For producer Bonnie Arnold, saying goodbye to the world of How to Train Your Dragon has been bittersweet. Bringing three films to life over the past 13 years, Arnold aimed to be as creatively bold with series closer The Hidden World as she had been with the prior two films, sticking to her guns with an ending that felt right, as sad as it was.
A coming-of-age trilogy directed by Dean DeBlois, based on books by Cressida Cowell, the How to Train Your Dragon films centered on Hiccup, a hapless young Viking who initially dreamed of hunting dragons, before developing a life-changing friendship with Toothless, a dragon of his own. In the third film, which debuted in February, Hiccup and Toothless are all grown up, chasing after a secret Dragon Utopia called The Hidden World, while ultimately coming to realize that their lives may be taking them in different directions.
Given that How to Train Your Dragon and its 2014 sequel racked up three Oscar nominations, including two for Best Animated Feature Film, the visually stunning Hidden World is likely to wind up back in that race. But for Arnold, who’s overseen the series in a “godmother-type role,” what’s been most rewarding with these DreamWorks films has been seeing the mark they’ve left on the world, and the next generation of animators.
“The big animation festival is in France. We were there this summer, and did a signing for the third film art book. A lot of students there came up to us as we were signing the book and said, ‘Look, when the first movie came out in 2010, I was nine years old, and now, I’m 18. That movie was the reason that I now want to be an animator,’” Arnold recalls. “And that, to me, is endlessly satisfying, I have to say.”
At this point, Arnold is still looking for her next passion project, “that thing that I’m going to fall in love with like I did How to Train Your Dragon,” she says. For the producer, though, that may end up being The Wizards of Once, another film in development, based on a book series by Cowell.
Below, she discusses her decade-plus with the Dragon films, the challenges of bringing The Hidden World to life, and the project she’s developing now.
DEADLINE: You started thinking about the How to Train Your Dragon series around 2006. What was it about Cressida Cowell’s books that resonated to the extent that you felt they could carry a trilogy of films?
BONNIE ARNOLD: The first book was maybe around 2004. One of our development execs had located the book when he was out scouting, and actually, DreamWorks was pretty small then. There were just a couple of us producers, and we would regularly look through materials that had been brought in, and there was just something about the book that really appealed to my sensibility.
I was finishing Over the Hedge, the first film I produced for DreamWorks, and one Saturday, Jeffrey Katzenberg stopped and chatted with me in the hall, and asked me, “What are you going to do next?” I said, “Well, I really love this How to Train Your Dragon book. I think there’s something there, but I know you’ve started developing it, and I’m not going to be finished on this movie for a number of months.” And he said, “Well, we’ll wait on you.”
Cressida Cowell creates these amazing worlds, and these really interesting characters. And listen, a lot of people pooh-poohed it. “We’ve seen dragon movies; nobody cares about Vikings.” But I think even to this day, if you told somebody that How to Train Your Dragon was about Vikings, I’m not sure they would realize that. I just feel like people relate to the story of Hiccup and Toothless, and a lot of that was figuring out who each of those characters were. It took us some time to develop that into something that everybody could believe in. It went through a lot of permutations, but Dean came along to the project and really was super instrumental, in helping that come to life in a great way.
Then, in the original story, Toothless was this little runt dragon, and one of the ideas, of course—the big wish fulfillment for the movie—was to make him a dragon that Hiccup could eventually conquer and ride. So, I was the one that was chosen to go over to London to tell the author that we were changing the main character of her book. [laughs] I guess that’s part of the job of a producer, right? You have to do the good stuff and the dirty work, too.
DEADLINE: Could you expand on the challenge of producing this trilogy of films, and The Hidden World, specifically?
ARNOLD: Each film had its own technical challenges. I think it was never about more reality; it was about more believability, and sophistication, and scope. But I think in some ways, you want to make it feel true. You don’t want to get too far from what the first one is, because it feels like it needs to live in that world.
I think it was a bold choice, on Dean’s part, to suggest that the second film would be five years later, and Hiccup and the characters would be older, but that presented a whole ’nother challenge to the crew. We needed to redesign the characters and change their look, and at the same time make them more sophisticated. And then in the third movie, we were going to be going to this amazing, underground world where the dragons live, this hidden world. And how do we make that feel?
We knew that it would be sad for Hiccup and Toothless to part. I mean, that was always our intention. Way back in 2011, we were talking about what that ending was going to be. If you make it a world [where it] feels like it’s a good thing for the dragons, maybe you still feel sad about it, but you don’t feel heartbroken about it. So, I think part of the challenge for the artists was to make that place feel so special, and so amazing, that you wanted Toothless and the Light Fury to be there.
So, those were some of the things that kept the artists interested, giving them these different challenges. How to better tell the story with each iteration of the movie, but make it seem seamless.
DEADLINE: Visual effects and the technology available to animators have come a long way since the first Dragon film debuted in 2010, which is certainly quite apparent, in watching The Hidden World.
ARNOLD: I think the sky’s the limit. I think you have to set your own parameters, because you can just keep going, right? At some point, you have to set your own limitations. I think the goal, however, from the least complex to the most complex, is that you want it to feel like it supports the storytelling.
From the first movie, we said we wanted Burke and the places that Hiccup and Toothless go to feel like places we would want to visit, so I think it’s about hitting that storytelling goal each time. I think being able to do it richer and better challenges us, as artists—“How can we do this?” Because we still definitely have budgets and schedules.
Also, these days, I think everybody’s [pushing visual boundaries]. I mean, the new Lion King movie is all digital. So, the sky’s kind of the limit. But I liked that our goal was to create this believable world that felt like a place you might like to be.
DEADLINE: In what ways did The Hidden World benefit from DreamWorks’ introduction of the Moonray ray tracing renderer? I understand that this tool proved key in being able to realize much more sophisticated lighting scenarios.
ARNOLD: I think some of what the new technology did was allow us to see things as we created them in real time. That was also a really big piece of it, especially in the film, the rendering time.
Going back before Dragon, I remember on the first Toy Story movie, it would just take hours and numbers of giant machines to render things, so you could even see it, and we would have to look at things [where] Buzz and Woody looked like little popsicle sticks. [laughs] But now, the stuff that we do, even in the very earliest stages, is so sophisticated and so polished, and I think it just helps you make better decisions, honestly, along the way. Once you get the story working, the crew is able to execute that much quicker, and make it look a certain way.
I feel like the technology is just a tool in your toolbox, to help tell the story better. Everybody brings their paints to the party, and we’re all painting this canvas on each of the movies, and each of them had their own limitations. Sometimes it’s time, it’s money, it’s resources, and I feel so proud that over the years, we’ve been able to get what I would consider quality on the screen. But I still go back to this thing I learned from the beginning: It’s story, story, story.
DEADLINE: This season, you were honored with the SPARK CG Lifetime Achievement Award. What did that mean to you?
ARNOLD: Well, it’s hard to believe. I feel like Peter O’Toole when he gave that speech; it’s like, “I’m not done yet.” I mean, really. [laughs] But really, I’m so honored that they thought to give me this. At the end of the day, my greatest satisfaction is the fact that these movies have this enduring effect on not only my children, but other people’s kids and families. It just so happens that this year is the 20th anniversary of the Tarzan movie I did at Disney, and I still get people coming up to me to tell me how much they love the movie, and this and that. So, I’m proud of my legacy of films, and it’s amazing of the folks at SPARK to recognize that.
It makes me look back and think, where has the time gone? But I’m excited about the future, too. I feel like there has never been a better time for storytellers and filmmakers, because the appetite for this has not gone away. How people see it is different, but the fact that people still want to tell good stories and watch good stories, I think that’s what’s really exciting. I’m always looking for the next great story and how I’m going to tell it, and what amazing people I’m going to tell it with. You know, that’s the fun part.
That’s what makes great memories for me, as a producer, how I can pull together people that I’ve worked with and want to work with again, but also new, up-and-coming people that are going to ultimately take my place, in the future of filmmaking.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you?
ARNOLD: I’m attached to develop another project at DreamWorks by Cressida Cowell called The Wizards of Once. We’re in the very early stages, but she’s written a third book [in that series] that’s getting ready to come out. I just have a long-term relationship with her. I love her characters, I love the world; I think there’s something amazing there, and DreamWorks has an option on the material, so we’re working hard to try to figure it out.
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