Ink & Pixel: How To Train Your Dragon

Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I’m always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. If you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature animated films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it further.

Hey, do you remember a Disney film from 1977 called PETE’S DRAGON? It’s a live-action/animated musical about a orphan boy named Pete and his secret friendship with a magical dragon named Elliot. Known more so for its Broadway-style soundtrack than technical achievements, PETE’S DRAGON was perhaps the first movie to truly prompt the question: What would it be like to have a dragon for a best friend?

C’mere, I’ll tell you a little secret. Having a dragon for a best friend would be amazing! Imagine riding Falcor-style over gridlock, or throwing a killer barbeque in your back yard while serving meat that’s been cooked by dragon fire. Sh’yeah, pretty cool. Well, apparently the people over at Dreamworks Animation have fantasized about dragons from time to time as well, as seen in their 2010 studio release 3D computer-animated fantasy film: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON.

Directed by Chris Sanders (LILO & STITCH, THE CROODS) and Dean Deblois (GO QUIET, HEIMA), HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is based upon the popular children’s book series of the same name. Each of the novels in the (so far) 11 book series were created and penned by British author Cressida Cowell. The film – based on the events of the first novel, How To Train Your Dragon – tells the story of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel), whose father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), is the leader of a proud and rambunctious tribe of viking warriors named the Hairy Hooligans. As a man of science, invention, and ingenuity, Hiccup doesn’t feel he’s cut out for the traditional sword swinging of his ancestors, and would instead prefer to be left alone so that he might indulge himself in the building of devices that may one day turn the evolutionary tide for his people. However, being born to such a prominent position in your community comes with a certain level of expectation. Sooner or later, Hiccup is going to have to prove that he has what it takes to slay the scaly beasts that have been waging war and laying waste to his kind for generations.

One evening, Hiccup – in an effort to prove to his father once and for all that he’s capable of slaying a dragon – goes in search of the most terrifying species known to viking kind: the mythical Night Fury. Having found the beast and the opportunity to slay it, however, Hiccup discovers that the creature is actually friendly. In fact, it turns out that most of the dragons the vikings have been hunting all of these years are pretty chill once you get to know them. With the still ongoing threat of a war that may cost hundreds of lives – both human and dragon – fast approaching, it’s up to Hiccup, his faithful dragon Toothless, and viking friends Astrid (America Ferrera), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnut (T.J. Miller), and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) to reason with their people, and prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that dragons and humans can live in harmony.

Personally, I think a lot of people were shocked by how much they liked HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON when it first hit theaters. I know I was. Unfortunately known as the animation house that was riding the Shrek train to Just-Be-Done-With-It-Alreadyville, Dreamworks struck gold when they made the decision to bring their version of Cowell’s novels to the big screen. Much of the excitement and spectacle was due not just to the film’s tight storytelling, but also to the finely crafted effects featured throughout the film. Consider this: when coming up with all the different breeds and styles of dragon to be featured in the film, each and every one of them needed to be outfitted with a unique look as well as a set of abilities exclusive to their own kind.

Keeping that last bit well in mind, what is the first thing you think of when you hear the word “dragon”? Yes, aside from the word “Run!”, you usually think “fire”. More often than not, animation companies tend to create? the visual that’s created when an open flame is exposed to a billowing cloud of propane. This image makes for a beautiful, and more importantly, gradual display of fire that travels en masse.

In this film, the team required some of their dragons to breathe fire from a myriad of positions – particularly while engaged in combat – and as a result it was deemed that a new approach would be needed if their dragons were to be as dynamic as desired. One of the ways that the team approached their use of fire was by studying the spark-laden liftoff of high velocity fireworks. You know what I’m taking about: that moment right after the fuse disappears up inside of the rocket and suddenly a torrent of sparks comes rushing forth. Now, tilt that visual on its side so that the rocket are horizontal and you’ve got a stellar visual effect for dragon fireballs.

Another method employed to create dragon fire was the use of a film clip that depicted a mass of raging flames, pushing against and devouring thick, wooden rafters. The footage of the crawling, almost stretching, flames was then inverted to give the appearance of the flames being able to move downward, which gave birth to a most remarkable type of fire that is capable of setting the very earth beneath our feet ablaze. Several different versions of this fire were applied to many of the dragon types seen throughout the film. Me? I’ve always been a big fan of the yellow green fire that erupts from Maleficent during the finale of SLEEPING BEAUTY.

Of course, fire wasn’t the only aspect of the film that required an intense amount of care to develop. Toothless, the Night Fury – the all but harmless dragon that befriends Hiccup in the film – was created with several factors in mind. Both the design and animation teams working on HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON wanted Toothless to appear and behave differently from all of the other dragons featured in the film. To do this, both teams worked together in crafting a creature more mammalian than reptilian to warm the hearts of its audience. Simply put, Toothless would exhibit traits more commonly found in the wilds of our real world as opposed to the fantasy realm – the imaginations of humankind – where dragons were born. When creating the character of Toothless, both teams studied the look, mannerisms, and stealthy demeanor of black panthers. The next time you watch the film, be sure to pay close attention to way Toothless moves; how he doesn’t so much as slither like other dragons, but prowls much like a predatory jungle cat.

In addition to concentrating on dynamic creature effects, the designers and animators at Dreamworks spent a great deal of time and effort bolstering the environments of the film. Case in point was the development of new rendering tools that allowed for the film to showcase an impressive array of artful techniques such as achieving translucency and the bleeding of clouds. Considering that much of the film’s visual splendor shines most during its “flying” and “aerial combat” sequences, it was imperative that the art teams at Dreamworks develop ways of bringing its audience as close to the action as possible. The fact of the matter is that you’ve got to stand out in today’s animation market if you have any hope of standing toe-to-toe with juggernauts like Disney Animation Studios and Pixar.

Upon its release, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON was undoubtedly a smash hit for Dreamworks Animation. The film managed to blaze a trail that lead to it collecting a total of $494,878,759 worldwide, making it the fifth highest-grossing animated film of 2010. Not impressed? Consider that the other 4 animated films that raked in more coin that year were DESPICABLE ME with $543.1 million, TANGLED with $576.6 million, SHREK FOREVER AFTER with $752.6 million, and the emotionally crippling TOY STORY 3 with a whopping $1,063.2 million! HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON currently retains an astounding 98% Fresh rating on and is poised to receive not one, but two sequels by the year 2016.

If you haven’t taken the time to experience HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON then I suggest that you do yourself a favor and seek it out. Aside from its impressive visual effects, the films boasts a fair amount of heart and manages to teach its audience several lessons about cohabitation without ever feeling like its reprimanding us for being such an elitist species. I, for one, would love to own a pet dragon. I would name him Stampy and we would go on all manner of adventures together. Yup. That’s what would happen. See you next time.


About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.