For cartoon sequels such as 'Lego Movie 2' and 'How to Train Your Dragon 3,' new characters had to be designed that would fit into their franchises' worlds — but also stand out on their own.
For the sequel to Elsa and Anna's story, Disney animators were tasked with creating a set of new characters that not only stood out on their own but also effortlessly complemented Elsa and her powers. The elemental characters — harrowing earth giants, an elegant water horse, fluttering wind spirit and a spunky fire salamander — were unlike any creatures that character animator Bill Schwab and his team had brought to the first film. "The elemental characters were especially collaborative, because they involve multiple departments in order to bring to the screen what we ultimately saw in the film," Schwab says. "There's such a cool factor to each one of them and so many unique challenges. … We'd never really done anything like any of them before." Based on Nordic myth, Bruni the fire salamander's concept design started with a Google search. Turns out that there's a real reptile called the fire salamander. Though it's not the same color as the palette the designers ultimately chose for Bruni, the real-life creature served as a source of inspiration. In the end, Bruni became an adorable, wide-eyed companion for Elsa, with frosty blue scales and magenta fire. Schwab worked with production designer Michael Giaimo, who preferred cool colors for Bruni that lent themselves to the fictional location Arendelle and the world of Frozen, rather than colors usually associated with heat. "I think he also is really looking for the unexpected," Schwab says of Giaimo. "We know it's fire, but he wanted to create the Frozen version of fire."
Josh Cooley knows the fate of children's toys all too well. He's watched his own kids cherish a toy one week and leave it forgotten the next. So, when tasked with creating a memorable toy for Bonnie for the fourth installment in the 24-year-old Toy Story franchise, he knew it needed to be different from the ones that preceded it. Thus, Forky was born. "He came from the idea of kids building art projects and playing with them for a bit and what would happen," Cooley says. "The fun thing with him is that we were able not only to surprise the audience with this new character but also to surprise the characters in the film. They didn't even know this was possible." Cooley quickly realized that such a naive character fit nicely into Woody's story arc too, forcing him to explain what it means to be a toy and to give up his fight to be the favorite in order to do what's best for Bonnie. The challenge didn't lie in fitting Forky into the story, but rather in making him stand out. During early tests, Cooley said he wanted his crew to make Forky's animation less than perfect. "I said, 'His animation is so fluid. He's moving like Woody would move or like Buzz would move. Those guys have been alive forever. Can we make this character feel like he's being puppeted by an actual child that's moving him across the desk? Let's make his eyes not focused and his arms stiff. He doesn't know how to do anything.' "
When it came to adding characters to the Lego movie franchise, director Mike Mitchell faced an unusual challenge: too much freedom. The expansiveness of the Lego universe allowed him to add anyone or anything he wanted to the story, from Harry Potter and Bruce Willis to a banana. "It was just a grab bag of a limitless amount of characters at our disposal," he says. Mitchell and his team decided that introducing food to the group would lend comedy and creativity to the film. So, cupcakes, ice cream cones and Banarnar — a Lego banana voiced by actor-comedian Ben Schwartz — were added. The self-aware fruit's story arc revolves around wanting to be taken seriously and perform important tasks without slipping on his peel. Mitchell brought Schwartz in to the studio to help come up with jokes for the film but quickly realized he'd be a great voice for the banana. "Just hearing him talk and get excited about really silly jokes made us think, 'Man, that's the perfect voice for Banarnar.' "
From the beginning of the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, director Dean DeBlois knew that Hiccup and Toothless were destined to separate. But the pair are so codependent by the end of the second film, the challenge became finding a worthy reason for Toothless to want to leave and for Hiccup to want to let him go. "The idea was that Toothless would discover a destiny of his own, apart from Hiccup. It's a rite of passage that every parent [in this case, Hiccup] has to experience at some point," he says. With Toothless thought to be the last of his kind, DeBlois developed the idea to introduce a new species of dragon that was similar enough to a Night Fury that it could be a potential mate. "The Light Fury is an engine of change in the story … she's a whimsical and natural way of distracting Toothless, of having him discover there may be a life for himself outside of Hiccup," DeBlois says. She's the only other dragon, besides Toothless, for which designers referenced mammalian qualities instead of reptilian ones. Giving her a complex set of expressions similar to Toothless' range became the hardest part for DeBlois and his team. "All we have to act with is body posture, ears and eyes," says Simon Otto, head of character animation. "The flick of a tail communicates so much. What we needed to do there is study our own pets and understand how we interpret meaning into how a dog looks back at you as if he or she understands what you're saying."
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.