It's not easy animating dragons. In an interview for Animation Mentor, Dane Stogner, character lead for Toothless on How to Train Your Dragon 2, shares how to make dragons appear natural and in-character when they're on screen.
“For the first film, we mostly referenced black panthers, house cats and wombats for Toothless’ body language. He was very cat-like and stand-offish and mysterious, a scary creature that Hiccup had to befriend. So cats were appropriate. But, two out of three of us Toothless experts, and even Dean DeBlois himself, are greater fans of dogs than cats, and I think there’s legitimacy in the story for having his personality come across more puppy or dog-like in this film.”
He also talks about Premo, the brand new software used on Dragons, and how it has made the process of animating faster and and the results look even better:
“Premo was designed around the idea that animators would have a [Wacom] Cintiq. So, we can just touch and move the character. It is almost like stop motion sometimes. Even on the face. Just push and pull parts of the face around on the surface. We have fully integrated pose libraries, control hierarchies, ghosting, paths, follow cams, and built-in drawing tools with layers like Photoshop. The drawing tools were so easy to use I sometimes did 2D pencil tests in the shot on top of the background rather than shooting reference. It’s exciting.”
And dragon fans also had a bit of an influence on the film as well.
“There were also some tiny model changes that only super fans noticed. He has nubs on his jaw. Those were just extra details we added for this film. But, the fans hypothesized that perhaps the nubs were a sign, much like Hiccup’s chin stubble, that Toothless had aged. There’s a shot where Hiccup’s mother says, ‘Look, he’s your age.’ James Baxter, a supervising animator on the show had seen the super fans’ theories. So he made the choice to have her point to the nubs. The fans influenced the movie.”
Here's the the full interview with Dane Stogner!