Arts & Design

Behind the magic of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

How DreamWorks used HP technology to help bring its blockbuster animated franchise to life on the big screen.

By Joe McGovern — February 21, 2019

A hard beginning, so the saying goes, maketh a good ending. When How to Train Your Dragon was released by DreamWorks Animation nine years ago, audiences were charmed and moved by the movie’s message of how patience, dedication and painstaking work pays off. That was illustrated by the unlikely bond between gangly 15-year-old Viking boy, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), and a sleek, black, last-of-his-kind dragon, Toothless the Night Fury, as they became best friends and quelled the misconceptions of Hiccup’s elders, who were long determined to slay the dragon.

The adventures of Hiccup and Toothless continued in 2014’s hit sequel, which introduced Hiccup’s mother (Cate Blanchett). Now the franchise comes to a close with the visually sumptuous, emotionally powerful third film, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (in theaters Feb. 22), which finds a matured, twentysomething Hiccup confronted by two unexpected arrivals in his life that will alter everything: Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), who plans to destroy the Vikings’ island home of Berk, and a white dragon named Light Fury, the last female of her kind, a potential mate for Toothless.

So far, the first and second Dragon films stand as one of the most successful animated franchises of all time, with more than a billion dollars in worldwide grosses and twin Oscar nominations for Best Animated Film. As the story reaches its rousing conclusion, it’s not a spoiler to say that the “Hidden World” of the title is fully, gloriously revealed. (More on that later.) After the trilogy’s 12-year production life, this final film marks a journey’s end for the team of artists and engineers who brought the movies to life — as well as a testament to the collaboration between DreamWorks Animation and HP, a partnership which began in 2001. Through that long relationship, an extraordinary span in innovation can be charted.

“The amount of technology required to make these films is simply staggering,” says Kate Swanborg, DreamWorks Animation's SVP of technology communications and strategic alliances. “We understood early in DreamWorks Animation’s history that if we found an equally world-class partner in the ecosystem, we would be able to accelerate our own ambitions.”

The Hidden World (c) 2018 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved

The difference a decade makes

The HP  technology the studio uses has changed over the years, getting faster and better, with new advances in computing power. Dean DeBlois, writer/director of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, had directed traditional hand-drawn animated films like Disney’s Lilo & Stitch before coming on board the first Dragon film (which he co-directed with Chris Sanders) in 2008. “When I was introduced to computer animation, it blew my mind,” DeBlois says. “I was amazed by the amount of detail we could have on a character. Hair and fur and skin and leather — and everything felt so palpable and credible.”

Dean DeBlois, writer/director, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is immersed in work from the studio's most recent film.

Courtesy DreamWorks Animation TM (c) 2019. All Rights Reserved

Dean DeBlois, writer/director, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is immersed in work from the studio's most recent film.

This time around, with HP computing power, DeBlois and his team were able to bring their creative visions and visual aesthetic to life. “It’s the level of rich detail on screen, and that visceral sense of dynamic cinematography,” he explains, “where you feel like you're sitting on the back of the dragon along with Hiccup as he’s diving and soaring on Toothless.”

A key to that sense of genuineness, of course, lay within the dragon character. While designing and animating Toothless, artists referenced wild animals like black panthers but also pets. Animators watched countless videos of cats and dogs for the subtlest nuances of pet behavior.

“We wanted the audience to fall in love with Toothless the way Hiccup falls in love with Toothless,” says Simon Otto, head of character animation on all three films. “The way to do that is to give the audience a feeling of the bond they share with their own animals. I’m a cat person and others in the crew are dog people. So we had these cat and dog disputes all the time — until we realized that we could draw from all our pets.”

The power of technology

A dozen years ago, animating was time-consuming and less iterative. But today, increased computing power has been among the most notable technological advancements in the industry. HP’s Z8 desktop is enabled with multi-core processors, which performs an average 40 percent faster than previous generations. This allowed the artists to work interactively on large, complex scenes with multiple perspectives and multiple characters.

“On the first Dragon film, our workflow was not interactive and we had to guess what the result would look like when making changes,” says Otto. “We couldn’t directly interact with the character. It would be a lot of stop and go before seeing the results. Today, there’s no stop and go. The computing power we have at our workstations allows us to be iterative in ways we could have never been in the past. We have the capability to push the boundaries and try things out.”

HP technological solutions in support of the studio’s production have continuously improved and advanced throughout the past 10 years. “After the first Dragon film in 2010, we were working to re-architect all of our proprietary tools," Swanborg remarks. "So come to the second film in 2014 and many of those same artists had worked on a completely different pipeline, designed specifically with the Z by HP devices in mind. For the third film, we knew that HP was going to be putting us in a circumstance to access a system with 36 cores and 128 gigs of RAM, so we architected the applications to take advantage of that.”

The Hidden World is comprised of 730 terabytes of data, compared to 90 on the first film. “Previously, our software really couldn’t take advantage of the large number of cores,” says Dave Walvoord, visual effects supervisor on the second and third Dragon films, referring to the individual units that execute data instructions. “But now our animators essentially have power at their fingertips.”

Courtesy DreamWorks Animation TM (c) 2019

Simon Otto, head of character animation of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World manipulates the hero character using the studio's animation software powered by HP workstations.

Translating it to the big screen

More cores, frankly, result in more awe. And the technology help the artists ascend to new creative heights they may not have thought possible a few years ago. The second film’s most spectacular sequence occurs when Hiccup reunites with his mother in a lush, breathtaking dragon sanctuary. “But if you look at the mom’s sanctuary carefully,” Walvoord reveals, “it is only seen from about three vantage points, and the rest of it was a painting. In this third movie, we didn't want to do that. We wanted to geometrically build everything in the environment. We wanted to have the capability to position the camera at any angle and show everything in its full capacity, something that was not possible on previous films.”

Something else that wasn’t possible in previous films was the specific degree of performance of the animated characters. “In intimate moments where characters are communicating very subtle emotion, they now come across in a much more sophisticated and believable way,”DeBlois says. “Our animators have an endless amount of creative expression capabilities.”

To give away what the Hidden World is would be a spoiler. Instead, it’s even more surprising to say what it contains: nearly 80 million pieces of coral , more than 63 million mushrooms, 15 waterfalls which were repeated more than three thousand times. There is a mushroom forest that is more than three miles long.

“We actually crafted the entire three mile section,” Walvoord says. “There are really long shots where a lot of distance is traveled.” He points out that three miles as an actual distance is important, because, “When the first Dragon film was made, what you were able to build on the computer was probably less than a live-action movie could have built on a set. Now 12 years later, we can do far more on a computer than could ever be physically built.”

And build it they did. In addition to the multiple miles of the Hidden World, there’s a total of approximately 60,000 dragons in the film, including 1,500 in one shot alone. Indeed, in one stunning crowd shot, the studio leveraged instancing to show 42,000 Fireworm Dragons, making history as the fullest shot of its kind ever created at DreamWorks.

“We use HP everywhere throughout the process — obviously their insanely powerful workstations, but also their incredible printing capabilities, so the filmmakers can see tactile images on paper.”

Kate Swanborg, DreamWorks Animation's SVP of technology communications and strategic alliances

A long-standing partnership

The Dragon films are the product of a special relationship between imagination and technology. The research and development departments at HP mind-meld with filmmakers at DreamWorks to make, well, dreams work, from the powerful computing to best-in-class printing to remote graphic software that allowed for cross-site collaboration. “The partnership truly is connected at every level,” says Swanborg. “We use HP everywhere throughout the process — obviously their insanely powerful workstations, but also their incredible printing capabilities, so the filmmakers can see tactile images on paper.”

The alliance between the two companies has been so successful, Swanborg explains, because each are meeting at the intersection of creativity and innovation. All great friendships, just as the movie illustrates, are built on trust, support and mutual benefit. 

“For close to two decades, HP has been there for us. And in turn, HP can take all that knowledge about how their products are performing and improve them for the rest of their customer base.”

Key to the success of DreamWorks’ films is artistry and storytelling. Behind the scenes though, are millions of files and billions of ones and zeroes.

“We have reached an amazing place where we can actually put on screen anything that we can imagine,” says DeBlois. Until very recently, there were limitations to what we could do. Those limitations have been lifted.”

Otto speaks for many of his colleagues when he says, “You have the left side of the brain talking to the right side. DreamWorks artists and technologists are collaborating to bring our stories and characters to life. And with the right partner, we have the technology to make our dreams a reality.

He adds, “It’s crazy to think of what could be possible next.”


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