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Immersed in Movies: Exploring ‘Dragons: Race to the Edge’ on Netflix

Immersed in Movies: Exploring 'Dragons: Race to the Edge' on Netflix

While awaiting How to Train Your Dragon 3 in 2018, there’s a whole new world to explore in DreamWorks Animation’s new Netflix series, Dragons: Race to the Edge (with all 13 episodes premiering Friday and a total of 52 in the works). Jay Baruchel and America Ferrera return to provide the voices of Hiccup and Astrid, along with Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Fishlegs, and T.J. Miller as Tuffnut.

In the first two episodes, “Dragon Eye of the Beholder,” Hiccup and Toothless discover a mysterious artifact known as the Dragon Eye, a remarkable relic that contains new information about undiscovered dragons and islands far beyond the borders of Berk.  This Dragon Eye, therefore, becomes the catalyst for Hiccup and the Dragon Riders to leave Berk for the first time and takes place nearly two years before How to Train Your Dragon 2. They encounter the escaped Dagur the Deranged journey to Glacier Island in search of the Snow Wraith, a fearsome dragon with infrared vision and creates snow as camouflage, which holds the key to the Dragon Eye’s mysteries. 

Inspired by The Da Vinci Code Cryptex, the Dragon Eye, aided by Toothless shooting blue plasma bolts, creates a light beam and casts mysterious patterns on a wall like a primitive projector. And as the series progresses, the discovery of new lenses provides new info about the dragons while opening up new horizons.

Showrunners Art Brown and Douglas Sloan call this the kids in college years. “When the show starts, Berk is not as developed as it is in the second movie, and Hiccup is still trying to figure out how he wants to explore and push the boundaries,” Brown explained. “We are able to tell the genesis of that desire. And we’re also able to tell you how [some of the kids] got their dragons, how the Dragon blade came into being, how Fishlegs and Snotlout end up fighting over Ruffnut. What we found is that the audience loves new dragons, they love new characters interacting with our characters, which we have a lot of in the new show.”

But because the Netflix model is predicated on “propulsive serialization” or “binge watching, ” Race to the Edge will have expanded story arcs complemented by standalones every four or five episodes, introducing new characters, dragons and islands. “In the third episode, they use the Dragon Eye and start to look for a suitable location for themselves [Dragons Edge] and wind up building their own huts,” added Sloan.”

“There’s a big argument in the episode of what the Dragons Edge should look like and Hiccup and solves it by saying, do whatever you want,” Brown suggested.

“One of the major differences between the TV series and the features is that we really go more in depth in exploring the hero kid characters,” remarked Elaine Bogan, the former story artist who directed the two-part opener. “For example, Roughnut and Toughnut: we have entire episodes dedicated to each character. It really brings out personality and how they relate to each of their dragons.”

Meanwhile, the animation and lighting have improved significantly for TV. They’ve figured out how to do crowd systems for a thousand dragons, water interaction (particularly when the dragons fly up and down), as well as sand and snow and other particles.

David Jones (Riders of Berk, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) not only serves as production designer and VFX supervisor but also directs a few episodes as well. His design work is so detailed that there’s sanskrit on the walls.

“Our gang of friends is going off to make a new forward base so they can explore the world, and it’s not going to be destroyed every two weeks because they now have a friendship with the new dragons,” Jones said. “So we wondered what would it then look like if they could do whatever they wanted. It still had to be inspired by the old architecture, so they still have boat leg shapes. But now, for one thing, they all have flying dragons so they can build vertically and fly between the areas and they can be a lot more fanciful. And Hiccup is a very inventive mechanical genius, so we thought he’d do something with all sorts of windmills and a forge and a weathervane on the back that could orient things.

“And you’ll notice that each of the houses they build relates to the dragon they ride, so Hiccup’s house has a Toothless motif with purple and a tail at the end and sort of a Toothless head. For Astrid, it’s like Stormfly with spikes and the color. We thought she’s a bit more militarily minded than Hiccup is and more of a practical person and has armored her house and put a ballista on top in case anyone tries to come in and attack the base. And the fun thing about all of this is that we started designing this before they started writing the show and pretty much every design feature mentioned has been written into episodes and talked about.”

When it came to animation, Jones also got pretty creative with a shortcut. “We can only load 11 rigged characters before the software crashes so we cheated: We pre-animated the character, saved it off as a series of 3D still images of that character, say, flapping its wings and then made a system of particles like a swarm of bees, and then at render time, told the computer to take each particle and replace it with one of the images from the cycle of 3D wing flaps. So it doesn’t have to load 7,000 rigged characters. It loads the result of those animations of the rig 7,000 times.” 

Thus, snow or stormy seas get raised to greater levels of complexity and so it never gets boring.

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