How to Train Your Dragon 2: Animation Past, Present and Future

Recently I had the awesome opportunity to return to DreamWorks Animation Studios in Glendale, California for a prescreening of an incredible 3D animated film, How to Train Your Dragon 2. While I’ve promised not to talk about the storyline, I can tell you that this film reaches far beyond the expectations of animation. It’s so moving and so vividly crafted, in fact, that you can’t help but forget you’re watching animation.

Part of the reason this film exceeds the imagination has to do with their newest proprietary animation software, Apollo. Before I go further, let’s get all geeky-tech for a minute and break down the basics of animation. Warning: I’m as non-techy as it gets, and this info will undoubtedly have a few holes. Patch where necessary.

In the late 19th century, the birth of animation began. Artists would draw thousands of near-exact images, incorporating subtle motions that, when played in quick succession, gave the appearance of movement. It was tedious work that took long stretches of time and effort to produce one moving scene.

To put this into perspective, it takes around 60 single images to produce just 7 seconds of animation. How do I know? While at DreamWorks I was able to star in my very own 7 second animated flip-book, courtesy of The experience was an eye-opener. Just imagine the length of time it would have taken to produce an entire feature-length animated film this way. Animation of old was definitely a labor of love.

flipbooFYI: that flip-book goes with me to the grave. All I’ll say is there was a small stuffed lamb, a Nordic wig and some sparkly sunglasses. What? I was in character.

By the mid 20th century, early 2D computer animation was in the works, but it would take thirty plus years before the beginnings of 3D computer animation were even possible.

Side geek-note, did you know that Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the earliest feature-length animated film, gracing the screens in 1937? It had a whopping 362,919 individual animated frames. You can read more about the process here.

Fast forward all the way to 1998, when DreamWorks Animation released their first two animated feature films, Antz and Prince of Egypt, which were vastly different in terms of animation. Antz utilized new CGI (computer generated imagery) technology to give the characters a full-spectrum 3D appeal, whereas Prince of Egypt relied on traditional hand-drawn animation techniques.

It seemed that animation couldn’t get any cooler.

Then came MoCap (motion capture) animation. It’s a technique animators use to incorporate the most natural motion in animated characters. Actors strap into tight suits with hundreds of sensors and then move according to scene directions. The animated characters are directly linked to the actors, and animators can study how things like shoulders, arms, hips and knees (etc.) should move.

Although MoCap had been around for some time, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that animated feature films began incorporating this technology into their scenes.

I had the fun opportunity to meet two motion capture actors, and film a mini-scene in which I was able to swing a sensor-attached toy axe directly at the actors and watch on-screen as the axe (not me!) flew around the animated shot. It was a great insight into how these sensors work to give animated characters and props the natural motion that makes them seem almost real.

All of this brings us to today, and to the awe-inspiring film, How to Train Your Dragon 2. Engineers and animators worked together behind closed doors for over five years to develop Apollo. This software allows animators to create more intuitive animated characters, literally putting the pen back in their hands. Instead of drawing on paper as in days of old, animators are drawing on a computer screen, and have more ability to incorporate their spontaneity into their animations.

What previous CGI technology lacked was the intuitiveness of a hands-on animator. Now, instead of using spreadsheets with codes for motion control (they really did that, and it seemed painfully slow work just to capture the right style of motion), animators can more easily manipulate characters and scene elements with the touch of a pen. It’s an exciting time to be in animation, and DreamWorks Animation Studios is the frontier of new animation technology.

bryannedragonDuring one of the presentations I was able to play with Apollo and manipulate Hiccup’s (the main character of How to Train Your Dragon 2) face right on screen. With the gentle touch of an electric pen, I pulled Hiccup’s tongue far from his mouth, shortened his nose, raised an eyebrow, and made him cross-eyed. It was fun, but also great way to understand just how sensitive this program is. Animators with far more skill have the ability to incorporate subtle expressions and nuanced movements that can relay an emotional story all their own.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the proof of this technological feat of animation.

Writer and director Dean Deblois was asked what he believed the future was for animation, and he simply responded,  “I don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be a boundary. I believe animation has a wide open future. I can’t help but wonder if in ten years what we’ve done will seem primitive.”

I can’t help but wonder that myself, too.

For now, we can study How to Train Your Dragon 2, which comes to theaters June 13, 2014 and imagine the possibilities of the animation of tomorrow.

Final side note: DreamWorks Animation Studios campus and crew are so generous, and so willing to share their wealth of knowledge that you can’t help but be infected by their passion for animation. I’ll continue to hope (and nag) my sons about changing their chosen career tracks to become animators for the coolest company I’ve ever seen. A mother can dream.