Post Production

How 3D Was A Key Storytelling Tool in How to Train Your Dragon

When the use of 3D is discussed in professional circles, you’d be hard pressed to find a filmmaker that doesn’t agree that DreamWorks Animation’s 2010 animated hit How to Train Your Dragon set an exceptionally high bar. Acclaim is given in particular for the way the story is told using 3D in harmony with elements from script to score to create a touching, humorous and entertaining ride.

How to Train Your Dragon opened March 26, 2010 and grossed $495 million worldwide at the box office. The feature earned two Academy Award nominations, including a nomination for directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders for best animated feature and a nomination for composer John Powell for best score. The film also earned a string of additional nominations and accolades. At the second annual International 3D Society Awards, this 3D community honored How to Train Your Dragon for best animated stereo feature and best stereography in an animated feature.

This was only the second stereoscopic 3D release from DWA, whose CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg threw down the gauntlet in 2007, declaring that all of the studio’s animated movies would be made in stereo.  DWA enlisted directors DeBlois and Sanders—a pair best known at that time as co-writers and co-directors of Disney Feature Animation’s Lilo and Stitch, which earned a 2002 Academy Award nomination for best animated feature.

 With How to Train Your Dragon, the duo found themselves in unfamiliar territory as this was not only their first stereoscopic movie, but also their first computer animated movie. Still, the pair was not without a net. DWA has already invested in developing a 3D pipeline and its first stereo movie—Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)—was already in production when they came on board to write and direct How to Train Your Dragon. And, DreamWorks Animation had already brought in some experienced pros including McNally—a respected stereo supervisor who had already compiled a list of 3D credits including the first digital 3D theatrical release, Disney’s Chicken Little (2005) and the 3D version of 1993 stopmotion feature Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (2006).

How to Train Your Dragon producer Bonnie Arnold related that even with the DWA brain trust, the team was apprehensive, as they very quickly realized that the 3D approach for Monsters vs. Aliens would not be appropriate for Dragon. Monsters vs. Aliens was conceived as a comedic spoof of monster movies from the ‘50s—an earlier golden age of 3D—and as such, lent itself to the use of in-your-face 3D. “That was the convention of the film,” Arnold said. “If we used the same technique (on Dragon) it would have been odd.” This is because in contrast, How to Train Your Dragon—which was loosely based on the fantasy novel of the same name by Cressida Cowell—was a dramatic comedy set in a fictional Viking village that was much more emotional in tone and epic in scope.

Initially, the directors were concerned about Jeffrey Katzenberg’s 3D mandate. Recalls DeBlois: “[We were advised] you can’t have dark scenes because 3D doesn’t work very well in low light; no rapid cutting because your eye needs time to adjust to the 3D in every shot; no shallow focus because 3D is all about the deep focus; and 3D seems to work best with wide angle lenses. For Chris and I, our favorite film language is soft focus, long lenses, low light, and exciting action scenes with rapid cutting. We thought immediately that this tool is tying our hands.” Arnold recalled that for inspiration, the core team began to go as a group to see 3D movies—some of the earliest digital 3D movies at that time. The eureka moment came when they saw Coraline, which opened in early 2009. “Coraline seems to violate all the rules that we were told you cannot violate with 3D, and when they did, they either dialed back the 3D or found ways around it,” DeBlois says, explaining that this lesson was an important turning point in their approach to the movie.

The rest of the excerpt from Exploring 3D on How to Train Your Dragon.

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