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‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’ Is DreamWorks Animation Gamechanger

DreamWorks introduced innovative path-tracing renderer MoonRay, which provided for the first time a real-world lighting scheme.

The female Light Fury dragon and Night Fury dragon Toothless in DreamWorks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, directed by Dean DeBlois.

“How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”

© 2019 DreamWorks Animation LLC


In “The Hidden World,” DreamWorks’ bittersweet finale to its beloved “How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless go their separate ways until humans and dragons can peacefully co-exist. But when Toothless attains his exalted status as king of the dragons, it was vital to convey the beauty and grandeur of their ancestral home, the Caldera, on a scale never before achieved at the studio.

Fortunately, DreamWorks rushed its new path-tracing renderer, MoonRay — which calculates light as it behaves in the real world — into production just in time to showcase the wondrous dragon lair. MoonRay stretched throughout the pipeline, resulting in more complex and subtle lighting possibilities, which is why “The Hidden World” became the studio’s crowning animated achievement. (The Oscar contender collected six Annie nominations on Monday, including Best Feature.)

“It was the first time that we were able to deliver a sequence as fully envisioned, without having to use a lot of matte painting and cheats to get the amount of crowds needed on screen,” said Dean DeBlois, who wrote and solo-directed the two sequels. “MoonRay was not ready for production, and that was distressing because the scale of the Hidden World was going to be more difficult with the current global illumination system and tools we had. There always was a bottleneck at the end of the process that caused us to scale back the original ambition of the imagery.

© 2019 DreamWorks Animation LLC

“So, thanks to Chris deFaria [former DreamWorks Animation president], who pushed the team to make it available, even with its glitches and flaws, there was no visual compromise. Some of these shots are really epic with the number of characters on screen, and previously it would’ve been impossible to do because the rendering time on the back end wasn’t feasible.”

But handling MoonRay was definitely a learning curve, particularly for VFX supervisor Dave Walvoord, who had a hard time imagining how art director Pierre-Olivier Vincent’s (POV) ambitious concept art was going to translate to the screen. “I’ll be honest. It wasn’t in my head,” he said. “And I don’t think it was in anybody’s head. In a way, it was a bunch of concepts that got discovered in CG as we started building it and we kept reacting to what we liked and didn’t like. But as soon as they named it ‘The Hidden World,’ it gave me license to spend a lot more money to create that world.”

Originally, though, the Caldera was initially conceived as a giant cave until MoonRay helped expand the vision with a greater sense of space and freedom. “A lot of the elements were there; it’s just that they were in one place,” Walvoord said. “Eventually, POV came into the office one day and said it had to be a world and that he was going to make multiple chambers where each one is a separate ecosystem that looks completely different, and feels different, and we’re going to travel through it so the audience knows it’s this whole underground world. We needed them to be okay with the dragons leaving the human world and returning to their home.”

The Hidden World of the Caldera, the mythical home of dragons, in DreamWorks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, directed by Dean DeBlois.

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”

© 2019 DreamWorks Animation LLC

They went through half a dozen environments, filled with crystals and coral, and the art department laid it all out in rough geometry, and then did a large light route that took 10 minutes to complete its course.  The end result was like a theme park ride with all the light passing through crystals and then bouncing off the dragons with dazzling colors.

“As we watched it, we were reminded of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ seeing different themes and just going through this world at a nice pace,” said Walvoord. “We were just going to let the audience experience the wonder of it through Hiccup and Astrid flying through it. In the world of animation, I’d say we did take our time with it, pausing the movie to show it off.”

“It was all rooted in earthly phenomenon but exaggerated and made whimsical,” said DeBlois. “We explored the idea that the caves ran beneath the sea beds and continents, opening up into vast chambers and continuing on like a labyrinth. The impression was that The Hidden World existed beneath our feet but traveled the globe as well. And you might find an access point in the North Sea but maybe another in Australia.

Astrid (America Ferrera) and Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) in DreamWorks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, directed by Dean DeBlois.

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”

© 2019 DreamWorks Animation LLC

“We used bioluminescence and phosphorescence for an ethereal look, that even patterns on the dragons would reveal,” DeBlois added. “We had water spilling into the world that’s so steamy that coral could grow mid-air. And, ultimately, there was the main chamber where we had geode-like crystals carrying light from magma sources for a warm glow to push into the fantasy possibilities. And then we had the challenge of explaining light in this space. We leaned into the idea of Glowworm Caves found in New Zealand, which light up like a star field. And when it displaces, you realize that it’s flocks of fireworm dragons that could suddenly alight from wherever they were resting.”

DeBlois, who’s taking a break from animation to direct two live-action features, “Micronauts” (based on the Japanese toy line for Paramount/Hasbro), and “Treasure Island” (for Universal), witnessed a new animated breakthrough on “The Hidden World”: the naturalism was more like cinematography than painting, thanks to MoonRay. “Everything was based on something that we could observe in nature so that it didn’t feel like the dragons suddenly left into a different dimension to enter a world that was magical,” he said.

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