Over the last decade, writer/director Dean DeBlois has dedicated himself to one fantastical world with a trilogy of How to Train Your Dragon films, always striving to push creative boundaries—not least with the final film of the bunch, The Hidden World.
The film picks up with Viking Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), who now reigns as village chief, as he sets out to find a mysterious dragon utopia known as The Hidden World. Contending with a villainous dragon hunter, Hiccup sees his world begin to crumble, when his dragon Toothless falls for a female Light Fury, and he must consider who he would be without his trusted friend by his side.
A two-time Oscar nominee for his work on the franchise’s first two installments, DeBlois has always been wary of sequels, which is why he worked tirelessly to make How to Train Your Dragon 2 and The Hidden World as strong as they could be. With the latter film, “the biggest challenge was just to maintain the integrity and the quality of it. So many trilogies fall a little short on their third installment,” the director explains. “We didn’t [want to] let our fans down, who were very vocal on social media.”
The task of delivering a film that fans would love was particularly daunting, given the director’s determination that his “star couple” of Hiccup and Toothless needed to go their own separate ways in this final film. “[To] not have the audience hate us for it was the real trick,” DeBlois says, “to tell a story that had a bittersweet ending, and something very life-affirming in its message, yet not traumatize our younger audience, and not have our fans turn against us for separating them, in the end.”
DEADLINE: How do you feel, having brought your trilogy of Dragon films to a close, after working on them for over a decade?
DEAN DEBLOIS: It’s relief, and satisfaction, and pride, I think, because it’s largely the same group of people that worked on all three films. It’s such a rare opportunity to tell a story in three acts, and bring it to its finite end, but to do so in a way that we planned, and not have it go off the rails, or suddenly get turned into a bunch of other sequels we didn’t want. It feels like we kept ourselves honest, and tried to do the best we could with the characters. Now that it’s done, it’s bittersweet because we’re not working together on the same projects, but we do feel like it’s a feather in our cap. So, it was worth the decade.
DEADLINE: It is quite rare to see one director spearhead a trilogy of animated films, over such a short amount of time. What would you say these films have meant to you?
DEBLOIS: It meant a lot to me, because I grew up a Star Wars kid. Those first three films just represented so much to me, in terms of worldbuilding and characters that were engaging, that would develop and remain true to themselves, at the same time. So, it was an opportunity, albeit a Viking world—an ever-expanding world, with unlimited numbers of islands that we could create, and dragons, and a large cast of characters, and rites of passage that feel universal. Sticking with Hiccup through his growth, from the tender age of a Viking runt, to the wise chief that he becomes in the end, and the challenges that faced him along the way, a lot of it felt very personal to me, and relatable to just about everyone working on the film. So, we had great love for the characters, and the world.
But I do think in retrospect, it’s also a relief to be able to put it to bed, and jump into new stories with new characters, and feel like you can creatively stretch again.
DEADLINE: How did you approach the challenge of mapping out the trilogy? What did you want to achieve with its final chapter?
DEBLOIS: Chris Sanders and I were drafted onto the first film pretty late in the game, so it needed to be reconceived at the story level, and it was a rush to the finish. We weren’t really thinking about sequels, or the idea of revisiting characters. We just wanted a story that would work. When Jeffrey Katzenberg asked me to come up with ideas for a sequel, in its success, I let him know that I’m not a big fan of sequels, in general, if they lack purpose and feel gratuitous. So, the only version of that I would be interested in is a larger coming-of-age story, a story in three acts, that would map Hiccup’s coming of age.
It allowed us to jump five years with the second film, and present Hiccup as a character with a new crossroads, a new rite of passage that he had to face, going from childhood to the more sobering and serious consequences of adulthood, a step that we all have to undergo. But it was also a creative challenge—like, how do we age up our characters and present them as a more mature cast, dealing with a larger world? Because they now lie on the backs of dragons. It allowed us to answer some questions people had about the first film, and carry them forward with the end goal of, in this third film, challenging Hiccup’s own perception of his worth. Everything that he had achieved of consequence came from Toothless, so this idea that without Toothless, he might be ultimately worthless, is something that resides at his core.
So, the story is, at once, a Call of the Wild of Toothless—this domesticated dragon, the last of his kind, discovering that there’s another future for him—but that means separating from this codependent relationship with the Viking boy that nursed him back to health, and has been his sidekick throughout the years.
It was, both in terms of its scale, and the height of technology, a very ambitious film. We wanted to put a lot on screen, but also emotionally, it felt very resonant. I love stories where you have disparate characters that come together, through some extraordinary circumstance, but despite their bond, there comes a moment where they must separate, and they will never be the same again. So I thought, here was our opportunity to bring a finite end to the story, and also touch upon that very life-affirming truth about characters that enter and exit your lives, and make you forever changed, as a result.
DEADLINE: Could you expand on the visual and narrative opportunities you were excited to explore with The Hidden World?
DEBLOIS: The Hidden World is a pretty expansive location, and we were certainly looking forward to discovering new places, as we did with the second film. Discovering new dragons is always exciting; new villains coming into the mix definitely puts the screws to them. But I think it was the emotional journey of what Hiccup has to face—this identity crisis of who he is, without his dragon—against the backdrop of a world that continues to expand, and the comfort of home being left behind. Being out there at the edge of the world, seeking out what could be a myth, this sort of sailor’s tale, which turns out to be, in effect, an access point to the ancestral home of dragons.
It allowed us to really dream big. We finally have the technology to put as many characters on screen as we wanted, create as vast and elaborate sets as we could conceive, and not have to rely upon matte paintings to be able to do it all. We could fly around, and light with great finesse. The tools have been growing with us throughout the decade, and they get better every year. Finally, we improved the back end of the system, so that no matter how ambitious the visuals were, we still had the computing power to be able to finish the film, and put those final frames on screen in all of their subtlety and glorious detail.
DEADLINE: What was the process in bringing The Hidden World to life?
DEBLOIS: I had been talking with our production designer, Pierre-Olivier Vincent, about how the dragons will go away at the end of the trilogy, and we don’t want to feel like they’ve been banished to some dark, awful cave somewhere. It should feel like a world unto itself—like the dragons belong there somehow.
He started looking at lots of reference for bioluminescence and phosphorescence, looking at vast caves, and the way crystal appears in a lot of cave-like dwellings, but could channel light. It might be a way of actually bringing light into a space that would ultimately be dark. We talked about the idea that this would be a vast network of caves and tunnels—a vast world unto itself for the dragons.
Then, I gave him an idea that I had from a dream, which was a hole in the sea, and he did a painting of this vast, mile-wide, 360-degree Niagara Falls. It was pouring into itself, the idea [being] that all this water would interact with live magma and be turned into steam, and create chambers of mystery. The idea was that the dragons might even have a Day-Glo pattern that appears, as they’re flying through the bioluminescent chambers, almost like under a black light, [and we’d] populate the spaces with mushrooms and fungi that would be bioluminescent, as well. It had a magical feel, and yet the intention was that it would feel of this earth—that we didn’t suddenly jump into some other dimension, or go to another planet. It needed to feel grounded, and yet as whimsical as we could make it.
DEADLINE: In the credits for The Hidden World, I saw Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins’ name pop up, and came to realize that he served as a visual consultant on all three films. How did he get involved? What did he bring to this series?
DEBLOIS: On the first film, we invited him to talk with our lighting department and layout department, the people responsible for camera placement and lenses, camera movement and composition. We just [wanted to have] someone of Roger Deakins’ caliber come in and talk to the departments about achieving a look that would somehow straddle the line between animation and live-action, where we could really take advantage of textures, and hair, and moss, just to have this sense of reality to the place. Because we wanted people to feel that the dragons were real, and weren’t just cartoon characters—that they had roamed this earth at one point, that the peril was real. As part of establishing that there was consequence to heroism in this world, we wanted it to feel gritty, and palpable, and visceral.
Roger took to the story and became instrumental at just about every stage, from the very beginning, where we would pin up reference images on corkboards, and talk about sequences of the film, and how not only the palette would advance, but also how atmosphere might come into play as a storytelling element. From there, he would work with our storyboard artists, checking in on a lot of the shot construction and making suggestions—then, working with the layout department, looking at the previews that would come in and talking about shots, and how to move the camera, and adjusting compositions. Then, all the way through to the end, where he would work with our lighters on the final look of the films—where to place lights, and to what intensity—and just creating a look that felt very different from any other DreamWorks film to come before.
He really enjoyed the process and liked the story, and liked being part of the team. So, he came back for not only the second film, but the third film, as well.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you?
DEBLOIS: It’s been a decade of working with dragons, so I’m looking to jump creatively into different worlds and different characters. I’ve got a handful of things that are moving along at their own pace, and there’s a nice variety to them. Most of them are live-action; there’s a hybrid idea in there, too. There’s even an animated project that I’ve been contributing notes to, and may write soon. I love animation. I never want to leave it behind, yet I’ve been wanting to tackle love-action for some time. I feel like now’s the time I should do it, and if I don’t, I probably never will. But it feels like a really creatively fertile time for me, because everything’s a possibility. It’s just a fun place to be in.