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Welcome to Awards Contenders. This month, SYFY WIRE is talking to the actors, directors, designers, and craftspeople whose work was featured in the best movie and TV offerings of 2019, and who have been nominated for various awards. Today, we're talking to director Dean DeBlois about How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.
Dean DeBlois had a dream, a vision. He saw a huge 360-degree Niagara-style waterfall in the middle of the ocean that was pouring down into itself, as if into an enormous hole into the sea. But DeBlois couldn't figure out the mechanics: Where was the water going? Where did the hole empty into? That vision stuck with him, though, and months later it popped in his head when he was trying to solve a problem on the final installment of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy — what should the dragons' ancestral home look like?
"Caves felt too oppressive, like a banishment," DeBlois says. "Something at the edge of the known world made more sense, since that was a sailors' myth. But instead of sailing off the edge of the world, there'd be a hole in the sea that could be the entry point to an undersea volcano, where you might see dragons wandering around."
DeBlois' hole-in-the-sea idea gave production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent a starting point for the creation of a vast land beneath the sea. In its first appearance, it would seem dark and ominous, but eventually it would be lit up with natural bioluminescence and phosphorescence. Boiling magma would turn water into steam, creating spaces for caverns and tunnels, and also bring light into the darkness that would be amplified by cave crystals. There would be millions of mushrooms growing in a forest several miles long, and reefs of glowing coral.
"This imaginary land, says DeBlois, "would use things that already exist on this earth, but get really fanciful with them."
There were a few problems with lighting in this imaginary space, since one of the two main dragons in the film was white (well, iridescent mother-of-pearl, more precisely) and the other was black. Luckily, the How to Train Your Dragon team has had a not-so-secret hidden weapon: the renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins, who had agreed to be their visual consultant. Back in 2008, when DeBlois signed on for the Dragon project, he soon realized that his background in hand-drawn animation hadn't prepared him for one crucial aspect of digital animation.
"The layout department chooses camera placement, lenses, and camera movement," he says. "And it creates compositions, too — months away from the process of lighting them. It seemed strange to me to commit to a composition before knowing where the light and shadow would be."
DeBlois invited Deakins on board to help bring unity to the two departments, and his consulting started with suggesting photo references, building color palettes, creating atmosphere, and helping define a visual identity of every sequence in the movie. Deakins worked with the storyboard artists on shot construction, with the layout department on previz, and with the lighting department on the final images.
"He could sit there and call out different lighting scenarios just like he would with a gaffer on a real set," DeBlois says. "It was a master class in cinematography."
You can see the effect of Deakins' work on The Hidden World in the movie's naturalistic lighting style and resulting visceral reality (think Hiccup emerging through fire and fog, or the Light Fury's plasma blasts). "Animation is often very candy-colored and over-lit," DeBlois says. "But Roger is constantly trying to remove lights. He wants to create the feel of diffused natural light coming in, whether it's from a window or an opening in the ground. There's always a sense of trying to create something that feels sophisticated and gritty and real-world."
Deakins also encouraged creative restraint. Although CG animation can zoom the camera anywhere it wants to, Deakins reminded the filmmakers to think about the purpose of each shot. Says DeBlois, "Roger was always there to say, 'But why? Whose perspective are you following? How is it advancing the story?' Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should."
Another of Deakins' contributions can be seen in the movie's most meme-able moment: the courtship of Toothless and the Light Fury. The Dragon team considered several animal-mating scenarios, ranging from spiders to birds, and finally came up with Toothless' wonderfully ridiculous display. ("There's a bird of paradise that kind of makes an umbrella out of its black wings and hops up and down," DeBlois says. "It's the strangest thing! — 'Look how large I am! How colorful I am!'")
Deakins had the idea for the ritual to take place at dawn, so the sun would creep in on the horizon ad bounce against distant rock faces, giving the scene a warm glow and also suggesting the passage of time. "If you look at the scene straight through, from beginning to end, the lighting changes," DeBlois says. "It's really a gradual transition from shot to shot, slowly introducing the new day."