This is the transcript of the commentary for the first How to Train Your Dragon film.
Bonnie Arnold: Hi, I'm Bonnie Arnold and I'm the producer of How to Train Your Dragon.
Chris Sanders: Hi, I'm Chris Sanders, I'm one of the writer/directors - of How to Train Your Dragon.
Dean DeBlois: And I'm Dean DeBlois, the other writer/director. So for those of you who don't know, this whole world was actually born out of the imagination of a British named Cressida Cowell, - who wrote a book of the same name.
Chris Sanders: You know what? We forgot to talk about something. Which is the little dragon in the title bit.
Bonnie Arnold: Oh,yeah.
Chris Sanders: Which is something Craig Ring came up with a solution for. Because we always try to customize our titles and his solution, which was I think a brilliant one, was to put Toothless moving through the stars when the DreamWorks title came up. And it's subtle enough that a lot of people miss it.
Bonnie Arnold: I love that opening shot of Pierre-Olivier Vincent's, of the... Berk with all the lights and the towers.
Chris Sanders: Yeah.
Dean DeBlois: This sequence is kind of interesting because, when Chris and I first came on to the film, there was a sequence much like this in place in the existing version of the movie, and it was the moment we really spark to. We thought it was a great way to open the movie; big, exciting battle, and centered on a kid who just was delighting in all of it.
Bonnie Arnold: I think you guys really did a great job of kind of adjusting the Hiccup narration, that he's telling this story and you're in his perspective.
Chris Sanders: Yeah, the narration itself is kind of interesting because we tried this sequence a few times with no dialogue, and the dialogue was a latecomer to the whole game. But we... We finally had to nail it down, like what in the world's...? It confusing enough... We were used to it 'cause we read the books and we were ready to do this, but to somebody who's just being introduced to the whole thing, Vikings and dragons fighting, is a little bit...
Bonnie Arnold; I think...
Chris Sanders: more than you can explain with just visuals.
Bonnie Arnold: I think this was our most complicated sequence, just about in the whole film. It seems like it took the longest just to complete all the elements.
Dean DeBlois: Yeah, this was the sequence that would never end. It was the first... It was one of the first ones we started and it had to have been one of the last we finished because it was always being altered in some way.
Bonnie Arnold: Well you introduce everything. You introduce all the main characters, all the dragons. It's night. It's got lots of effects. It's just lots of story to set up.
Dean DeBlois: And it's actually a big... I mean, in all of... If you look at the entire movie, this sequence is really a triumph of mixing. and I've always had an appreciation for mixing, but it wasn't until Gary Rizzo and company sat down with this and really tried to find a balance between the narration, the special effects, the music, and the dialogue, that never really found its place until it went up there to Skywalker Ranch, and with Jon Null and Gary Rizzo,
Bonnie Arnold: and Randy Thom.
Dean DeBlois: And Randy Thom.
Bonnie Arnold: We had a great mixing team.
Chris Sanders: It's true. They're the guys that finally put it to bed. It's not even so much a mix at this point, it's almost refereeing sound because between the effects, music and the dialogue, you need to have different ones take the fore in different orders. It is, you know, it's a nicely dense sequence to start an animated film. It's refreshing, have a nice big battle.
Bonnie Arnold: And the lighting. I just think the lighting is so unique for animation.
Chris Sanders: It is, yeah.
Bonnie Arnold: Maybe you guys can talk for a minute about Roger Deakins and his work in terms of the blacks and darks and how...
Chris Sanders: That's true. For those of you who don't know it, we invited Roger Deakins to come to the studio and do a few lectures for us and maybe even a workshop about lighting because we're such huge fans of his light and his cinematography. And to our delight and surprise, he actually stayed on through the entire project. And this sequence is a great place to start talking about what he brought to the party. He's got this kind of Jarhead lighting during this whole thing, very reminiscent of some of those battle sequences. In particular, there's a moment, I think it's coming up, it's a moment where Gobber is about to run out of his blacksmith shop and he's going to wave his ax hand in the air and he's gonna run off into the battle. In that shot, in particular is one where I want everybody to be look at because that, I think, represents some of the nicest lighting in this sequence. And very unusual for an animated film.
Dean DeBlois: This sequence is also an amazing showcase of our incredibly talented effects department, which for Chris and I, having come from classical animation was such a treat. We were always giddy every time they would show us an explosion or some kind of crazy effect they were working on, 'cause they're not only amazing at doing it, but 3-D... Sorry computer animation lends itself to a lot of detail, and you can really get some pretty spectacular special effects.
Bonnie Arnold: Shout out to Matt Baer, who was the supervisor.
Chris Sanders: Here it is. That's the shot. Right there.
Bonnie Arnold: Of Hiccup running out.
Chris Sanders: Of Gobber.
Bonnie Arnold: Gobber leaving, I'm sorry.
Chris Sanders: It's amazing.
Bonnie Arnold: The famous net shot. Right, guys?
Chris Sanders: Yeah. It's a lot of hand work there.
Bonnie Arnold: That was a... Those kind of things seem so simple but they're so complicated in CG animation.
Chris Sanders: Yeah.
Dean DeBlois: One of the biggest attractions for Chris and I to the project was the idea that this was a dragon movie that didn't just have one dragon in it. It had various breeds. And so, we saw the opportunity to be able to imbue different personalities and attributes and different types of fire in every dragon. And that really kind of made this movie unique. And the potential for it to be special really lay in the dragons, I think. And so this our first introduction to the different types, all within the context of Hiccup's ambitions because he knows that if he can take down the dragon he will earn his place within Viking society. And, of course, he has his eyes on the biggest and baddest... Maybe not the biggest, but definitely the baddest. The one that they haven't seen.
Bonnie Arnold: Yeah, this one is called the Monstrous Nightmare. And Stoick, Hiccup's father, comes in and saves the day.
Dean DeBlois: In the hierarchy, the Monstrous Nightmare is reserved for only the best Vikings and the toughest ones can take him on because, by personality, he's kind of like the bull in the ring. He's a showman and he loves to fight face-to-face and he loves the adulation of the crowd.
Bonnie Arnold: This is where we find out that Hiccup is Stoick's son. And he really screwed this up.
Dean DeBlois: We're trying to suggest a background where every time Hiccup gets out, something terrible happens. And poor Stoick is kind of caught in the middle. When we had our first conversations with Gerard Butler about the character, we thought, "How do you draw an empathetic line between a guy who is a figurehead for this Viking clan and has a lot of responsibility sitting on his shoulders, and a dad who actually cares about his son but has to constantly deal with the fact that his son doesn't listen and he's the bane of the community?" And Gerard really dug into it. This amazing thing about him is he gets into his characters and he really wants to know every motivation and understand all the ... the really subtle facets about their personalities.
Chris Sanders: Dean and I started our relationship with Gerard with a... probably about a two-hour phone conversation. A little conference call we had one Saturday morning where we just talked about how in the world we can get across to the audience that this guy, he's not two-dimensional, he has a real reason that he's being so hard on everybody around him. But he really does have a soft spot for Hiccup and really loves him.
Bonnie Arnold: In his own way.
Chris Sanders: Yeah. it's understandable. He's not just.. Yeah. Just... He's not just, i guess, short and angry for... Short as in... short-tempered, just because.
Dean DeBlois: As much as this movie would seem to be a story of a kid and his pet, his very dangerous pet, it actually started as a father/son story, and that's.. that's the undercurrent of the entire thing. You know, two characters that see very differently, and they're kind of... it's their journey of a son trying to fulfill an expectation set by his... a very strict father. And, you know, by befriending, by consorting with the enemy, that, not only destroys his relationship with his dad, but it becomes the thing that ultimately rebuilds it and mends it.
Chris Sanders: Yeah, and it's interesting. That same conversation was the genesis of another scene that is about to come up, which is a scene between Stoick and Gobber where they have a heart to heart talk after everybody else is about to exit this mead hall. He and Gobber sit down and have this heart-to-heart talk about Hiccup, and the genesis of that scene was that very same conversation that we had had on the phone where he was, again, looking for different dimensions to his character and that it was very important to him that there might be a confidant that he could really let his guard down with and talk very honestly with.
Bonnie Arnold: The nice thing was that Craig Ferguson, who does the voice of Gobber, and Gerard Butler, who does the voice of Stoick, were actually friends and had a relationship. And I think that really come across in this scene, that they... You really believe that they've known each other for a long time.
Chris Sanders: And it's... You know, it's great, too, 'cause we weren't even sure, from the very beginning, what the relationship between Hiccup and Stoick was going to be. And that developed slowly as we began to write the script. And this scene is really nice to me because it so settles... it settles it. Like, once this scene is finished, we understand that anything that Stoick is doing is coming out of a good place. That he really is concerned that his son will... he's gonna get himself killed if he get's outside too many more times. Once you settle it, you can move on and do all the other stuff you need to do.
Bonnie Arnold: I like the idea about... Again, some of the choices that you guys had to make as directors was the choice about music in this scene. I mean, there is none. I mean...
Dean DeBlois: Yeah, it actually had been composed is such a way that there was music running beneath all of this, but that's one of those decisions that gets made on the mixing stage. And, Randy Thom, in particular, had made a very effective argument against having music run throughout the entire thing, because you do need a break every now and then. And it actually made the music coming in at the very end much more effective to just let you ears rest and take in a little bit of the room's ambiance.
Bonnie Arnold: And more like a poignant point on the end of the scene.
Chris Sanders: Well, yeah, the music is always there to deepen whatever the mood is gonna be, but there's a couple places where removing the music actually made that particular moment feel more serious, and that was one of them.
Bonnie Arnold: And it was a hard choice, I think, because John Powell just did so much fantastic work on the music.
Chris Sanders: Yeah, it was never an easy choice to take it out.
Dean DeBlois: This one of the examples in the movie of how Roger Deakins really brought a sense of atmosphere to the picture. And when we first sat down with him, he had a whole bunch of photos from his own personal library, and we just talked about how to get the feel of, in this case, a misty wood that was kind of steeped in moisture, that had the soft thump of the.. of the turf beneath your feet. There's so much atmosphere generated by moments like this in the film that give it such a time and place in a very subtle way. And it really separates it from a lot of the animated movie's I've seen.
Chris Sanders: And as proof of concept, this was one of the... I think this was the first scene or sequence in the entire film that was fully animated.
Dean DeBlois: There's always a moment that you know when you're mining the story... There's a defining moment that is really the crux of the entire thing. And you can have a lot of certainty in that moment. You know that no matter what happens, as you begin to figure out characters and relationships, that this moment will happen. And this was it for us. In this movie, we knew that he would find a downed dragon in the woods and it would be his test to see whether or not he could fulfill his destiny as a Viking, and it's a private failure because, of course, he can't. Every film that we've worked on, there's always that moment, you know, where the cement dries first and you can build everything around it.
Chris Sanders: Yeah, there's that first, like, tent pole. That first tent pole. There's a scene that went by, and I wished we had talked about it as it was happening. But it's one that represents one of those happy accidents that actually does happen once in a while in animation. And it's a scene where we're panning from left, or from right to left. We're moving the camera left. We're moving Toothless's body and there's a moment where Toothless's wing is in the foreground and it masks his eye. And the shot had been, I think, originally shown to us with, you know, we pan up the dragon because we're going to land. The camera's gonna finish moving on his eye. And we had seen it several times and it worked swell. But then we saw it one more time in some other review in the theater, and it was mistake that had been made, that had not been corrected. But it was shot where, as you pan past the dragon's eye, his eye is closed. And as that wing crosses in front of his eye, it goes to an open eye. It was just one of those ghostly, kind of weird effects that you couldn't have planned in, one of those things that kind of happened. And we both saw that and loved it and said, "Oh, my gosh, you know, go back and make it be like that."
Bonnie Arnold I think the hard thing about this scene being finished first is that it had the most... Everybody wanted to go back and make everything a little better in the end. But we didn't really... We sort of ran out of time. But I think it's fantastic as it is.
Chris Sanders Yeah. It;s a good point. When you're talking about making these films, the one thing you can't make more of is time. You have so much time to get these things done and then you just run out.
Bonnie Arnold: They're never finished. They're just released.
Chris Sanders: They're just abandoned or... yeah, or released. This sequence, I don't know why, I just love these textures and the surfaces in this particular sequence. I think... are fantastic.
Bonnie Arnold: I love them talking together, here. This is one of the one sessions, i believe, we recorded Gerard Butler and Jay Baruchel, who voices Hiccup, in the same session, didn't we? And tried to get them to talk together.
Chris Sanders: This is one of those rare sessions that we were able to get them both in the sane place. In fact, Jay and Gerard and Craig Ferguson were able to come together in New York for a series of recording sessions over two days, which was... We were able to strike every major point on their relationship curve.
Bonnie Arnold: I think it enhanced there performances so much. Don't you think?
Chris Sanders: It really does.
Dean DeBlois: Yeah, one of the things you don't get much of in animation is spontaneity, and it's kind of the... It's like the Crock-Pot of film making, but what you end up with, in having actors together in the booth, is that they can talk over each other's lines and they can do spins on their own material as we script it, so that it feels much more lively and in character and off-the-cuff.
Bonnie Arnold: It's always a logistic nightmare to try to make it happen, but I think on this movie it really gave us some great stuff between Gerard and Craig and Jay. And America, actually, came in and recorded with Jay a few times, which was fantastic.
Chris Sanders: Yeah.
Bonnie Arnold: I love the sound in this.. in the inside of his room. It's just echo-y..
Dean DeBlois: This, right here, is another example of Roger's influence, but also our own desire to have a sense of place. And it's not to say it wasn't tricky, but we knew we couldn't afford rain because that's really difficult. Ans especially interacting with puddles. But we thought, "What if we just have it feel as though a storm just passed?" And so we coated everything in a glaze of rainwater, and it actually grounds you in that northern atmosphere and really makes you feel like you're there. I think those little additions really add up to a lot, where you can almost smell the air and feel the dampness.
Chris Sanders: I think it goes a long ways to making this feel like the real world, as well.
Bonnie Arnold: Absolutely.
Chris Sanders: Makes it feel like... yeah the idea of the storm just passed through.
Bonnie Arnold: I think what was great about all the Roger collaboration, he set those things up like you described before. He gave us a lot of reference pictures and the great thing about our team: Craig Ring, our visual effects Supervisor, and Kathy Altieri and all the lighting supes... supervisors on the film, they all make it look so fantastic.
Dean Deblois: Yeah, great... Huge amount of thanks has to go to Craig Ring and Kathy Altieri because they were there to problem-solve when we didn't have all that much time or resources left to do it. And so this is... this sequence, in particular, is kind of a miracle as guided by them.
Bonnie Arnold: This is one of the later things to get finished. Actually, one of the last sequences almost.
Chris Sanders: It was one of the last. One of the interesting things about this story, in general, is that we've definitely, in the past, dealt with second acts that feel a little bit empty and you're doing your best to dig up things to do and to make it feel as though you've got a very full, very tight second act, and this movie was really the opposite. We had a second act where we had so many different things we could be doing all the time, that it was really more, like, just a little bit more like being a traffic cop and making sure that the right things were going through and that we held off the wrong things and kept them out and stuff. And just the opportunity to do this series of training sequences in the second act was really fantastic, I think, from a story standpoint. It's something that, for myself and I think Dean as well, it's been utterly unique, I think in animation, at least the films that we've worked on.
Dean DeBlois: Now one of the reasons why we left the training days to the end was that we knew... we knew they were difficult, in that we had our hands full trying to solve Hiccup's story. And part of crafting our particular take on this story was really bringing Hiccup to the forefront and making his relationship with his dad and his relationship with Toothless as driving and as full of emotional investment as we could get it. And that left a lot of the ancillary characters kind of untended to for the longest time. It's kind of... it's interesting because we have some of the most amazing voice talent out there, but we didn't have big roles, at the end of the day, for them to fill. It's an embarrassment of riches.
Bonnie Arnold: Kristen Wiig, TJ Miller, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jonah Hill, they all gave terrific performances in the supporting roles. And when you do hear them, it's funny and fun and...
Dean DeBlois: They were great about taking anything that we had written and just riffing on it.
Chris Sanders: And make it look good.
Dean DeBlois: They could give us minutes and minutes of material for one line, and so they helped define those characters for as little time as they have on the screen.
Bonnie Arnold: Especially, I think, a lot of Hiccup is defined by how he... I mean the kids are almost a microcosm of the village. And the fact that he's not accepted by them, and he becomes accepted by them, is a great... is another part of the story, just a nice subplot piece of the story.
Chris Sanders: It's just one of those parts of the story that doesn't need a lot of care and feeding and yet is very satisfying. Now, this is one... OK. I love that little bit there. It was a nice little visual that said so much more than ever could have been done with dialogue.
Bonnie Arnold: The erasing of the tail?
Chris Sanders: Yeah, I think it's one of those things that we were, especially in animation, you're always looking for an opportunity to have a character not say something, especially if it's exceedingly obvious. That'd be one of those moments that you were able to use that book for a real good effect.
Bonnie Arnold: I think that's one thing... another thing, you guys did, too, was like, go back and take out some of the dialogue when we realized some of the visuals came... We started seeing them and realized we really didn't need it. We didn't all.. need it all explained all the time.
Dean DeBlois: Nice thing about the relationship, the secret relationship in the woods that he develops with Toothless, is that it can largely be without dialogue. And one thing that Chris and I have discovered in working on past films, trial by error, we realized that you do need moments where you just carve out a moment for music and just silence, in general. It actually feels good in this film because the other parts are so busy.
Chris Sanders: You know, it's worth noting that a lot of Hiccup's physical acting is coming from one of our animators who's incredibly gifted at that sort of thing. There's a great moment here where Astrid and he are left alone and she shoves the book at him and then is about to... Here. She shoves the book at him and then she exits and right here.
Bonnie Arnold: I think a lot of people... They're a lot of people that really love animation, that know this, but some people don't, that the voice performance comes from the actor, Jay Baruchel, but the physical performance actually comes from the key animator and they guys and the men and women that are animating is character. And we do shoot a lot of reference, video reference, so they can see some of Jay Baruchel's mannerisms, for example.
Chris Sanders: Yeah.
Bonnie Arnold: And I do think Hiccup reminds me a lot of Jay
Chris Sanders: Well, this is a wonderful fusion between Jay's voice and Jay's physical presence, but also Jakob's natural ability to have these uncomfortable moments.
Bonnie Arnold: Definitely, they sit there, like, animator's like Jakob sit there and look at themselves in the mirror and act out the role.
Dean DeBlois: This book is a part of the movie that came late. And at first we didn't really feel like we needed something like this, but there was also a request to sort of broaden the world and suggest that there are more dragons then the ones we know in the film. And as we put the book element in, we realized, it was just... it had this great ghost story vibe to it. And it works. It's very effective, actually, in continuing the mystery and the lore that surrounds the Night Fury.
Bonnie Arnold: Hiccup sort of scares himself.
Chris Sanders: The other thing that is nice about this empty page combined with the great piece of music that strikes when he opens it. It does so much for that dragon's mythology.
Dean DeBlois: One of the things that I felt from the start we needed more of was having Vikings in boats. It seem odd to me that they had Vikings who were leading a pretty much a pastoral existence, raising sheep and living on an island. And no one ever piled into boats to sail around, so it was nice to get them off the island in iconic Viking boats, sailing out for adventure.
Bonnie Arnold: Just wanted to do a little mention again of just how tough some of these things that we take for granted like water and fog, and that those type of things are hard to do in CG animation. Our team did a terrific job.
Dean DeBlois: Sometimes it's counterintuitive because you think the most expensive effects must be something like that, where there's a giant explosion and flames. And those are relatively simple when compared to interaction with water. Like having a boat sitting in water is so tricky, and yet, blowing up a house, not so much.
Chris Sanders: It's funny, too, 'cause when you're doing what we do, you're so into the story line that you're really thinking about those things and those considerations, and then you know when you're getting close to one when somebody in the rooms starts saying, "Is that mud?" And you're like, "That's mud." Then they'll say, "Are they stepping in the mud?" You're like, "Am I getting close to something I shouldn't be close to?"
Bonnie Arnold: I think the Deadly Nadder, which this is right now, is probably my favorite dragon just in terms of his look and his... the colors, and he's the most birdlike. He's so fun and I like his fire.
Chris Sanders: One of the other things I like about this sequence is how much it shows off Astrid and her acting. She's a character I don't think we talk enough about, and I think she came out so... just so beautifully, you know. She's a strong character, a smart character. Of all the kids, of all the teenagers, we decided that she would be the most capable and the most serious about what she's doing. I think the other ones are not quite as serious about this whole thing, but she's deadly serious. We even had a little back-story that we wrote a long time ago that explained most of the kids' position, but she had this seriousness from being a little girl. All she wanted to do was this whole dragon fighting thing.
Dean DeBlois: She's also the toughest nut to crack because the cast of teenagers are meant to mirror the older generation, in that, they're doing everything that is expected of them and they're going to carry on this belief that dragons need to be slaughtered. And the battle continues, and she's at the forefront of all that. She believes it wholeheartedly. So the fact that she becomes the first to turn when taken up on Toothless and shown a different side of dragons is indicative of... that change is possible.
Bonnie Arnold: America Ferrera does her voice, or is the voice of Astrid, and I just love what she did with it.
Chris Sanders: Yeah, she's good, and just her voice is great, too.
Bonnie Arnold: Well, it's a nice contrast to her toughness.
Chris Sanders: This the beginning of forbidden friendship, which is the first of three sequences we were able to do with zero dialogue. This has a tiny little bit solo dialogue from Hiccup at the very beginning. But for the rest of it, we were able to just eliminate it. And it's over a five-minute sequence.
Bonnie Arnold: I was one of the naysayers that thought maybe we couldn't sustain five minutes of just... in the middle of the movie, but I was really proven wrong by how fabulous the animation is and the emotion of the story here.
Dean DeBlois: One of the things, in designing Toothless, that we like to talk about is the kind of the needs that we needed. In the book, Toothless was a little iguana-size dragon. But we needed one that Hiccup was eventually going to be able to climb onto and fly. He also needed to be fierce. And so part of his design is one that is very threatening. But built into him is the ability to emote and to become a big pussycat as the film goes on. So he needed to have all of those factors and he had designed into him a little bit of a mammalian quality that's based on the black panther photograph that we had seen. He also has those plates on the back of his head that act as ears so they can signal emotion and curiosity, and when laid down, you know, threatened.
Chris Sanders For us, it was really the most non-negotiable part of this dragon, is that no matter what people think a dragon should be or what a dragon should have on him, we knew that we had to give him a gigantic set of virtual ears. In this case, they're not actually ears. If you really want to get technical, they're enlarged plates, and he has a series of them around his head. But without those gigantic ear things you would really never understand fully how he's feeling and what his state of mind is.
Bonnie Arnold: Chris, I know you did a lot of the boarding, storyboarding on this sequence, but I know also Tom Owens had done some early, another one of our terrific story artists, did some of this stuff with the regurgitating the food. And from an early thing, it was always so fun.
Dean DeBlois: Gabe Hordos, who is the supervising animator on Toothless, actually channeled a lot of his cat into the behavior of Toothless. So people who see this animation, they often see elements of their own cats' behavior. He didn't realize he was a cat person until just before the film started, when he adopted one. So a lot of this behavior kind of finds its way into the things... the way Toothless acts and the expressions he does.
Chris Sanders: I never know if that read, but that little bit where he's watching that bird fly away is supposed to come off as him feeling envious that that thing can fly and he can't. A lot of this was flushed out between Tron. Alessandro Carloni and myself sitting in our editors' suite, just working out how this thing would really unravel and unspool. Which, oddly enough, we captured that entire meeting on video. We just handed the camera to the editor and said, "Go ahead and just shoot this meeting in case something happens." And in that meeting we worked out pretty much everything that happened in this sequence.
Bonnie Arnold: I remember being in the animation dailies room when Gabe showed you some of the test shots for this sequence. It was so fantastic, of what Toothless, the Toothless animation might look like.
Chris Sanders: Yeah, it's important to note that most of the things that Toothless is doing in this sequence he is not rigged to do. Which means they have to break his rig and there's a lot of people in the character effects department that have to back and just fix it, and, you know... And if you bend him too far he'll actually develop a kind in his body and stuff. In particular, there's a scene in the very beginning of this sequence where Toothless sits down and just watches Hiccup before this whole thing really gets rolling. And he can't sit down. But Gabe was able to pose that thing so beautifully and work it out. And then a huge number of people would come back later and fix all the stuff that was lingering that had to be fixed.
Bonnie Arnold: We have to do a call-out to the music that John Powell did such a great... This sequence is so much about the music.
Dean DeBlois: I think it's a beautiful, beautiful combination.
Bonnie Arnold: This shot is... This is it.
Chris Sanders: This is.. OK. There's something that's about to happen, this little tiny move the dragon makes before he puts his nose in Hiccup's hand. And to me, it right... there. It's so beautifully thought out, I think, on the part of Gabe.
Bonnie Arnold: That's the moment where they really connect, or the first moment where they connect.
Chris Sanders: Just to think of it... I'm just so impressed when somebody can think of something that clearly, that there be that minute little move before he finally gives in and puts his nose in his hand. Very impressive.
Bonnie Arnold: I think this was a lot of improv by the kids, again, wasn't it? They call them kids.
Chris Sanders: In particular, yes. In particular, this line.
Bonnie Arnold: From Jonah?
Chris Sanders: About the beautiful hand on the beautiful foot. I think this is... We did not write "beautiful" in the dialogue. He added the word "beautiful" and it just made it. It just made it so ridiculous. And he added the whole thing about his face. Fantastic.
Bonnie Arnold: Craig Ferguson I think was, as Gobber, was a lot of the glue that keeps a lot of this stuff, these scenes working, to me. Its just... You really buy that he's, you know, the teacher. You don't know if he's exaggerating or, you know, telling the truth, or...
Chris Sanders: We're about to jump into the second of the three sequences that have no dialogue. It's something that Dean and I learned a while ago, that we would try to engineer places in our films where we could just let the dialogue... just let it go, and let the music take over. We're such fans of the scores of these movies, and to find, on purpose, to find places where the score can carry it. The score and the visuals. I'm very proud of the fact that we have three places in this film where that happens.
Dean DeBlois: If you count "Secret in the Cove," it's four.
Chris Sanders: Is it four?
Dean DeBlois: Yeah.
Bonnie Arnold: Obviously, this is Hiccup creating a tail for Toothless.
Dean DeBlois: This is one of the very first images that we talked about when we came onto the film. It's the idea, how do we separate this from other dragon movies and how do we refresh the idea of dragons? And one thing that just kind of struck me early on was the notion that we would have a dragon that was part organic and part mechanical, that Hiccup will have constructed some sort of replacement prosthetic that he controls through some rigging in the saddle. So it was very... it was an exciting image to us, and immediately we thought that would be great. It had an almost kind of a Miyazaki quality to it.
Bonnie Arnold: This was one of those... another scene that was produced really early in the game. Right, guys?
Chris Sanders: This is one of the earliest ones, maybe the second one.
Bonnie Arnold: I mean, when you guys came up with, you know, painted a picture of the whole story of the movie, the flying scenes were most clear in your head. And we decided to go with those first, in terms of producing them.
Chris Sanders: They were the places in the movie where you couldn't argue that that was going to happen. There's other places where it was a little more plastic and you could see it maybe going different ways. But, yeah, we knew that the points on the curve with the dragon, we'd go from broken, to being repaired, to being flying.
Bonnie Arnold: That's my favorite shot, almost in the movie, when the wings... I know something bad's gonna happen. John Powell has some great Celtic flavor, I think, in the score here that I really... make you feel of the place.
Dean DeBlois: Yeah, it's a big "hats off" to Craig Ring and Kathy Alteri and our lighting team to make that cove feel different every time we go there. 'Cause it was a set we know we would be going back to, having Toothless being trapped there. I think they refreshed it every time with a great look.
Chris Sanders: Now speaking of refreshing, this is our third time in the training ring. We were always trying to find different ways of keeping that ring interesting. So, just like the Academy Awards tend to change their set over the course of a broadcast, we changed this ring every time you went into it. The first time you went in, it was just big and open and had the Gronckle flying around. The second time we partitioned it off with a maze, and the third time now, we partitioned it with this kind of greenish fog. So it always feels different. Who doesn't enjoy that?
Dean DeBlois: This was a great opportunity for sound design as well. 'Cause we knew that Randy Thom would be able to orchestrate kind of the comings and goings of this two-headed... Hideous Zippleback as it moved around in its own smoke. A great sense of tension to it.
Bonnie Arnold: How many times did we see that shot without water? That was...
Chris Sanders: Yeah.
Bonnie Arnold: That was so tough to add that.
Chris Sanders: I have to say, one of the things I like about this dragon in the end, when he was all surfaced and lit, he has kind of the feeling of a giant toy in the best possible way. When his nose is really close and you see those nice little shiny plates on the bridge of his nose. I just love this guy.
Bonnie Arnold: This shot gets all the laughs.
Chris Sanders: Here's a nice... OK, this is a nice little piece of physical acting here, I think, on...
Dean DeBlois: And that's Jakob.
Chris Sanders: It's him again. Yeah.
Dean DeBlois: And on to the montage. Every movie needs a montage. And we wanted this one to feel really bright and fresh and uplifting. I think it has great energy to it. It really helps us cover a lot of ground, story-wise, 'cause we knew in order for any of this to be believable that there would have to be a lot of trial and error in learning to fly the dragon. And at the same time we wanted to build the house of cards in a very precarious way for Hiccup so that his double life was getting harder and harder to live. Some beautiful example of lighting that, of course, Roger and Craig and Kathy and our incredible lighting team brought to the mix. One of the things that's hard is to come up with new lighting setups. Or I guess many new lighting setups in a scene like this. And they were able to vary it with so much believability that you never feel like you're reusing anything.
Chris Sanders: Curiously, just because we mentioned it for some other sequences, this would be the opposite of the sequences that were done first. This was actually one of the very last sequences that we finalized. This is a good place to mention that we originally started with a Toothless that was actually jet black and found later that we needed to add just a little bit of texture and patterning, or he'd begin looking actually kind of a big toy. So if you look at him now, he has little tiny spots, almost like a... like, I don't know, like a manta ray would have, and it really helped.
Bonnie Arnold: Well, he almost looked too shiny and black. And it was hard to see him in certain scenes, I think it was, too.
Chris Sanders: It's true. It's great that we started out that strong and then had to leaven it just a little bit. It's also a good moment to mention the actual design of the dragon. Toothless was a latecomer to the whole thing and he was designed by two guys, really, that worked very closely together. Simon Otto, who was our head of character animation, and Takao Noguchi, who's a brilliant designer and modeler all at the same time.
Bonnie Arnold: All the other characters, pretty much, the lead designer was Nico Marlet. The human characters, the dragons.
Chris Sanders: Yes.
Bonnie Arnold: And they all collaborate, I mean, they're just terrific.
Chris Sanders: Nico really is responsible for the incredible unity that you feel throughout all the characters in the film. And Toothless is actually notably the odd man out. He was actually supposed to look a little bit different than the other ones. He doesn't land, Vikings have never seen him before... travels around. He's kind of a ghost, you know, really in their world. So we did want him to have that different feel. As Dean mentioned before, he also feels more like a mammal, as opposed to the other dragons who have predominately a more sort of reptilian vibe.
Bonnie Arnold: I think the whole... Didn't you give John Powell, our composer, some real specific direction about the whole montage?
Dean DeBlois: Yes. You know, we wanted the montage to feel like almost a song of its own and have kind of a song structure to it. So verses and courses and... Just so if felt like a unified piece that wasn't necessarily score. It was more just something that would pull all of the images together.
Bonnie Arnold: Stock is...
Chris Sanders: We loaded more vikings into this ship than we originally did because we didn't want people to think that the other two ships went down with their whole crew on.
Bonnie Arnold: Exactly.
Chris Sanders: I don't know if anybody's paying attention, but three ships that went out and only one comes back. But, hopefully, people will get that all three ships' worth of vikings were on that one.
Dean DeBlois: It's funny how film making is so much about paring things down. Almost every one of these sequences started out about three times as long as it actually is onscreen. And you just keep trimming back until you find the essence of it. And anything that's just fluff kind of falls to the wayside.
Chris Sanders: We worked for an inordinately long time on a scene where Hiccup went down to the docks with his dad to say goodbye to him. And we ended up with a scene where they just kind of say goodbye at home. The dad really walks out that night and doesn't really even say goodbye. We're getting... This is a great sequence to talk about. The flying sequences in this film were such an incredible opportunity, and they represent, I think, some of the most detailed and, I think, dense thinking on the entire thing. There's an incredible density of thought in these things.
Dean DeBlois: Simon led his team of animators through something they called "flight school." They spent a whole lot of time studying the flying movement of different creatures. Bats, birds, everything they could pull together. And so a lot the physics in this movie feel so real because it was a very deliberate line of thinking on the part of everyone involved. We just wanted the... In order for the peril and the stakes and just the scale of the world to feel believable, we needed to make sure that all the physics were in check.
Chris Sanders: You know, I have to say, it's one of the most effective things in this entire film. There was never a moment when an animator did a flying bit that it didn't look incredibly convincing. That flight school was incredibly effective.
Bonnie Arnold: Another accomplishment, was just the clouds.
Chris Sanders: Yeah.
Bonnie Arnold: Didn't they spend hours and endless days making the clouds look right?
Chris Sanders: There's a bit here. It's a very short little moment, but there's the top of a mountain that's about to come into frame, right there. Man, that... I remember the first time we saw that and how much that added to that moment. It's so brief, but man, it feels like... OK, he's this far from the ground now. Time's running out.
Bonnie Arnold: We spent a lot of time on that shot, right there, right Chris?
Chris Sanders: Yeah, that one took a while. But, boy, was it worth it. This is great. This is taking the learning curve of flying a dragon and just really speeding the whole thing up. And what I think is a very satisfying sequence in the film. He's been so tedious about this whole thing and so tepid about learning it, and he's made this little cheat sheet. He loses the cheat sheet. Then in this moment, at the end of the free fall, he either flies or that's it.
Dean DeBlois: It's a great release 'cause, in as sense, there's a tension to all of the grounded work, the building of the tail, the short little flights, being tethered to that cliff. All of it's in service of this moment where we're just gonna just blow the doors off and have it be this wide open expanse that they can explore together. That's really the wish fulfillment of any movie with a flying beast and a human, is that you just want it to be completely untethered and freeing.
Chris Sanders: It was a few months after we actually get the sequence going, this particular one you're watching right now, that we realized that this was a little tug of war between the original Toothless and the new Toothless. And it was just kind of interesting that the new Toothless won and now the original Toothless is about to get all fussy about it. But by the end of the sequence he actually curls up and finds a little comfortable place next to Hiccup, which really is what happened to his character during the making of the film. He found a great place to be. He's a great character, but he's no longer Toothless.
Bonnie Arnold: If you're ever watching this commentary on a screen where you can see this in stereoscopic 3-D, I think this one of the folks that Craig Ring. Gil Zimmerman, Captain 3D Phil, worked really hard on making this work really well in 3-D stereo.
Dean DeBlois: This is also one of the scenes that's probably the oldest in the movie. It came very early on, but it's exemplary of Roger Deakins' effect on the film. Just the fact that he was able to isolate the lighting and bring it down to two candles in a room and rich, dark shadows, which is not something you normally see in animation.
Chris Sanders: I think there's a definite urge, that once you've built these detailed sets, you really want to see them. And so it's hard, I think, sometimes, to let a set like this just bleed off into these depths of black where you don't see any detail. But, boy, is it'satisfying. I like giving Dean credit for this sequence. This is one of the sequences Dean wrote. When Dean and I go into these movies, we tend to initially divide the sequences up and write them... We'll be in the same room most of the time, but we'll write them by ourselves and then traded the scenes back and forth and work on each other's scenes and give notes and things like this. This is one of those scenes that started out with Dean and didn't change very much. If anything really changed about this scene, it tended to get edited down just a little bit. I think it's a great little moment between a dad and a son who, the dad thinks he's finally made a connection with his son, and, of course, he hasn't. But it's an unusual scene, I think, in an animated film. And I think it's very... It just feels real. It makes the place feel real. It makes the relationship feel real.
Dean DeBlois: This, being one of the first sequences we put into animation, also meant that we were still exploring the character traits. And so, from shot to shot, Hiccup and Stoick are just a little bit different. And we never had time to go in and make those adjustments, but it's kind of nice to show how he evolved in terms of his mannerisms and expressions.
Bonnie Arnold: This is a huge laugh in the movie, the breast hat.
Chris Sanders: It does. I don't know if... Nobody ever picked up on it, but it was supposed to be a secondary funny thing that the two hats were such disparaging sizes, and there supposed to be a matched set. But, clearly, there's something odd there. I don't think anybody really pick up on that, but we originally thought that was gonna be kind of funny.
Dean DeBlois: This is another one of those scenes that was about three times as long at one point.
Chris Sanders: Yeah.
Dean DeBlois: But when you get it all up together, it really kind of finds its fighting weight and the film starts to tell you, after a while, what's overstaying its welcome or whether it's even needed.
Chris Sanders: And this scene, it went through its twists and turns as the story developed around it. i don't know why, I just... the angrier Astrid gets, the more I like her. And she's reaching a point in the movie now where I'm just really liking her as a character. I just find her to be fresh. And this bit right here... Here's a tribute to Gil Zimmerman's camera work. There's a bit of handheld stuff right here that I just think is brilliant. Love that bit.
Dean DeBlois: That whole bit of Astrid is... was animated by Dave Torres, and I think he did such an amazing job with her.
Chris Sanders: The little fit she throws here with the ax, swinging it around while she's... And this right... there. Man it's a great little shot. It should be said that we do a great deal of planning on all of these shots, but at the very, very end, after they're animated, there's a last little bit of sweetening that happens with the camera work. And that's where we add a little bit of a handheld feel, a little bit of organic motion to just make it fell comfortable. We went to great lengths on this film, both with the camera work, the exposure of the lighting, to produce and overall effect that this is really being filmed and that the whole place was real. We even tried to overexpose some spots in these shots to make it feel as though we weren't in control of everything.
Dean DeBlois: That little old lady, who was the village elder, who decides the winner within the training class, was actually constructed to have a larger role in the movie. She was gonna be the town sage and mystic, in a version of the movie that had a lot of prophecy and magic. And we quickly dispensed with that within the first couple of months. And so she became just another villager.
Chris Sanders: It should be noted that this is a sequence that people who worked on the film find funny, and during our first test screenings we realized that it's not funny to other people when he's discovered by her.
Bonnie Arnold: How about when she does this?
Chris Sanders: Well, I find this funny. Right... there. And again the crew always found that funny, but in the test screenings people are actually under a great deal of stress because they knew that she had arrived in the cove where the dragon was, but we didn't feel that stress. We'd worked on the film, of course, we knew it wasn't a big secret to us, so we just found it amusing that she was, you know, she caught him in this lie and she was very angry at him. But it was at that first test screening that we realized that it really wasn't funny to anybody else. In a good way, though. They were feeling this wonderful tension.
Bonnie Arnold: I remember an early story conversation that the three of us had together, guys, where we talked about Astrid and Hiccup going together to discover Dragon Island and...
Dean DeBlois: That was your idea, Bonnie.
Bonnie Arnold: I'm patting myself on the back right now just thinking...
Chris Sanders: She actually is.
Bonnie Arnold: That actually worked because you guys both said, "We like that idea."
Dean DeBlois: You're right.
Bonnie Arnold: We were trying to just get them together, get them to do something together. But it ended up you guys really took that idea and really made it fantastic. Because now she knows something that, you know... She's in on his deal and the repercussions of that for Astrid are big. You know, become, big at that point.
Chris Sanders: There's a bit of subtle animation that I want to take note of, as well, which is the scene where she lifts herself up. She's hanging on that branch and she initially lifts herself up and we're underneath her. And it's just one of those moments I find incredibly believable, the way it was handled.
Bonnie Arnold: This is where Toothless has a mind of his own. A little continuity thing. I don't know if you want to call it continuity, but illogical thing is, Hiccup is controlling his flight in a way, but Toothless is now taking over.
Chris Sanders: Yeah, really. You don't want to think about this too much. If it really took two to fly, then they're in such disagreement with what should be happening here that really the whole thing should break down.
Bonnie Arnold: We're getting ready to go into a sequence. I think, Chris, is this you favorite sequence, what we call the romantic flight?
Chris Sanders: You know, it's one of them. Yeah, it's another sequence where we were able to shut of the dialogue and just be, you know? It's also a moment where we can really indulge the flight. Like all things flight: the way the camera's relating to the dragon as he does his thing, the way we cut between shots, the whole idea of this sequence was, of course, to evoke this real beautiful expanse both inside of them and outside of them. The other thing we were trying to do, we were trying to, and not to much so, but to gently... disorient people. The idea that we get away from the ground and we're doing our best in these shots to barely ever show the ground. Once they clear and they're in the clouds, it's just a landscape. This is in particular one of those moments where there's no up or down. And I have to credit Gil Zimmerman for this shot, which is one of the shots that people pick out of the whole film to talk about. And he brought this shot to us, and I think it's brilliant and it does so much for us and it accomplishes that sort of disorientation that makes you feel like you've left the ground behind, and now you're in this world of clouds.
Bonnie Arnold: And I think Astrid's discovery is... You're with Astrid in discovering this who fabulous world that, you know, Hiccup knows and he's sharing with her, which I think is so touching. I think it's my favorite music cue, actually.
Dean DeBlois: It is a beautiful, beautiful cue. John brought this in very early on, and it was just one of those winning melodies that we stood by to make sure it didn't get tampered with, 'cause we absolutely loved it.
Chris Sanders: It's a neat little moment that they're flying within sight of Berk, but we know nobody will see them because that dragon is so invisible at night.
Dean DeBlois: And again, in the structure of the story, this being the first viking who has her mind changed and see dragons in a different light, is actually a nod toward how the rest of the vikings have the possibility of changing minds, the village over.
Chris Sanders: Yeah, because Astrid is gonna be the toughest sell of anybody that he knows, save for his father.
Dean DeBlois: This was a moment that was originally scored, that we decided to pare the music back a little bit. It actually plays at a low level underneath, so it's there on a subliminal level, but we wanted to open up a moment for Randy Thom and his sound design crew to kind of really take this over and let us feel what it's like to be surrounded by hundreds of dragons.
Chris Sanders: Let me ask you, in the upcoming bit, is the hippo still in there, or was that just a temporary?
Dean DeBlois: Yeah. There it is. It's right there.
Chris Sanders: Is that the hippo?
Dean DeBlois: That's the hippo from Madagascar.
Bonnie Arnold: Another fun fact for a cocktail party.
Chris Sanders: Just so you know. Impress your friends.
Bonnie Arnold: Yeah, the folks in our crew that did crowds and all these, it just... Like I say, those are quite complicated shots.
Chris Sanders: There are times in these films where you become a 14-year old again, and that's one of those moments for Dean and I. Whenever we tilt the camera up and see that giant mountain with rivers of lava running down the outside of it, you just feel like a kid getting all excited.
Bonnie Arnold: I think we take for granted, you know, that there are... That every element of every frame has to be created in these films.
Chris Sanders: That would go back to Dean's comment about spontaneity being... something you have to work for. It should be noted that every time we did a flight sequence in these films, the easiest way we found to pitch it, to talk about it, even to conceive it , was to have a little model airplane in the room that you could pick up and pull off of its stand and actually hold up. Again, you sort of felt like you were seven years old and you just finished working on your Spitfire model, and you're now able to fly it around the room.
Dean DeBlois: One of the departments that doesn't get talked about a lot, but they're crucial, especially in a film like this, is the crowds department. And they do what our animators do, but they do it enmasse. And so they develop behaviors, whether it be flying or standing around or just different behaviors that are needed for the sequences. And then effectively we were able to rubber-stamp that behavior onto millions of dragons in that case, you know. It's like a thousand up there. And so Sean Fennell and his group are responsible for the world feeling so full.
Chris Sanders: This is just another good moment to point out the subtle lighting that we were able to get.
Dean DeBlois: All three of us come from a background of traditional animation, so getting into this level of subtlety in terms of lighting and shape and form is really kind of incredible. I know Bonnie's already done it on Over the Hedge and Toy Story, but for Chris and I, having access to these tools, you know, everything from the textures, the hair, the fur, the fabrics, but also the subtlety you can get in the expressions. and the way it's lit, of course, is super important. It was all new to us and a really amazing kind of adventure figuring it all out.
Bonnie Arnold: Well, I think it's always about supporting the storytelling, you know, and Chris and Dean did a great job of telling the crew what they were going for and having an amazing group of artists deliver great things everyday.
Dean DeBlois: Well, you're right. I think when you come into a mix like this, you really do need to just look after your job on the film. And with Chris and I, we always kept story first. And that's what we spent a good chunk of our day in a room, you know, writing the script and figuring out the moments. But then always talking to every artist and technician on the film from a story perspective and letting them do what they do so well. And I think as such, it felt like a well-oiled machine.
Chris Sanders: This is a great piece of animation by Kristof of... Stoick.
Bonnie Arnold: Serrand. Yeah, Kristof Serrand is truly an amazing animator, and connected with Stoick in such a great way.
Chris Sanders: Yeah, from the very beginning.
Dean DeBlois: Yeah, Kristof has an amazing ability to go beyond and cliched acting and find something that's very unique. So impressive.
Chris Sanders: We had quite a bit of discussion about this particular sequence and what exactly was going to happen, because one of the issues with this whole thing was we wanted Toothless to come to Hiccup's rescue. And originally we stowed Toothless nearby, which a lot of people were actually very good in catching. It was kind of an odd thing that Hiccup would do. So eventually we thought we'd just leave him in the cove and let him overhear this whole thing. Before, he never got out of the cove without help, but because his little pal's in trouble, he's able to come out of the cove.
Bonnie Arnold: Kids, look at this shot.
Chris Sanders: Just through sheer force of will. Well, this guy's great. This is the Monstrous Nightmare, and we decided a while ago, each of these dragons, we have an embarrassment of riches as far as how many dragons are actually in this film. But we decided that this guy is kind of the rock star of dragons and that he enjoys this whole thing. None of the dragons shy away from a fight, but of all the dragons, the Monstrous Nightmare enjoys it. He feeds on the energy from the crowd.
Bonnie Arnold: I love it in the screenings that we've seen up to now, all the kids just love the..."We love the dragon that sets itself on fire!" They just love that.
Chris Sanders: And, you know, the other thing is this guy is unbelievably complex to move around. If you think about the different parts that have to be attended to in this guy.
Dean DeBlois: This was a very important scene in the movie, and it took a lot of discussion to get it to where it is 'cause there were some passionate arguments about what he should be saying and what should be happening.
Bonnie Arnold: Our terrific story artist, John Puglisi, yeah, did put the boards on the storyboards on this one, I believe.
Dean DeBlois: Yes. Yeah. John Puglisi is responsible for many scenes in the film, along with Alessandro Carloni and Tom Owens and Tron Mai, just incredible.
Bonnie Arnold: Johnane Matte.
Dean DeBlois: Johanne. Yep.
Chris Sanders: For a while, we discussed whether or not he should have actually brought Toothless into that ring to show everybody that they're really not dangerous. And we decided that, in the end, it would just be too big a risk, and Hiccup would never really do something like that. Probably, he would protect Toothless at all costs, which is why we had to have Toothless come into the ring as a matter of his own idea. It's his own volition where he shows up. That's a great little explosion in there.
Bonnie Arnold: The fight to the... almost to the death of the two dragons.
Chris Sanders: This fight took a long time to work out. Some incredibly complex animation going on between these two dragons.
Bonnie Arnold: And Toothless is just trying to protect Hiccup.
Dean DeBlois: Yeah, that bit of animation was orchestrated by a guy named Oliver, and he did an incredible job. I mean, he's such a powerful animator.
Bonnie Arnold: This is one of my favorite scenes, really.
Dean DeBlois: This is one of the scenes that we recorded with Gerard and Jay together, miked across from each other in a New York City recording studio. And as a result of the build of the argument and the way they're playing off of each other, it feels so natural. It's not something that you can really achieve when you record the actors in isolation. I think the combination of the lighting and this beautiful space... Actually, the silence, you know, and the ambiance, it all adds up to this great feel, this private argument that gives this movie so much power.
Bonnie Arnold: And the writing is good, guys. I have to give you guys kudos for that. It's really good.
Chris Sanders: You know, there's a... Speaking of leavening, the intensity of this moment... Because I think everybody understands where Stoick is. you know, he's embarrassed, he's upset with the deception. But there's a moment coming up where we're able to see just a little glimpse of the pain that he's feeling. And it's the moment right after he comes out of the door, that was a subtle bit of animation by Kristof. That really balances everything we've seen Stoick doing, and it's right... it's right here.
Bonnie Arnold: Yeah, he's like thrown off-balance. It so affects him, I believe.
Chris Sanders: And then he gets control and moves on. But just for that moment, he's overwhelmed.
Dean DeBlois: And that was a suggestion that was brought to the mix by Bill Demaschke, who has an amazing story intuition.
Bonnie Arnold: Bill's the head of production, creative production, at DreamWorks, and a great partner to us.
Dean DeBlois: He's a great boss because he really understands story and he's a movie fan, and so he always comes at it from such an enthusiastic standpoint.
Bonnie Arnold: He and Jeffrey Katzenberg both are great audience members. They always try to add thoughts, from the audience point of view, I think. Keeps the big picture in mind when they're giving us some thoughts.
Dean DeBlois: This is one of my favorite moments in the movie because I remember seeing Hunchback of Notre Dame as a kid, and I just love the way he was shackled down and being pelted with all the fruit, and it just gets so much sympathy for the character. So it was nice to chain Toothless down, have him all bound and mistreated. This is another moment that came kind of late in the game, when we realized that we had no sort of end of second act low point for Hiccup. He had almost immediately jumped into action and was approaching the kids to try to get them on his side. And so Chris took the lead on this one in writing this scene, trying to get to the bottom of it, trying to shed light on why he didn't kill the dragon and how that makes him different. And it takes Astrid prying him with questions and being persistent to make him realize that his moment of weakness wasn't weakness at all, that it's a strength.
Bonnie Arnold: Kind of a great moment in the relationship between Hiccup and Astrid and...
Chris Sanders: I think it's nice to see their different point of views on the same event. Of course, Hiccup's been hiding this secret for so long that he sees it only as a shameful thing, but Astrid knows that the world is on the verge of changing.
Dean DeBlois: There are a few scenes in the film that we were able to orchestrate our inventory so that everybody was kept busy while a couple of animators really took the lead. And in this case, Jakob Jensen for Hiccup and Shaggy Hornby for Astrid were able to do all of the scenes, and it really shows because you get such a great, consistent performance from them.
Chris Sanders: It's true. You get a really nice, subtle build and transition, an overall curve that runs through the whole sequence.
Bonnie Arnold: That's where Stoick is just like dead-set on doing what he's gonna do, no matter what Gobber says to him.
Chris Sanders: And this is a nice little bit of acting from Gobber. Craig Ferguson did a great job in this little bit. He's being his little chatter-y self as they sail to their doom. He has this nice little bit of nervousness, but at the same time, he has a real solidarity with whatever Stoick and the other Vikings decide to do. So he's not cowardly. In fact he's not. But at least he's playing out the nervousness that we wanted to have all the Vikings feeling.
Bonnie Arnold: It's so hard to appreciate how hard it is for these voice actors to get in just into a regular room without seeing sometimes any imagery of what the scene's gonna be. And it's just Chris and Dean sitting here, telling them... Trying to paint a picture for them and having them give these performances. Craig was especially good at, you know, bringing a lot to the mix.
Dean DeBlois: In combination with Fabio who's supervising animator, who is an incredible animator. Now, we had two editors on our film. We started with Darren Holmes, and he was there for most of the production. And toward the end, Mary Ann Brandon came on fresh off of Star Trek. And this is one of the areas where she had a great impact, because she proposed intercutting these scenes of Hiccup being approached by the teens in the ring and the Vikings trying to find the island. And it actually adds a lot of energy to both scenes and gives you a sense of build toward the climax.
Bonnie Arnold: Maryann and Darren did a great job working together. There was just so much to do in such a short time that, to be honest, one editor, it was just more than enough work for one editor. And our whole editorial team did an amazing amount of work on this stuff.
Dean DeBlois: That's one of my favorite moments in the movie. I just loved the notion that he would... that there would be this buzz of dragon echo locating that build to such a, you know, an ear-splitting level. And then when he hits the sand or the rocks on the island of the hive, that they go completely silent. This is also a nice example of just economy. When it go down to it, this was a much longer scene, but we realized we could tell it in relatively fewer shots just by suggesting that what Hiccup has learned could be transferred to the other teens, then just end it with a line. And we pan over to realize the other dragons have been let out of their pens. It kind of spells a direction for the ending without getting too explicit about training them. That's the sequence we call "How to Train Your Dragon." We get into the part of the movie now that surprised even Craig Ferguson and Gerard Butler. They thought they knew what the movie was going to be about and the level of action and humor. And then came the climax. And the first time that we showed a few scenes to Craig Ferguson and his little boy in our theater on campus, he then called up Gerard Butler and just said, "You have no idea. It gets really big." So, you know, immediately, Gerard wanted to see this.
Bonnie Arnold: The movie does have a real interesting turn, in terms of, you know, escalation of action and intensity and...
Chris Sanders: It's what happens when you have a crew of people that is this talented, because you propose a sequence like this and you start writing a sequence like this and you propose a giant battle where this huge dragon is gonna break out of the side of a mountain and it's gonna start chasing Vikings and laying waste to their ships. And as it begins to get animated and as the effects begin to come in and the lighting begins to come in, it's not until then, and that's a long time after you first write a sequence like this, that you really have to come to grips with the scale of what you started. And it really, really is just such a satisfying... scale and size in this in this whole thing.
Bonnie Arnold: Again...
Chris Sanders: A huge nod to the effects department here with this whole moment where he breaks out of the mountain and the dragon uses his giant shoulders to pop the last bit of the wall.
Dean DeBlois: The amazing thing about our effects department: Matt Baer, and Craig Ring and everybody involved, is that they almost never said no. We would propose these ridiculous ideas and they'd get giddy and excited about it. 'Cause at the end of the day, I think they saw this as an opportunity to really show what they could do. And man, did they ever deliver.
Bonnie Arnold: And again, I just have to say a very complex mixing, sound mixing job in terms of the balance of the effects and the dialogue and the music. Oh, my gosh.
Chris Sanders: It's attention to detail that really makes something like this work. It's the way the fire comes out of the mouth of the dragon, the scale of the primary then secondary reactions as that fire hits a ship and wraps around a mast.
Dean DeBlois: We always knew that Stoick, in his stubbornness, was going to stir a fight between the Vikings and the mother of all dragons. But we, at one point, thought that fight was going to come to the shores of Berk, which is their village and their island. And somebody along the way just said, "Why not just have the fight happen on the shores of the hive itself?" And it was a genius idea and it worked out really well, because we know have this completely different look for the ending.
Bonnie Arnold: Well you're at a completely different location and it's just more challenging, where... that allows the kids to come ride to the rescue, which we all love and we're all rooting for.
Dean DeBlois: That's an interesting scene, because Stoick used to say, "He is, isn't he?" And it was too quick a turn when we realized that we needed him to mull on it a little bit more to give his character the dimension it needed. We needed more time and we needed him to stew on it a little bit before coming to Hiccup's rescue and then having those powerful words of redemption. I think at this point everybody was really hitting their stride. We're having incredible animation with the dragons, really believable flying and beautiful camera work, and the lighting was incredible, the effects, like all of it coming together. This was really the height of our...
Bonnie Arnold: The crew was under the gun here to get it done. Oh, my gosh.
Chris Sanders: Yeah. You wouldn't know it to see this but it was one of the most pressure-filled bits of the film, just as far as schedule. Again, you run out of time before you run out of anything else.
Dean DeBlois: This is one of the sequences we left to the very end, because it was such a jigsaw puzzle of storytelling and it was also the catchall. We just didn't want to deal with it for the longest time.
Bonnie Arnold: Making it all work and...
Chris Sanders: What Dean is talking about, he's specifically talking about this little micro-bit here where all the teams go to bat. It's where they fill the void between the final battle between Hiccup and the giant dragon. Of course, the Vikings getting jumped by this huge one. It was delicate because we didn't want these guys to be incompetent, but at the same time we didn't want them to be able to defeat this dragon. So it's a moment of really just bravery. It's a bunch of guys who don't really know what they're doing, but they're jumping in their anyway, buying everybody some time.
Bonnie Arnold: You have to think this is all a part of Hiccup's grand plan, but then he never really says it. But we... He never tells us, the audience, but...
Chris Sanders: This little sequence was also a latecomer to the whole thing. This also came from a Bill note, that he really thought that we could push the action one more notch. So this entire bit, you know, it's no small decision to get your characters wet. And putting them underwater was a big deal. I remember we spent quite a few days discussing the feasibility of this sequence, and...
Bonnie Arnold: Especially this late in the schedule, because we had so little to time to...
Chris Sanders: Oddly enough, it's easier to put a character underwater that it is to have a character be standing around wet and dripping. So we just had to be really, really careful of the transitions between the surface and underneath.
Dean DeBlois: It's an example of Bill Demaschke's great story instincts, though. He knew there was an opportunity to dial it up even a little more heroic and give Stoick a real moment in the sun.
Chris Sanders: Yeah, and all of us are gonna go for it. If somebody says, "Why don't you put him underwater?" Like, "Yeah, OK."
Bonnie Arnold: And the Stoick apology, that was a little bit tough to make work.
Chris Sanders: Yeah, it has to be genuine. Yeah.
Dean DeBlois: It had to be genuine and it had to be an economy of words, because you're in the middle of a battle. So he had to say just enough to motivate Hiccup to take off up there with knowing that he had the belief of his father.
Chris Sanders: Plus, it was a timing thing, too, because if he said it too soon, too quickly, it became funny.
Dean DeBlois: Yep.
Chris Sanders: Unintentionally funny.
Dean DeBlois: The big dragon was actually designed late in the game as well. He, along with Toothless and a few modifications to Hiccup and Astrid, were really the only characters that got designed when we took over the film. We knew we needed a big, nasty dragon with all sorts of...
Bonnie Arnold: Oh, I love that moment.
Chris Sanders: Sweet, little moment.
Bonnie Arnold: Sorry to call that out but...
Chris Sanders: So this is...
Bonnie Arnold: Toothless rescues Astrid.
Chris Sanders: This whole... We're entering the area where I geek out the most as far as just the flying sequences are concerned. One of the things we really wanted to get out of this thing is the idea that flying on a dragon like this wasn't easy and it wasn't gentle. That when you hit these velocities, that things became actually very shaky and rough and that it was a real physical activity to actually fly on the back of Toothless. And that diving shot was the shot where we were trying to get that across.
Bonnie Arnold: Our head of story, Alessandro Carloni, did a few all-nighters just to get this thing worked out in storyboards.
Dean DeBlois: Yeah, he really took the lead on this battle, this climax.
Bonnie Arnold: This coming battle, yeah.
Dean DeBlois: And really solved a lot of the shots and figured out the pace.
Chris Sanders: His storyboards were so intensive and really verged on being fully animated, that it left nothing to the imagination. He was the one that first imagined this battle up in the darkness of the sky where Toothless would really return to where he came. He came out of this dark sky and then he would return to it. And that's where he really found his strength, was dashing back and forth in the darkness.
Bonnie Arnold: But it was a great blueprint, I think, for Gil and Craig and all the folks that came in to do the camera work and the lighting and it was...
Dean DeBlois: It's one thing that our environment, being the island and the hive and its volcanic activity, really gave us the benefit of... was that we could darken the sky with ash and make this battle up in the darkness believable. It's a tremendous showcase for Craig Ring and Matt Baer and the effects department.
Chris Sanders: They really do make it look effortless. One of my favorite shots. The giant, omni-directional blast.
Bonnie Arnold: I think, didn't we show Jay Baruchel the... I think we ran a little bit of it. I can't remember. Maybe the layout or storyboards and he did some comments to it. It was toward the end there.
Dean DeBlois: Oh, yeah. He did some live...
Bonnie Arnold: Live lines, ad-libs to the...
Dean DeBlois: This is all payoff to the moment where you saw on the beach, the little dragon, his gas gets ignited by Toothless and he blows up from the inside.
Chris Sanders: Which is, by the way, the reason that sequence is in the film, because we needed to set up this little moment. We also wanted a moment where Toothless's tail would disintegrate and he would go back to being the dragon he was at the very beginning. So all through this, of course, you see the tail in its last moments. Now here, the monster is... Not the monster. The... What we're calling the Red Death, which is the giant dragon. The giant dragon is actually five times bigger than he normally is just so we can get that effect of him flying up through the spines on his back.
Bonnie Arnold: This shot looks fantastic in stereo 3-D. Things floating.
Dean DeBlois: Yeah, it was really, really impressive what Gil and Phil McNally and everyone involved in the 3-D effect were able to bring to the party, because they found ways of heightening the storytelling without ever being gimmicky and distracting. I think the worst version of 3-D is when you fell like you're being toyed with as an audience member and reminded that you're sitting in a movie theater. But if it supports the storytelling and actually draws you in, it makes it more immersive. That's very effective and that's what we aimed to do.
Bonnie Arnold: If you're listening to this and haven't had a chance to see it in stereo 3-D, I hope you will. It's really a treat.
Chris Sanders: One of the interesting things we were dealing with at this point in the film, there's a lot of films, especially, I think, animated films that tend to end before the movie ends. And I think it's not exactly a giant surprise that Toothless sheltered Hiccup in his wings. It's one of the reasons we didn't try to play Toothless's revival as a surprise that he was really alive. So even though it's very subtle and we have him very still, he's breathing through this entire end bit of the film. But we are moving towards something that kept the story alive and kept the story going, which is the damage Hiccup incurred in this giant climax. And there were a lot of reasons that this scene, this whole bit with Hiccup's foot was put in the film, not the least of which, was as that film... as those sequences started being finished, the scale of the battle was becoming clearer to us. And it just came more and more unbelievable that anybody could come out of this thing undamaged.
Dean DeBlois: It also just felt appropriate from a story point of view that Hiccup could sustain a similar amount of damage to Toothless, and that, in a way, they complete each other at the end of the film. Handled in a poetic way and without having to point arrows at it and use a lot of dialogue that would make it in any way hokey, but to treat it as... with a certain amount of respect and poetry, it actually really worked.
Chris Sanders: It was also a perfect concurrence with events. There was a meeting that we had with Jeffrey, and we have these periodic story meetings where we talk about the state of the film, where it stands, and Jeffrey was really pushing us to go further with the end of this film. He felt like the end of the film was a little bit... little bit, I guess, light compared to the other stuff we had done. And so he was really urging us to find new places to go at the end of the film.
Bonnie Arnold: Something not quite expected.
Chris Sanders: Absolutely, yeah.
Dean DeBlois: Originally, this scene was actually played in private, where Hiccup wakes up and he realizes that his foot's been replaced, and he dealt with it in private. And, then we had a screening where we showed Steven Spielberg where we were on the film, and one of his main comments... He was very complimentary, but one of the comments he had was that he so loved being part of the secret and this bond Hiccup had with this dragon. He felt like in the last part of the film, the third act of the film, that relationship has been reduced to something of like a cowboy and his horse, and so he was advocating having Hiccup wake up with Toothless in the room, so that as he takes his first step on his new foot, that Toothless would be there to support him. And it was a great idea. We put it in and it worked like gangbusters.
Bonnie Arnold: Well, this is Hiccup's new world and how it's changed because of Hiccup.
Dean DeBlois: What I loved was... We weren't sure about the foot. We really liked the idea ourselves, but we tested it in front of an audience. And one of the first things, one of the first comments to come out of the adult members of the audience, the focus group afterwords, is they said whatever you do, don't lose the foot part, because they really responded to it and they thought it was a great and the message was interesting. And then a little kid put up his hand and he said, "It was sad because lost something but he gained much more." I thought "Wow, that's really perceptive for a kid of his age."
Chris Sanders: It was an interesting moment. As a filmmaker, we were very excited about the idea of this missing foot and the repair and how the Vikings would accept him, because it's just a natural thing in their society. And we were very fond of it. And I always think there's a lot of nervousness going into a screening like that. It's vulnerable. That's one of those things. And the audience so went to bat for us in defending it. And they were defending it because they could sense that it was a very different, very daring thing to do in an animated film. So they sensed its vulnerability and ran to shore it up for us, which was just a great moment. It's one of the moments I'll never forget from making this film.
Dean DeBlois: It's also such a great opportunity to show the incredible art direction that Pierre-Olivier Vincent brought to the picture. We call him POV. It's just easier. But all of this design, these incredible buildings and the scale of everything, it has caricature just like the characters do, but it's rendered with such realism that it's all believable. It was so nice to have this chase happen. We realized we didn't have the effects budget to have them fly through the clouds. So we said, "We'll keep it grounded. We'll have them fly around the town." And I'm so glad we did 'cause it gives you, such a great opportunity for 3-D, but also just get a last tour, a nice sun-lit tour of the great little village. This song was brought to us by Jonsi, who is the singer of the Icelandic band Sigur Ros. And his solo work is so bright and infectious and happy than we thought who better than to ask him to do a song for us in the end credits. And so he took a look at the film in London while we were there doing our score, and he came out of it having really reacted to it in a positive sense. He had such an emotional response to it that he absolutely wanted to do it. And he created the song in something like two days.
Bonnie Arnold: It's so upbeat and joyous, and it's just a great way, in our feelings, to end the movie. You just want to tap you toe and celebrate the movie.
Chris Sanders: It should be pointed out that these are the actual drawings by Nico Marlet. The Toothless drawings were Simon Otto's, but these are Nico Marlet's. And he drew... It has to be thousands and thousands of dragons for this movie. The dragons represented in the movie are a tiny fraction of the ones that he actually created and drew. and he's just a brilliant artist. And his drawings are incredibly pleasing. So there were two places in the film, the credits being one of them, that we were able to feature his drawings, the other one being the book, which you noticed before, those are his drawings in the book.
Bonnie Arnold: The "Art Of" book, which is a nice testament to...
Chris Sanders: Plus... Yeah, well, but also the book that...
Bonnie Arnold: That Cressida wrote.
Chris Sanders: Yeah, but also the one that Hiccup is actually going through.
Bonnie Arnold: I wanted to mention Cressida Cowell, of course, the author of the book How to Train Your Dragon.
Chris Sanders: Oh yeah, she had something to do with this.
Bonnie Arnold: She was a great supporter of the film and...
Chris Sanders: There is the book.
Bonnie Arnold: Oh, absolutely.
'Chris Sanders: There is the book that she wrote.
Bonnie Arnold: Created some great characters, had a real fun tone. We definitely... Chris and Dean in the writing of the story and the script departed a lot from... It's really more of an origins story. But I have to give Cressida credit for creating this world that we just love being a part of.
Dean DeBlois: And the spirit, really. I think we really held on to the spirit of the runt Viking who changes the world, and so many of the elements were obviously culled from the original material, and we just expanded upon it.
Bonnie Arnold: When we go through these production credits, I have to say that we had a great production team. And wow, the hundreds of people, the small village that it takes to get these movies made.
Chris Sanders: I have to say one of the people, we really mentioned him a few times, but didn't talk nearly enough about, which is Simon Otto, our head of character animation. Everything he brought to the party, the sensibilities of the world and just the language of the acting. One of the things we really wanted to get out of this film is believability. I think you've got so many unbelievable that we're trying to accomplish in such an incredible world, and you fill the world with dragons. Those dragons... And if they're gonna have these kind of designs, they're gonna have to believable in the way that they moved. And Simon accomplished this monumental task with such good humor and just always made it a joy for us. We would come to animation dailies every single day. It was usually the way we wrapped up the day. And it was really one of the high points of our day to come in and see where everything was and to visit with the animators and see everything they'd done. And Simon was just a gigantic part of keeping this film on track and keeping it fun. We had a pretty tight schedule on this thing, and he made it seem easy.
Bonnie Arnold: Well, we had a bunch of really great creative supervisors that were also great managers. I mean, were able to manage the other artists and the time and the resources to really get everything I know Chris and Dean were looking for on the screen. Hopefully better than what they could have imagined.
Chris Sanders: You know something? I could never have imagined a world that was this complete, I think, and this believable and really this rich. I think, you know, just the... everything about this film, I geek out about the way the water looks, the way the clouds look, the stone, the grass, the Vikings' beards, the metal that they're wearing.
Bonnie Arnold: Oh, my God, we didn't even talk about how difficult the beards were.
Chris Sanders: Oh, my gosh.
Bonnie Arnold: Hair is another thing that is unbelievably complex.
Dean DeBlois: And one thing as well, like the matte painting in this film, the clouds, it's really hard to pull off and it was integrated so seamlessly in the actual three-dimensional elements that I was so impressed every time they came in with those matte paintings.
Chris Sanders: Well...
Bonnie Arnold: Beautiful job. Hope you enjoyed the film, gang.
Chris Sanders: Yeah. Thank you so much, if you made it to the end. Thank you for listening. It was really and truly... it truly was a joy to be part of this film and to work with all these artists. It's something that when you're a kid growing up like Dean and I, and you draw because you love it, the idea that you could eventually turn those things that you love into a job that you can actually do all the time is really an incredible thing. And we get to gather together with these incredible artists to put these things together. It's incredibly inspiring, and it really makes it a joy.
Bonnie Arnold: It's an amazing journey. Thank you, Chris and Dean, for letting me be part of it.
Dean DeBlois: Thank you, Bonnie, for leading.
Bonnie Arnold: Thank you, DreamWorks, for trusting us with How to Train Your Dragon. We've enjoyed every minute of it.
How to Train Your Dragon 2 Film Commentary