How to Train Your Dragon 2 is quite simply the best animated feature yet from DreamWorks, and the obvious frontrunner for the Oscar race. Dean DeBlois has therefore exceeded all expectations with an ambitious vision for Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless and the world they inhabit in Berk and beyond. It's an important rite of passage as humans and dragons struggle to co-exist amid the forces of hatred and destruction. And DeBlois and I recently discussed his stunning achievement as first-time solo director.
As Peter Jackson discovered with his two Tolkien trilogies, the second part is the most liberating. You're not confined by establishing the rules or concluding the story and are free to experiment, and that's what DeBlois has admirably done. As a result, Hiccup and DreamWorks have really come of age.
"We wanted to push deeper than the first while retaining a balance of adventure and fun," DeBlois reflects. "I think the age of exploration suddenly takes on a new flourish and definition. The look is richer and for me it's two things: On the first film, we had incredible assets when Chris [Sanders] and I joined the film at the 11th hour. But we only had 14 months from a page one re-conceive to final delivery in order to make the fixed March 2010 release date. We didn't have time to finesse as much as we would've liked."
But with a full three years, they were able to concentrate more visually and Dragon 2 is all about fire and ice. The animators were allowed to finesse their performances and bring as much subtlety as they could. Yet significantly this was the first DreamWorks feature to take advantage of the new Apollo program: the animation software is called Premo and on the back end the lighting software is called Torch.
"Premo allowed the animators to work with their hands again," DeBlois suggests. "I couldn't believe that during the making of the first Dragon CG was all spreadsheets and pull down menus and numeric entry. It was so laborious. And now it's like a stop-motion animator with a clay puppet. They work on Cintiq tablets with styluses and they just grab and manipualte the thing in real-time and make all their adjustments. And they create their keyframes like that and don't have to wait for renders. And they can work with multiple characters in every shot. And you can still do draw overs. What's impressive is that the technology is hidden behind a very simple, very friendly interface. It's very artist-driven.
"On the lighting side, it's similar where they don't have to wait a long time for renders so they get a very interactive environment [along with more efficient high-re simulations]. They get to see immediately the effect of the lights and where they're diffusing it or bouncing it. The look is the result of having the time to finesse and let the artists shine because they're not being slowed by the process."
The acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins returned again to serve as visual consultant, always calling them out for unnecessary flourishes. "It's difficult to pick a dominant light source and be brave enough to stay with that," DeBlois recalls. "He touches every frame and the trilogy will have a complete look that transcends the animation norm. It will cause it to sit somewhere between animation and live-action. There is caricature in our designs and in our world but with textures."
DeBlois has also pushed the boundaries of narrative at DreamWorks with Dragon 2. It's already been revealed in the trailers that Hiccup meets his mother, Valka, voiced by Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. She's a dragon whisperer who clashes with her son about how to best protect them and was originally conceived as a sympathetic antagonist. But DeBlois realized after two drafts that Drago Bludvist (Djimon Honsou) is a better antagonist. So he decided to have Valka reach her arc sooner and he pulled Bludvist in a bit earlier from the third movie.
"He's the antithesis of Hiccup and resonates at the deepest level," DeBlois explains. "Both have suffered at the plight of dragons and have sustained injuries. Structurally, it's interesting because we introduce him quite late in the movie. We decided that Valka didn't play out as strongly as Drago being the bigger threat. I'm planning on going deeper into what makes Drago tick in the third movie."
But the director learned a lot from Blanchett. Naturally she was intimidating at first because she questioned everything, from motivation to context to subtext. "She took it so seriously," DeBlois adds. "It was always a discussion that furthered the understanding of the character once I realized what we were doing because she wanted to workshop it. I really had to be ready with answers."
In fact, the whole issue of maternal thresholds for an animated feature became an important discovery. As DeBlois insists, you can't get too Shakespearean with it since mothers are rarely flawed in animation. "That's because there is a harsh judgment on mothers by mothers. And you have to be aware of that because mothers are the decision makers in the families probably across the world but certainly in North America. So you can't just ignore that -- you have to be respectful of it. But to have a mother, for whatever reason, abandon her child, is a tough thing. We had to make sure her reasons were convincing, her remorse was convincing and that apology had to be earned because the mothers in the audience would see through it.
"But she's still a flawed character and I like that because she has an arc. And she may still be controversial for that. But she's the warmest version of that character without abandoning what she's about."
And Toothless has his own controversy as well, underscored by a bold act that was necessary in introducing a conflict with Hiccup and testing their friendship. Of course, nothing is resolved until Dragon 3 (tentatively scheduled for release on June 17, 2016), with Hiccup taking on greater responsibility and explaining the significance of the book's opening line: "There were dragons when I was a boy."
But a lot of the details have yet to be fleshed out beyond an outline. "So there are zones that have been left open for new ideas and further development.But first I need a break so I can return inspired when we map out a production plan," DeBlois concludes.