ANNECY — In a first ever extended presentation to an audience outside DreamWorks Animation, writer-director Dean DeBlois and producer Bonnie Arnold lifted the lid Tuesday on one of DWA’s most anticipated movies, “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”
The presentation, delivered at an Annecy festival Work in Progress session, included three clips, plus images and behind-the-scenes commentaries from DeBlois and Arnold.
Neither gave away the pic’s plot, but the footage and explanations, which were received with jubilant applause by an audience of animation industry pros, toon fanboys and film school students, served to suggest directions “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” which bows June 2014, will be taking.
The pic is a fantasy action adventure with a balance of fun and comedy, DeBlois told Variety after Tuesday’s Work in Progress.
Per DeBlois, who co-directed the franchise’s first part with Chris Sanders (“The Croods”), “one of the marching orders that I was given by Jeffrey Katzenberg at the beginning was: ‘Let’s age it up a little bit.’”
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Taking place five years after the first installment, part two ages up Viking Hiccup and his friends from 14-15 year olds to 19 and 20.
Hiccup has also wised up technology-wise, acquiring a prosthetic leg with a retractable foot, a “dragon blade” fire sword which makes dragons think he’s one of their kind and allows him to light protective fire circles, a leather flight suit — “the equivalent of Viking bike leather,” DeBlois joked — and a leather mask with dragon-like spikes on the top of the head. When riding Toothless, he also sports a flying squirrel flight suit. He’s hardly a Viking metrosexual, but this is a far nattier Hiccup than the goofy early teen of part one.
A first clip seen as a teaser at Cinema-Con and repeated at Annecy at four steps — storyboard, layout/pre-viz, character animation and with final lighting and vfx — showed Hiccup, also now less of a dweeb but still wiry, putting Toothless through his aerial acrobatics paces, include a vertiginous nose-spin climb to gain altitude.
Hiccup then used the squirrel flight suit to base jump off Toothless’ back, plunging toward the sea.
Toothless’ artificial half-tail has been painted red.
“I’m such a fan of Hayao Miyazaki that the idea of having an organic form coupled with early mechanics seemed visually and, from a narrative point of view, very appealing,” DeBlois said, citing Mayasaki’s “My Neighbor Totoro” as a particular inspiration.
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” introduces at least two new main characters.
One, presented in Annecy in a painting, is a cocky dragon-trapper “who’s a bit of a villain,” DeBlois said. He dresses in the style of Lapland’s ancient Sami hunters, DeBois added.
Another is a vigilante dragon-rider, with octopus-like tentacles emerging from his head.
In a second clip seen at Annecy, the vigilante’s dragon downs Toothless, who crashes through sea-ice, and carries off Hiccup.
In a third clip, the vigilante deposits Hiccup in his lair. There Hiccup calms threatening dragons wielding his dragon blade.
In “How to Train… 2,” Hiccup explores “unchartered lands beyond the Viking map. One of the overall concepts of the film is that he discovers a larger conflict brewing between humans and dragons and he finds himself at the center of it,” Deblois said.
“We conceived the second film as part of a complete trilogy, the second chapter in a larger story,” DeBlois recalled, saying the trilogy’s narrative arc is “Hiccup’s coming of age.”
The trilogy will also explain, as Cressida Cowell’s kid-lit novel series that inspired the movies, why dragons no longer exist.
“There was a period of time, when all the cultures in the world believed in dragons, so what did happen to them?” asked Cowell, who attended Annecy’s Work in Progress.
If Hiccup is growing up, technology has also moved on.
“How to Train Your Dragon 2” is the first film at DreamWorks Animation to use its new software for animation and lightning, through the whole pipeline, said Arnold, whose producer credits include the original “Toy Story,” Disney’s “Tarzan,” and DWA’s “Over The Hedge” and “How to Train Your Dragon.”
DWA’s new generation software — Primo for animation, Torch for lighting — meant “we ended up with so much subtlety, in facial animation, the sense of fat, jiggle, loose skin, the sensation of skin moving over muscle instead of masses moving together,” per De Blois.
Ultimately, however, he added: “All new tools are useful to animators, but great animation comes down to great animators.”