How 'How to Train Your Dragon' Revolutionized Animation Filmmaking

How to Train Your Dragon_Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of DreamWorks

DreamWorks' award-winning trilogy made advancements with every episode, most recently the rendering software MoonRay, which made the Hidden World glow.

While it's widely known for characters from Shrek to Toothless, DreamWorks Animation has earned a reputation for its science as well as its art. Over the years, roughly a dozen technologies that were developed at DWA have earned Scientific and Technical Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In fact, two of its widely used software packages were pioneered on the studio's acclaimed How to Train Your Dragon trilogy. (DWA also is a founding Premier member of the Academy Software Foundation, which was launched by AMPAS and the Linux Foundation in 2018 to provide a neutral forum for open-source software developers in the motion picture and broader media industries to share resources and collaborate on technologies.)

DWA's Premo character-animation system, which had its feature debut on 2014's How to Train Your Dragon 2 and received a 2017 SciTech Award, is aimed at speeding up its animation process while creating an intuitive approach that feels more like drawing. The trilogy's February finale, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, was DWA's first animated feature made with MoonRay, its newest rendering software that has helped its animators to more accurately simulate how light behaves in the real world.

"When they go into the Hidden World, all the bioluminescent mushrooms and pieces of coral wouldn't have been possible for us without MoonRay. Those are all basically light sources," explains VFX supervisor Dave Walvoord. He also cites a shot from the film's opening sequence when Hiccup and Toothless walk through fire that would not have been possible without MoonRay.

Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins was DWA's visual consultant on all three Dragon films, and Walvoord contends that MoonRay has aided this vital collaboration. "[Before MoonRay,] we were kind of trying to cheat things to get the look that he was doing, but there was no direct translation. Now if he said, 'Put a broad area light there,' we'd put a broad area light there. What that meant for our artists is they started thinking like cinematographers. Now we were able to work with the world's greatest cinematographer and speak the same language."