How exactly does a How to Train Your Dragon dragon get created?
Simon Otto, who’s served as the longtime head of character animation on the DreamWorks fantasy film series, knows the trick to crafting compelling dragons worthy of inclusion in the acclaimed animated universe, which finishes with a bang (and a few ugly-cries) this February with the release of the trilogy’s third and final film, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.
Be it major foe or minor pet, no new dragon is written nor designed haphazardly. Otto emphasizes that director Dean DeBlois’ scripts lay out the specific story significance of every new dragon, offering a firm, rooted starting point for Otto and his team of designers to get to work. What happens from go, however, is less a meticulous design process and more a colorful, messy, gorgeous series of creative experiments that result in the clever concepts and surprising features behind each dragon you see populating Hiccup’s vivid world.
“With maybe the exception of the real background, background dragons, every dragon has a purpose in the story that’s written into the script and from there, we typically look at things we see and can recognize in nature,” says Otto. “And then, with every dragon, I call it the dragon salad mixing bowl: you just throw in all these ingredients and at the end you pour a sauce over and you shake it really well, and hopefully you get the dragon that you want.”
Exclusively for EW, Otto breaks down the ingredients and design behind five of the most significant new dragons you’ll meet in Hidden World (in theaters Feb. 22).
The most important new addition to Hidden World came with a simple directive: A female counterpart for Toothless, with unexpected design elements that would elevate her beyond being just another Night Fury with a passion for black. DeBlois’ script detailed the behavior of the character in deep, helpful specifics. “She was so feral on the page,” recalls Otto. “And she was so uninterested in being near humans, partly because she was afraid, and in that sense she really represented pureness and nature.” So naturally, a pure white color concept emerged.
Otto’s team pulled additional creature inspiration from snow leopards, axolotls (a rare Mexican salamander), and terns (a sea bird, almost like a seagull). All three species share sleek, clean appearances that provided a handful of physical idiosyncrasies which the designers could apply to Toothless and see how much each influence might change a Night Fury’s appearance.
“We also asked ourselves, if Toothless is a lion and the Light Fury is a lioness, how does nature differentiate between female and male?” says Otto. “So she has stubbier ears, a narrower ribcage, she’s a little bit more streamlined… It’s a tricky, tough balance because she could have very easily turned into My Little Pony and had lots of rainbow colors and [appealed] to that basic idea we might have of what that type of character could look like. We have a little bit of that, but just the right amount so that it still feels like this could happen in nature.”
The last surprising element of the Light Fury isn’t so much in her design as her power: a peculiar ability to heat her own scales until they reflect the environment, thus rendering herself essentially invisible to those around her. Toothless’ jealousy: quite visible.
There’s an argument to be made that this big burly beast sets the entire plot of Hidden World into motion. Village leader Hiccup has by now led more than a few expeditions to rescue downed or detained dragons like the Goregutter — but the sheer size of this new addition to Berk may be the metaphorical straw that breaks the island’s very-not-metaphorical back. “We wanted to present this prehistoric, giant dragon that may not be as big as the alphas in [the first two films], but is big enough that Hiccup is not really seeing that, even though he’s saving this dragon from captivity, he’s bringing home a huge problem that they really don’t have space for,” says Otto.
The Goregutter’s design is a remarkable example of Otto’s dragon-salad-bowl concept — in this case, the blending of an elk and a fish. “Dean had gone on a trip to some museum and in this museum was a skeleton of a prehistoric elk that had these humongous antlers, and he thought that was a really cool idea to design a dragon that’s so big, it’s actually almost a docile creature. We then mixed the design with an old perch fish — fish that basically look like old people, with very grandfather-looking faces.”
As terrifying as Hidden World’s villain Grimmel (voiced by F. Murray Abraham) may be, his anesthetized pack of razor-sharp minions is even more frightening — so much so, they may be the scariest dragons the series has ever shown. “I think so, yes, they’re the most intimidating, fiercest-looking dragons,” says Otto of the formidable species. “Obviously besides the big dragons from the first and second movies, which are impressive by size, the Deathgrippers and the way they walk on their pincers and slink around and hunt in packs makes them, I think, the most scary of the dragons.”
Immune to the call of an alpha, the Deathgrippers are a species that prey together and function within themselves. “We looked at scorpions, black widows, certain types of really crazy hunting dogs,” notes Otto. “These dragons had to be really fierce and dangerous from the moment they first appear. With villains and in particular villains’ henchmen, you have to understand them immediately, clearly, from the first shot you see them.”
Yet there are hidden layers to the Deathgripper design, which highlights a challenge Otto gave his design team very early on in the HTTYD trilogy: every dragon must have something surprising to it, unseen at the audience’s first glance. “Look at the way Valka’s dragon in the second film could all of a sudden unfold a second set of wings,” Otto points out. “We want to make every one of our dragons interesting and intriguing, so the idea for the Deathgrippers was that they could reveal a scorpion pincer from the tail, or they could protrude their tusks and pull them in, or do other things to get themselves into a heightened, surprising state by changing aspects of their body.”
The franchise has showcased the vast adorability of dragon babies before (see: the Christmas special!), but one baby gets a glamorous makeover — and a name — in Hidden World. Meet Fishmeat, an infant Gronckle whom Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) carries around throughout the film to simultaneously cute and detrimental degree.
“In the script, there was this idea that Fishlegs becomes a surrogate parent to one of the Gronckles and he would take this baby everywhere since he’s such a dragon nerd,” says Otto. “Early on in one of the animation tests, we tested giving Fishlegs a backpack and sticking the baby in it, and then later on we thought, ‘Well, what if it’s like a Babybjörn?’ And that just really worked. We sold the producers and Dean on it immediately. There was so much humor that could then be written into the script just by adding that idea, and that relationship was really cute to develop.”
Almost as cute, perhaps, as Fishmeat himself. “We’ve shown Baby Gronckles before, but we made this one as cute as can be,” Otto chuckles. “We freshened him up and really made him a star.”
And then there’s this thing. All you need to know about the pint-sized Hobgobbler is this: You’re far more familiar with its real-world basis than you might think. “Dean wanted to have a French bulldog dragon in the movie because he has three Frenchies, so that’s really what the Hobgobbler is,” laughs Otto, who points out the character’s tendency to show up when least wanted. Still, there are unexpected pieces to its influence. “It’s a mix between a Frenchie bulldog and a rainforest frog… and also a beachball.”