English French German Italian Japanese Korean Portuguese Spanish

Simon Otto,

Animator Simon Otto worked for three and a half years on ‘How to Train Your Dragon’, the story of a young Viking, Hiccup, who teaches his fellow Vikings to stop battling dragons and start making friends with them. The result is a world of dragons where no animator has gone before. From Digital Media World Magazine


Simon Otto’s job on this film, Head of Character Animation, was in fact two jobs, or one with two distinct stages. The first stage began at pre-preproduction when he was working side-by-side with Character Designer Nicolas Marlet and the design team. “We shepherded all the characters from concept drawings on paper through modelling, rigging and into the final character rigs – the digital puppets. Because there were so many characters, so many rigs, it took about two years to complete all of them, starting in late 2006.”

Right Hand Man
After this stage followed a year and a half of production when Simon became a kind of right hand of the directors, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, in everything related to animation, particularly scene-by-scene character development and character consistency. He helped the animators build up their scenes - and managed to do a little animating himself.

Simon’s team decided to go back to a system they had employed during their 2D animation days when they assigned one supervising animator to work as the lead actor for each character. This decision was based first on the fact that Dean and Chris were very specific about what each shot needed in terms of plot and story and any special character ideas written into the script that were important to them. Second, since the team had been working for so long on the development of the characters, they also had a very precise idea of exactly how these characters should move and their idiosyncrasies, and were able to bring true acting skills to them like a stage or screen actor.
In other words, the directors were not specific about how the characters would move, but knew exactly what they wanted from each scene. As the team pitched their own ideas to them, they simply guided them along. Their long experience with animators had shown them how to let each one play up his character as he saw fit, as long as it fit into the world of the story.

From Design to Animation

Simon said, “I’d say that our design goal throughout the movie, including backgrounds, buildings and sets, was to push the shapes to a fairly strong graphic, exaggerated world while keeping the textures and lighting highly realistic. Animation was treated the same way. The designs are not realistic, while many of the poses, and certainly the emotional performances, are.”

This put their animation style back into a more traditional mode but with more contemporary acting, and came from the directors themselves. It made the animation one of the strongest vehicles of the story. Simon feels the ‘Forbidden Friendship’ sequence illustrates this best. “It plays out over six or seven minutes without any dialogue at all. Storyboards and animation alone carried it, no words. It was confined to those moments of character interaction and we ended up extending it by about a minute because it was working so well.”

Into Production
Starting with storyboards, the layout artists would place the static characters in a scene and then go back and complete an elaborate editorial pass, experimenting with camera angles and movements that may be hard to illustrate in storyboards. In the flying sequences especially, lots of work was done to engage the audiences on a more physical level taking advantage of the stereo 3D. Huge amounts of footage were shot to get some scenes right, 80 to 90 per cent of which were discarded, before the animators could even begin.

‘It was a project that improved every step of the way, but always adhered to the same common idea. Actual shot animation began in February 2009, lasting 11 months. “We were actually supposed to start earlier,” said Simon, “but instead we devoted a team to making sure everyone knew how these characters looked and their facial expressions worked. They created very large libraries of data about their movements. For example, flap cycles ere built into the rigs to allow each dragon to move his wings and fly differently, these were developed before production specifically so the animators could dial these in when they needed them. Having libraries with categories of behaviour like these meant we could work much faster during production and to create consistent, identifiable characters.”

New Species
In all there were five main species of dragon, plus the leading dragon’s species the Night Fury, and the giant dragon dwelling in the Nest. Thus, there were seven different types and within each species they created still other types – fat, skinny, athletic - modifying the shapes, pushing and pulling the rigs into variations by scaling parts of them differently to result in a different dragon. They wanted to compile an expandable world of dragons.

They definitely didn’t want to give the audience that classic ‘VFX dragon’. “We wanted more colourful creatures with more variation in shape, almost as if we were creating a new animal type complete with these species. Early on, when looking at the dragons emerging, we recognized an opportunity to do something never done before. Previously, a dragon has been either a visual effect that has to match a live action plate and be photorealistic, or a silly cartoony character.

Mix and Match
“We were seeking characters that were both believable and that we could have fun with. The Gronckle and Night Fury are completely different takes on dragons seen before, taking inspiration from different types of animals, mixing and matching from different sources with interesting and entertaining results. Not the same as ‘Lord of the Rings’, or ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Quest for Camelot’ – all of which we admired – but an opportunity to create a dragon world, so far unexplored.”
Simon’s conversations with Nicolas Marlet during the design phase introduced a hodge podge of references for each dragon species. “’What about a chubby dragon that looks like a bull-dog crossed with a crocodile? A dragon like that couldn’t have big wings, so we’ll give him small wings and he’ll fly a bit like a hummingbird or a bumble bee. Now he has a hard rocker’s looks so maybe he sounds like a Harley Davidson.’ At some point, you hit on a combination that works for everyone – funny and entertaining. It’s possible to characterize them in a way that draws recognition from an audience. Animation was simply the next step.”

Emotive Vikings
Creating the human characters proved to be completely different from designing the dragons. Simon explained that for him, the biggest influences on the humans were the designs themselves – that is, there were some given character traits inherent in the design. For example, a character’s short stubby legs and great heavy arms, like those on Fishlegs, can give an animator ideas to play with and even expand on.
“But for our team, the most important goal for the human characters was to really make their emotional experiences in the film resonate with the audience,” he said. “Consequently, we had to restrain our acting style and keep it in a very realistic place. They didn’t want the audience to ever think that these were cartoon characters. The emotional beats had to hit home, particularly in a couple of scenes.

“An example is when the father Stoick loses his temper with his son Hiccup and tells him, ‘Don’t you understand – I have an entire village to feed.’ Hiccup’s response – ‘I just want to be one of you guys’ – is extremely important for the story. The animation had to remain at a very believable level.” Their eventual style resulted from very close collaboration with the directors, who were aware that by the time they arrived during pre-production, the animators had already mapped out the looks and behaviours. They took all these ideas on board on went from there.

Modelling and Rigging
They were modelling the designs’ nurb surfaces in Maya, and then took the models into Dreamworks’ proprietary software for rigging called Rig. Likewise, animation was carried out with their proprietary animation application called Emo. Lighting software was also developed in-house, but they would return to Maya or use existing, selected plugins for specific effects and some surfacing.

While Simon’s job doesn’t include modelling or rigging, because of his drafting and 2D animation background, he would sit with Nicolas and the artists and did a lot of draw-overs to guide their work. For example, the first dragon they rigged, the small ‘Terrible Terror’, they painted up every expression, week by week, to show the riggers the range of facial movements they needed to achieve. They did the same for modelling, responding to their models with draw-overs.

He did this mainly to make sure the designs not only looked good but would move correctly for the subsequent animations. “Each character has to move realistically, work properly and maintain design integrity – a tricky balance. Riggers are technical people, but have to be mindful of the artistic aspect of the movements. This comes with communication between the animators, designers, modellers and riggers.”

Controlling the Controls
This movie’s rigs were extremely complex. Compared to the dragon in Shrek, which had 500 controls, their most complex design, the two-headed Zippleback, had 4,800 controls. “As animators, yes, we want lots of controls but they can rapidly become convoluted. The rigging department really helped us take advantage of our computers by creating composite controls, each comprising the controls needed for complex parts that occur in many characters.

“A dragon’s wing, for example, requires an animator to manipulate 150 to 200 controls to move and pose it properly. Instead they used pre-built animations with settings that can tell the computer how fast and strong each wing beat should be. These allowed them to get though very difficult and complex motions much faster and more easily. Previously, the rigs were not only less complex but animators also had to consider how long it would take the computer to re-calculate the maths involved in each motion. Now, computers can process a lot more data in less time. Complexity is possible while still working more or less in real time.”

These pre-built, customizable animations work together with simulations to help animate details such as the webbing of the wings or the bouncing tip of a tail. Trying to animate all of these manually would be a mammoth job. “Because their motion is based on logic,” Simon explained, “the computer can handle it for us, while more intuitive, performance-based movement and posing still need to be done manually by an artist.”

Coordinating Departments
The visual effects and animation departments do their work separately but at times need to communicate to complete a scene. Together, they need to coordinate what happens, for example, when a character jumps into the water. “But the departments we need to collaborate with the most are the rigging and layout teams that work just ahead of us in the workflow,” Simon said. “The riggers are creating the puppets, layout works on the scenes.”

“Also important to us is the department that works directly after us, Character Effects, who help improve the cloth animations, deformation and props that we don’t have time to animate. VFX people are more concerned with fire, smoke, water, fog – things that are typically independent of characters, unless the two interact of course, or need to be animated before the character is added. Usually they can do their work parallel with us or after us.”

Simon put in long days on this project, mostly because he wanted to a chance to do some pure animation himself. His days were usually filled up with managing the team but he did get a chance, often late at night, to work on the lead dragon Toothless, especially in the Forbidden Friendship sequence and some scenes toward the end, and on the Gronckle, the chubby hummingbird dragon.

Simon first joined Dreamworks in 1997, and said that the change to supervision by character made this film significantly different to other recent Dreamworks projects. “It made a tremendous difference on how the characters performed, on the specific ideas of each one and on the consistency of performance. This process can be very difficult to manage in a CG pipeline because you can’t control how the footage comes into the department. Usually, sequences are delivered from department to department. When you have a sequence with only one character, do have to worry about what the other supervising animators will do, but because the production period was so short and rushed they typically had plenty of footage passing through to keep everyone busy.

Ramping It Up
“One major problem occurred,” he said, “when we suddenly realized we needed to make the dragons BIGGER to ramp up the dramatic impact of the film. Toothless, for example, had to represent a dangerous, unknown, mythical beast of a certain size, so that when Hiccup befriends this dragon we don’t know if it will kill him or not. Furthermore, all the dragons had to meet minimum size requirements to be able to carry the kids on their backs, not like little donkeys or even horses, but to be sizable and impressive. So, just before production started, we had to rapidly scale up the dragons within a limited time.

“Scaling up a rig has to be planned carefully. We managed to scale most of them up successfully but some facial controls were not fully resolved. The two-headed dragon, for example, was somewhat limited in this way. He was hard to animate in any case, with the long thin necks and tail.

“Long, skinny parts are always tricky to control because they move organically and require synchronisation of inverse and forward kinetics systems, IK and FK. The head needs to be placed precisely in space and the neck has to move smoothly while you control its shape. The different methods of animating each of these may not work well together, at the same time. Dreamworks R&D is, in fact, trying to resolve this synchronisation now – but for the film, we wound up having to resolve rigging problems manually, frame by frame.”

Flap Cycles
To allow each dragon his own style of flight, the riggers worked with the animators to develop flap cycles. One main cycle was built for each of the seven types of dragon, and each of these had a weak, medium and strong variation. Thus, they had to manually animate 21 different kinds of flap cycle. Included within these cycles were the associated body movements as well. They ended up making as many as 50 different cycles.

To develop these, they studied hours of slow motion films and videos of birds, bats and planes figuring out, for instrance, why small birds fly differently to large ones. They learned the physics of flight, and were able to base their rigs and animation on real examples, not on other dragon movies.

“This was probably our single most time-consuming task, but also saved us the most time in terms of the whole project later on. When you consider the number of sequences involving flying dragons, multiplied by the number of dragons including those involving crowds of dragons – developing those cycles saved us a tremendous amount of time. Furthermore, each performance would run through several cycle speeds within one scene, from slow to fast, so we had to make sure they would work together and blend into each other.”

Rigging the future

Gains made while making this film alone assure Simon that more new developments still lie ahead in other films. “Computer animation techniques for water or fire are such that audiences notice when they are not working, but when they do work, no one is aware of them. A case in point is Stoick’s beard,” said Simon. “The amount of geometry and simulations making each hair ‘talk’ to the next so that they don’t run into each other and move in a realistic way is quite remarkable. The beard and hairs were simulated, meaning the computer calculated where each hair would be at a certain time. If you moved fast, the beard had to drag behind according to how the computer calculated all the different attributes such as gravity, drag and inertia within each volume.
“The rigger on this beard, Sean Nolan, had to make sure the hairs didn’t run into the body, and reacted to the lip sync and facial movement. So many parameters influenced how that worked. Two or three years earlier, no one could have imagined the way they were able to do it now. It’s all due to the speed of modern computers, how advanced software has become and how much faster artists are able to find solutions to different types of problems.
“These riggers working behind us make us animators look like geniuses! The research put into this beard really pushed the medium and challenges on other studios to do similar work – and that is really exciting to me.”

Words: Adriene Hurst with simon otto
Images: Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks Animation
Featured in Digital Media World. Subscribe to the print edition of the magazine and receive the full story with all the images delivered to you.Only$77 per year.
PDF version only $27 per year