‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’: How Animators Channeled Roger Deakins

Thanks to new tech and advanced artistry, DreamWorks achieved a new level of visual sophistication with the "Dragon" finale.
'How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World' Achieved Naturalism
"How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World"
© 2019 DreamWorks Animation LLC

Although Roger Deakins served as visual consultant throughout the “How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy, it wasn’t until “The Hidden World” finale that DreamWorks Animation fully mastered his lessons in naturalism. This was due to a combination of artistic maturity and new rendering and surfacing tech breakthroughs at the studio.

“We’ve always shot these like live-action movies with a naturalistic sensibility, but DreamWorks struggled through the first two movies,” said VFX supervisor Dave Walvoord. “But with the help of a new ray tracing renderer, Moonray, and some new surfacing tools, we could think more like cinematographers.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World© 2019 DreamWorks Animation LLC

Read More: ‘‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’: Confronting the Politics of Hate

“Now, in our world, we could [calculate light as it behaves in the real world] and flag specific points, so it gave us a very direct translation, and all of the ideas that Roger was trying to do we could replicate with large area light sources and bounce light.”

Even so, DreamWorks didn’t achieve the best results until it embraced a physically-based rendering pipeline for everything to take full advantage of Moonray. This allowed the team to achieve greater richness, subtlety, and detail from skin pores to dragon scales to waterfalls to grains of sand.

“This switch to physically-based rendering was like going from painting to photography,” said Walvoord. “We used physics as the base and stylized on top of it. It’s more naturalistic without being photo-real. For instance, the reason a giant caldera is so compelling is because the look of the water and how the light behaves is driven by physics with artistic manipulation.”

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

Or take the mysterious entrance of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) emerging through a blaze of fire and fog like a Jedi. This was informed by Deakins’ simple rule of pairing character and light source. “It was the most challenging lighting sequence that I’ve ever done,” the VFX supervisor said.

“It’s a two-light sequence: moon light and fire light,” Walvoord added. “Moonlight is always from behind the characters, which creates pretty silhouettes. And then we use the fire light to act as the key light. It was challenging because the characters are always moving around and we had to find the transitions from dragon fire or fire source light when it disappears.”

The answer to filling in the gaps was the use of a lantern. The sequence opens with a guard walking with a spear in his right hand and hitting a cage. Initially, the animators wanted to put the lantern in his left hand, but Walvoord thought it would be more visually striking to put the lantern in his right hand because of the silhouette it created walking through the fog. The only question then was figuring out how to maneuver with the spear.

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”

Another big challenge was lighting the newest dragon, the exquisite Light Fury, the love interest of Toothless, the Night Fury. But first they had to devise a suitable design, led by Simon Otto, head of character animation. He emphasized a wonderful ebony and ivory contrast between the two dragons per director Dean DeBlois’s script description.

“If Toothless is a lion, then she is his lioness, so what would that look like?,” Otto said. “She’s so feral that she will not get near humans because she distrusts them. So we made her a snow leopard but shorter and more streamlined. But, like all the dragons, she needed something surprising. Dean gave her a cloaking ability by emitting plasma blasts and then the scales heat up and mirror the environment.

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

“On the surface side, that triggered her iridescence with a shimmer to it,” added Otto. “But we didn’t want her to turn into a disco ball.” According to Walvoord, the shimmering aha moment came when lightly applying glitter around her body to reinforce her stripe pattern.

The most ambitious lighting and rendering challenge, of course, was reserved for The Hidden World, the ancestral home of the dragons. Created by production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent in collaboration with Walvoord, the oasis contains a series of interconnected tunnels and chambers that spans the globe. There’s even a chamber where crystal carries light from magma to create a cool-like glow.

The CG set, the largest from DreamWorks to date, encompassed more than three miles, with 63 million mushrooms, 79 million pieces of coral, and 3,000 water falls that were painted with a new tool rather than simulated.

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”

However, with a heavy dose of bioluminescence, lighting became even more troublesome. “Most of the movie has a limited number of light sources and suddenly, with bioluminescence, everything becomes a light source,” Walvoord said.

Computationally, it was a stickler for Moonray, too. In fact, the total cost of rendering The Hidden World nearly equaled the entire rendering of “Trolls.” But DreamWorks conquered it through a series of bounce lights and other strategic lighting schemes and camera moves.

It was the ultimate test of combining Deakins’ naturalistic aesthetic with a fantastical sense of wonder that only comes from animation.

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