'How to Train Your Dragon 2': Behind Those Fantastic Flight Sequences
DreamWorks Animation’s head of layout Gil Zimmerman on "balancing the spectacle with intimate connections with characters."
When Dreamworks Animation previewed its first clip for How To Train Your Dragon 2 -- the follow up to its widely praised Oscar nominated film -- viewers found a teenage Hiccup with Toothless the dragon, soaring through the clouds, smiling and clearly still BFFs, in a short but powerful sequence that combines fantastic flight with intimate close-ups of the characters.
That was a formula that filmmakers stuck with from the first title in the franchise, according to returning head of layout Gil Zimmerman. "We had to make sure you are balancing the spectacle with intimate connections with the characters in your cuts," Zimmerman said. "So you always remember whose point of view you are seeing it through. … For every shot that you go out wide to show the world, you're going to have a couple shots where you are close to them as if you are riding with Toothless."
"The other part of the recipe is more technical," he added. "What do we do with the camera to make it feel like it is being buffeted by wind speed and dragon wings flapping nearby, so the audience feels the sense of realism in the movement?"
To do this, they used a variety of camera techniques as well as a "noise node that we developed to create noise, that we applied to the flying sequences. It’s 'easy' to make things look 'perfect' in CG; it's much more difficult to make it feel real."
The look was influenced by one of Hollywood's most respected cinematographers—10-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins—who returned to consult on the film. "We met with Roger every few weeks," Zimmerman said, explaining of the approach, "it's classic staging and use of the camera. Wide lenses were really only used for wide shots and more action-oriented sequences. Also, the camera is to be seen and not heard. We are subservient to the story, the acting, the dialogue. And then we move forward at the right point for energy and spectacle, for moments like the flying sequences with the tour to force camera work."
The most challenging scene is an epic battle. "We used ever flavor of camera motion, from subdued to Steadicam to shoulder mount to flying nose camera, as well as long-lens wide shots to allow the audience to feel the scale of the world."
The camera also takes audiences on a thrill ride with a new sport that involves the residents of Berk partnering with dragons, which has been likened to the Harry Potter franchise's game of Quidditch. "It was a cleverly crafted story that [writer and director Dean DeBlois] wrote where we are re-introducing the characters to the audience while we are flying. On top of that, we show that Berk's society has changed so dramatically that they now run games through the town."
Previs took roughly six weeks and three artists to complete. "Instead of the traditional way of matching storyboard to shots, we used that as our foundation, but we also shot coverage," Zimmerman explained. "We would explore what the camera might be doing: a big wide-sweeping shot, but also cover the action in a medium shot, allowing [editor John K. Carr], Dean and myself to find out what is the best cut for the storyline."
The original How to Train Your Dragon is still considered among the best uses of 3D—both in the flying sequences and quieter moments—among 3D pros, and plenty of attention was again placed on this use in the sequel.
Zimmerman cited as an example: "In the sequence where Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) delivers the news about Drago Bludvist (the villain, voiced by Djimon Hounsou) being on the rise, we have a lot of aggressive camera motion as Stoick (Hiccup's father and the head of the Viking clan, voiced by Gerard Butler) responds. The camera is doing these subtle pushes toward the characters, increasing the tension. The [3D] is also being adjusted slightly, but along the same lines, pushing close and pulling the characters of the screen. It's very natural."