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Interview: Story Artist Simon Otto on How ‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’ Took Flight

May 20, 2019Ben MK

These past few months may have been all about the final season of Game of Thrones, but when it comes to fantastical tales involving dragons, there's one series that's nearly as popular and far more family-friendly.

Author Cressida Cowell's bestselling children's book series, How to Train Your Dragon, first made the leap to the big screen in 2010, but it wasn't long before a new contemporary, computer-animated classic was born. Now, five years after How to Train Your Dragon 2, moviegoers are finally bidding goodbye to Toothless, Hiccup, and the entire cast of beloved characters from the Isle of Berk with the franchise's third and final installment, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.

I caught up with Story Artist/Head of Character Animation Simon Otto to chat about the fun of working in the How to Train Your Dragon universe, as well as some of the challenges of bringing these movies to life, and to find out more about his animation inspirations.

You've worked on all three How to Train Your Dragon films. What do you enjoy most about working on this series?

Otto: I just love the fact that we created characters that have a reality to them. It's a world that has pathos and heart and real peril and consequences. So it gives our animators and us as a whole crew that chance to do something where we can dig a little deeper into our emotions. And so from an animation point-of-view, it's really great because you can do that, and also have fun while doing it. It's a great balance between real characters and humor.

Speaking of the characters, who is your favorite character to animate?

Otto: Hands down, it's Toothless. I was lucky to be there at the beginning when we conceived the character. And my design drawings that I did back then ultimately led the way to Toothless, how he is today. The reason why he's so close to me is that Toothless represents my relationship with my cat. It's the relationship that I had with my cat growing up. But also, it's the relationship that [director] Dean [DeBlois] has with his dog. So we had constant conversations about things that really happened to us, and things that we observed our pets do. By far, that's my favorite character.

What was the most fun sequence to work on on this time around?

Otto: In the third movie, it was definitely the first sequence we did, which is a companion piece to the forbidden friendship sequence in the first movie, when Toothless and Hiccup get together and approach each other, with Hiccup's hand resting on Toothless' muzzle.

The companion piece in this third movie is that, but between two dragons — a first date scene between Toothless and the Light Fury. You have that Cyrano de Bergerac angle, where Hiccup awkwardly tries to teach Toothless how to charm the Light Fury. And obviously everything goes wrong, until Toothless listens to his own instincts and finally makes the right decision on how to actually make her laugh, which is something he learned from Hiccup.

It's a beautiful lesson, it's a beautiful arc. And it's entirely without dialog. And for us animators, those are the scenes where we can shine the most, because we really carry the storytelling.

Was there a sequence in this movie that was particularly challenging to accomplish?

Otto: Challenges come in many different ways. Particularly in this series, you have of course animation changes, like the scene I just described. And then you have scenes like the scene with Hiccup and Astrid on the ledge, where the idea comes up that there might be a hidden world, and Astrid doesn't buy it. That performance is so real, and you really feel like these characters have existed together. That's very challenging for animation, because in animation you don't necessarily have spontaneity; you have to craft that little bit of reality. It's not perfectly designed.

And then, obviously, there are huge technical challenges, such as the battle scene. One of probably the most challenging scenes was where Toothless and Hiccup, at the height of the story, get pursued by the four Death Creepers and get attacked in the sky. It's a dark sky with dark dragons jumping onto a dark Toothless, and you have to make that read. The average animated character has 1,200 controls, and each dragon has about 6,000 controls. So when you throw six or seven characters like that into a shot that's in full action and in flight, to make it believable that these characters are actually flying, the technical challenge of that is tremendous. When we saw those scenes coming out of story and layout, we all went, "How are we gonna sell this? How is this gonna be believable?"

Somehow the animators always figure out a way, and together with Dean, who has his eye on storytelling and an understanding of how to make things clear, that's how we pulled it out of the fire. We were definitely sweating a bunch of times, but somehow it came together.

What animated films and filmmakers do you draw inspiration from?

Otto: Oh my gosh, that list is so long. I would say, for this particular project, we drew from nature videos a lot — nature documentaries, movies like Born Free or Black Stallion. There's a lot of these intimate human-animal relationship films that we all love, that we all grew up with — that, even in the writing stage, were big references for us. That's one thing.

Then we're all big loves of Miyazaki films — the Japanese master of anime, who did movies like Totoro or Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Those are big inspirations — not literal inspirations, but feelings and how certain moments are portrayed, and the fantasy of it all. But early on, I grew up with Tintin and Asterix and the Belgian comics. So did the character designer and the production designer, so the visual language was very much inspired by those artists.

I was just in Japan, and I visited [the studio] of [Mamoru] Hosoda, who did Summer Wars and The Boy and the Beast and Mirai. And just being in the neighborhood where all those studios are, it's just so inspiring. I really love how he does manage to make films for their audience, for their country; it's just so authentic.

Speaking of making films, you've directed an episode of Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia and a couple of episodes of Dragons: Race to the Edge. Are you planning on directing any other projects any time soon?

Otto: That's my plan, that's what I'm working on right now. I'm developing on a few projects, and as it goes in this industry, you just never know whether they'll ever see the light of day or whether they're gonna be put away again. [laughs] But I'm very hopeful that a couple of these will come to life. That's my natural next step, at least that's how I feel. [laughs] My plan is to now move on to directing, but I'll always be an animator. It's what I love, so I wouldn't be surprised if here and there I'll animate again and just do that. But my desire is really to be closer to the creation and the conception of projects. I have some ideas of my own that I'd like to bring to life, but we'll see.

Last but not least, what advice would you give to someone hoping to get into the animation industry?

Otto: It depends entirely on what stage they're at, but I'll say two things. If you want to get onto the big movies and work on big projects, find a way to specialize yourself in certain areas. As a generalist, you tend to work on smaller projects where you can do many things; and a lot people love that, there's nothing wrong with that. But if you want to get onto the big films, you really want to specialize in character animation; and even within character animation, maybe try to focus on either cartoony animation or visual effects animation first, and then see if you can broaden your horizons from there.

But also, don't reduce yourself to just thinking that you want to be an animator, because there are so many other jobs out there that you might not know about. Particularly young students who start out, there's so many great jobs like modelling and surfacing and lighting and effects and matte painting — the obvious one being character design and visual development and all that. There are so many job types that people sometimes forget that there are other ways to get into this industry and other jobs that are hugely creative and very interesting.

So don't limit yourself to that idea you might have about animation; there might be much more about it than you think. And just be persistent with it and continue to push yourself in that direction. It's a long road, but a satisfying road.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is now available on Digital HD and is available on 4K, Blu-ray & DVD May 21st, 2019.

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