ice. So we had to go in and work it out, and on top of that, Toothless has his glow when he unlocks his super power. The whole ice has to glow blue. And that was all happening real fast at the end of production and we didn’t have a lot of time.
There’s another shot where the Bewilderbeast sprays his ice while Hiccup and Toothless are flying away and blowing stuff up. You knew what it was supposed to look like but every time you had to re-imagine: What is going to do?
BD: And how long did you work on the battle?
DW: Well over six months because that opening 800-frame shot alone we worked on for at least six months. We wanted that big battle to be an effects extravaganza. We referenced The Lord of the Rings. But because we’re an animated movie and our effects are no where near as much as live-action, we adopted a tentpole strategy throughout the life of that sequence. But the first shot was the biggest and we put everything into that shot. We hit the crowds immediately with the dragon. The whole goal was to sell the audience that what you’re about to see is going to be really, really big. And then as the sequence plays out, you cut to a bunch of smaller shots and the scale drops back down. And then comes a moment when we stick another tentpole in and we do another big shot. So we’re playing with this rhythm. One reason was cost but it also helped keep the battle character-driven and dialing the effects way down. For us that was really important because, at the end of the day, our movies are all about character.

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