Monday, January 27, 2014

New Checklist and Rulebook Casefile: Observations in How to Train Your Dragon

I’ve updated the Checklist road test for How to Train Your Dragon and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the new answers in more depth:

Another new question in the checklist is “Is the movie based more on observations than ideas?” I have this under “Theme”, because startling fealty to real life is more likely to create deeper meaning than any big ideas you may want to impart, but the fact is that these observations don’t just improve theme, they empower every aspect of the process.

As I pointed out here, movies must reflect how the world works even if they’re not set on our world, and I discussed here how fantasy worlds should draw most of their mythology and methodology from real-world cultures. How to Train Your Dragon is a great example of both, but the movie’s commitment to reality goes even further...

The heart of the movie lies in the astounding silent sequences in which Hiccup and Toothless the dragon form their tenuous bond. In the book, the dragon could talk, but the filmmakers made the daring decision to render him mute, even though they were adapting the story to a far more dialogue-dependent medium. How did they pull it off?

One would assume that, when writing a dragon story, the fun part would be coming up with the complex dragon mythology and the crazy creatures, and this movie has glimpses of that, but for the most part, they don’t let their imaginations run wild: they base all of Toothless’s behavior on real animals…specifically cats and tigers.

They could have just assumed that we would say “Hey, these dragons are clearly real, since we can see them!” but they knew that, especially in an animated movie, merely seeing a character is not believing. We would only truly believe in these dragons if we recognized their behavior. By basing their dragon behavior on close observation of real-life animals, they accomplished that.

(And another related fact from the excellent DVD documentaries: they brought in master cinematographer Roger Deakins to advise them on their “photography”, and he taught them how to simulate light more realistically than any other computer animated movie, creating truly hard shadows for the first time. The effect is both beautiful and subconsciously powerful, giving even the cartoony main characters a startling solidity. That made the writers’ job a lot easier.)


Satia said...

There is the moment in this film when Hiccup holds out his hand, palm out, his faced turned away. Toothless, not sure what to do at first starts to turn away as well. But then he stops and does something Romanov used to do--he puts his forehead into Hiccup's hand. At that moment, I fell in love because it was so genuine. That moment gets me every time, especially now that Romanov is no longer here with us.

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