David Jones is responsible for much of the amazing design work and visual effects in Race to the Edge. From designing flames and explosions to creating new dragons, he has had a huge influence on the final product that we see on-screen.
In our interview, we talked about the behind-the-scenes process of creating the show, the future of visual effects in TV and films, and how aspiring artists and animators can get involved in a show like Race to the Edge. Check out the full interview below!
What do you consider your role to be in designing and bringing the show to life?
For an animated show like Race to the Edge, we break it down into sections. There's writing the script — which the writers do — then the story department, which is storyboarding, or drawing 2D images of the entire show with a panel representing every expression or moment of action. So not 24 panels a second, but thousands of panels per episode. That gives us the animatic, or the 2D storyboard version of the entire showWould you say it's a more technical or artistic job? Or are there elements of both?
Then we go to layout, which is setting up the cameras and roughly positioning the models and doing the basic camera moves.
The next phase is character animation, which is bringing life into the characters, giving the subtly of performance and lip sync of the dialogue. And what you have at that point is this fully animated characters, the whole show put together, but in a kind of rough plastic form.
And that's where I jump in. Where it goes to lighting — where we position the lights, get the textures in there, and make it look like the final product you see on television. And we also add effects, things like Toothless' blast, a tidal wave, a splash from the boats, or a fire in the background that's lighting the scene.
And the very final step is color correction, sometimes called DI (digital intermediate), which I also look after. We go in and make tweaks to the color so the show feels like it flows together. Or maybe we tint a scene a certain color when we're trying to capture a certain mood
There are some other steps in there having to do with sound mixing and things like that. But that's the visual progression of the show from script through to final product.
Yes, absolutely. And on the artistic side, I sort of run our art department, who does designs for new dragons, new characters, props, sets, things like that. New things that scripts call for each week. And each season we have lots of new dragons, a number of new characters, and tons of locations. The show is going on new adventures, so you generally need to go to new places to go on adventures.Is it a challenge to both design what the show looks like and what will be in it, and then also trying to figure out how to implement it and make it reality?
Well, it's the best sort of challenge because it means that you can temper your artistic vision with the technical knowhow of what's possible. A lot of us have been doing the show for almost four years now. So having a job where I constantly find myself challenging myself — as in, "I think it would be incredibly cool to have a dragon that does such-and-such" and then, "well, that's going to be rather hard, but why not, let's just try it."How are you involved in creating the new dragons?
And then we come up with a new way of doing something, and then we have a new different sort of dragon we wouldn't have thought of before. So while it is a challenge, it is a challenge that makes it very rewarding to come to work every day, and I do rather like my job, so it's a good thing.
The initial concepts for them generally come from Doug and Art, who I know you're familiar with — they're sort of our head writers. They pull from the source material, the books the shows are based on, and any other resources we have, and the story they're trying to tell. Maybe they need a huge dragon that requires a lot of dragons to defeat, or a very small dragon.
The new dragons we've introduced in the first 13 — the Night Terrors, Windshear, who is the Razorwhip. We actually introduced quite a few — the Quaken. These all have very specific things they need to do. The Quaken needs to be a sort of mega-Gronckle. There are previous illustrations of Razorwhips. But the challenge we wanted with Windshear was that because we were so excited to bring Heather back, we wanted to give her a dragon that was as cool as we knew we wanted to make Heather. Because Heather was this great opportunity to reintroduce a character to the franchise what he fans responded to very positively the first time show was in there. Now we can have someone who's grown up like our kids, but with just a whole different personality. She has a bit of a wild card, she's a bit edgy, a bit more over the top than most of the dragon riders. And we wanted a dragon that reflected that — a bit edgy, over the top, and wacky compared to the rest of the dragons we already have.
Basically, we had a very broad description in the scripts from Doug and Art, and the challenge for me and the art department is to find a way to do that in a way that feels new, but consistent with the franchise, and something that's really memorable and that the fans are going to get into. The goal of our design is always to tell the story in the best way possible. But I think a lot of the jobs on the show all center around the idea of "we start with the script," and how do each of us make the best possible version of the script, whether it's designing the dragons, doing the animation or where to put the camera, the music, the sound effects. Hopefully we start with a great script, and everybody's job is to do the best possible version we can of that script.
So in designing the dragons, the question we ask is, you know the basics of what each dragon needs to do, we know the size. Now what's the best possible, coolest, most interesting version of the dragon that would work in that context?
Were there specific dragons that you found were really difficult in bringing to life? I remember you talking about the difficulty of the Razorwhip and its reflectiveness.
Yes, and I think we talked a little about that in the press day. And that was my own shortsightedness. When you make a metal dragon who is mirrored, which is super cool looking, unfortunately what it means is that whenever you look at it you see what's behind the camera, so you see what's behind you. So we had to come up with some techniques for putting things behind the camera so there was nothing to be reflected on the Razorwhip.I would have imagined that the invisibility is the hard part, not the ears!
But again, good problems to solve, and we did come up with a solution for it. Surprisingly, one of the more difficult dragons was the Changewing because it has those long sort of vine-like tentacles that hang from its ears. That was a bit of a challenge because there's a lot of extra animation in the Changewing when it moves around to make those look interesting and floppy and natural. So whenever the Changewing comes in the scripts, we're always like, "poor animators."
Once we came up with what we considered to be rules for how it worked, it became a lot easier. So our initial thought was that it can change into anything it touches — which I guess is sort of like Terminator — but it has to be in contact with it to look like it. But then we thought, "How is it invisible in the sky?" And we were like, "Well, if you're in the sky it's like you're touching the sky!"Previously, you talked about using pre-rendered sprites to create the Night Terror flock. Are there any other tricks you use to make these really amazing effects?
The nice thing about the invisibility is that there's a phase after rendering — after you work in the 3D package — you output your 3D images, your final, beautiful lit things. We composite those images together — the background and the foreground in a stage we call "comping," the final stage of putting all the 2D layers together. And things like the invisibility are often handled in the comping, and that's a lot simpler and quicker than dealing with things in the actual 3D program.
So the invisibility was actually not as challenging as it could have been, we do a lot of the heavy lifting for that in the compositing stage.
I'm sad to say that 50 percent of what we do is some form of trickery or slight of hand. The first time you see Toothless in the series, his breath effect was actually a cheat of a lot of 2D effects. The very first versions of his breath effect were done with a water mister that you might use to scare a cat, brightly lit and shot in front of a black piece of felt that was taken into a compositing program and recolored. We've gotten a bit better, but we still use a lot of 2D elements to augment 3D effects.You've done a lot of live action outside of animation. Is this an approach you brought in from the live action world?
Absolutely. It's very much to do with my background. In live action, a lot of the work you do is combining elements you shot separately to create your final shot. In Black Hawk Down, there was very little on-set pyrotechnics. There was some, but compared to what you seen in the final film, very little percentage-wise. We then went out into the desert near Los Angeles and shot for days — setting up charges in the dirt, big gas bag explosions — and then filming those elements and recombining them with what we had shot in Morocco to create the final effects so there's no risk to the actors, but we have control and can direct what things happen. That idea of having shot isolated elements and adding them in is something we've done a lot in Dragons. We're trying to represent the look and spirit of what we've seen in the films. The films are such big and fine productions that have a long time and a lot of personal, and we're obviously tackling similar problems but with much less money and time and people. This is one of the shortcuts we use, and it's been fairly effective. We've gotten better and better at it over the past few years, so hopefully now even to an expert eye, the cheats that we're doing are fairly well-hidden.Would you say these time and money constraints of TV are one of the challenges you're facing?
Any television show that's based on a film property will face the same issue, but one of the reasons Dragons as a film series stands out in people's minds is it's a wonderful story with wonderful characters that's photographed very beautifully. Both of the films are absolutely stunning to look at. "Stunning" is a prospect that takes a huge amount of time, money, and expertise. So we want to capture the spirit of that within the more limited confines of our schedule.
I've seen on the website that a lot of people are asking the question of, "Why does it look so much better now than when it started on Cartoon Network?" And the very simple answer to that question is that we know a lot more about how to do this now. We haven't changed software as people hypothesized. We've always just used Maya and Mental Ray as our rendering engine. It's just that we and the people who are lighting and animating the shots have had more and more experience. So we've been able to better use the time and money we have to make better images. Rather than spending time on experimenting and failed ideas, more of the money that we have in our budget goes up on screen in making the best possible pictures. I was absolutely new to computer animation of this sort at the beginning of Dragons. I don't know if I'm an expert, but I've had a lot of time on Dragons learning intricacies of how to get the best possible images in the time frame and with the budget we have.
Hopefully the show continues to look better and better as we get better at doing it. But it's very gratifying to hear people saying the look has improved so much over the past few years.
It really is a gorgeous show!
Thank you! One of my primary responsibility is coming in and looking at lighting shots — we call it "dailies" — where we take all the shots together, put them up, and look at them one after the other. And I really look forward to that part of the day because the images are so pretty. They're just nice pictures to look at. So I very much look forward to that part of my day. That's everyone's goal. To continue to make really pretty images. That's the bricks and mortar you build the house from.How have you seen the design and visual effects evolve since Riders of Berk and Defenders of Berk?
Part of it's the philosophy of the show. Whenever we do something in the show or whenever we have an effect — whenever Hookfang breathes, or a Gronckle shoots a lava ball — we have the effect we've done originally. You have to do the effect for the first time at some point. So we do that effect, and the next time it comes up in the script, we have the effect we've already done and say, "Well, this worked, but how can we make it better?" We try to improved the effect each time we use it. One of the nice things about having a show now that has existed in some form for quite a long time now is that we've had a chance to make things look pretty good. And because of the things we've learned from doing things over and over again trying to improve them.When you look back at some of the earlier episodes, can you really see the improvements?
For instance, in the first 13 episodes when we meet Windshear, we've never seen her breath weapon. So when we came to inventing her breath weapon, we used everything we've learned from every other dragon breath weapon you've seen up until this point. And the breath weapon — which we've only just finalized recently — is pretty epic. It's much more complicated and interesting than what we've done when we started the show because we were able to capitalize on all the things we've learned doing all the other episodes. And that goes not just for effects, but for lighting, to the scene concepts. For an episode that looks particularly beautiful, we'll take every aspect of that scene — the lighting files, the scripts for compositing it — and we'll send them out to everyone working on the show and say, "This is really good, use this as the basis if you have a scene like this." So for every situation and every possible lighting scenario, it keeps getting better and better because we take the very best work and we make that the beginning point for the next time we do it.
I can! It's funny you ask because sometimes I look at those original episodes and it's almost a little embarrassing. But then I think back to the state of television animation at the time, and the fact that no one was trying to do what we were doing or going for a really cinematic look. I will always be intensely proud of the work we've done over the years.How far ahead are you working? How many episodes at a time do you have to think about at a time?
But obviously, my newest children are my favorites. And the work we're doing right now is really the best looking we've ever done. But we wouldn't be able to do it if we hadn't done the original work. It all stands on the shoulders of the generation before it. Sometimes you have to squint a bit to appreciate the earlier episodes, but they were still fun stories and we did the best that we knew how. We just know a lot more now.
And I have to tell you, one of the exciting things is that, for as lovely as the first 13 look, the next 13 you're going to see are even better. And the 13 after that are better than that. We're continuing to learn and improve the process, so it keeps getting better looking.
It's such a long process from script to screen for an episode. It's about ten to eleven months. In terms of scripts, they pretty much just finished all 52. So we know all the scripts though to the end. But because it takes almost a year to do each episode, there are obviously lots of episodes running in parallel. Right now, I think we're probably two thirds of the way through finishing the next 13. And the group after that are very much under construction. And because of the nature of how new dragons and characters will look, we do that so far in advance that we have a pretty clear idea of what everything looks like up to the end of the entire two year run. There are some big things that happen right at the end that we're only just in the design phase for. But even the designs we're really excited for. I hope very strongly that we will continue to up the ante and impress the fans as we go forward.
The thing is, we're all huge fans of the show and the franchise, or else we certainly wouldn't want to do it for a living. And I think we're all big fans of how the first 13 went, and the next 13 are really great. It keeps getting better and better. New dragons, new human characters, and the world keeps growing, expanding, and getting more interesting.
What kinds of things are you most looking forward to when you start working on a new episode or in general about the future of the show?
I'm very keen on the new human characters that they're introducing. I don't think in the first 13 you meet a lot of new humans. I think the next 13 show the first new humans, who have been hinted at. And some of the voice actors we're working with are great. We have Alfred Molina on the show now, who is such a treat. He's such a fantastic actor, and such a great voice. So I'm looking forward to seeing his character work. Then in following seasons there are other voice actors who are just brilliant. So it's very exciting to see them. And to see how the new dragons work too. I'm a bit of a dragon geek, so when we design a new dragon that's different and interesting, seeing it up there on the screen is such a treat. Especially when it works great.What has been your favorite moment or episode of the series so far that you've worked on?
I think the Razorwhip and the Quaken with its two mouths and split lower jaw. At the beginning when I looked at the design, I though, "That seems a little bit much, but let's give it a go." And in the end it worked absolutely as well as we could have hoped. Everything like that is a real treat when it all comes together.
I'm afraid I'm terribly biased because in that first 13, one of the episodes was my first outing as a director. I directed Episode 10, "Have Dragon Will Travel," which is the intro to Heather. So purely for selfish, personal reasons, that was my favorite episode because it was the first one I ever got to direct, and it was such a great experience for me. Luckily now, I've got to direct a fair number of episodes coming up. It's like your first high school prom, it's such a memorable experience that I think to me, Episode 10 has been a very special episode.What is it like to direct an episode compared to your usual job?
It's hugely fun. When you're reading a book you like, you see the movie in your head as you're reading it. Because our scripts are very good scripts, you can't help but read these scripts and see the movie in your head. The director has the unique opportunity to take the movie he sees in his head and think of a way to get the movie into his head into the rest of the world's head. It does feel slightly like being king of the world for that one episode. Scripts are open to interpretation and everyone sees things a little differently. And your job is to make your way of seeing things the right way of seeing things. It's an absolute treat. You really get to inject as much as you can possibly think of in terms of personality and charm and how you like the world to work into your episode, and it's just great, great fun. The job of directing is impossibly difficult. Everyone is very good at the individual things they do. So as a director, you get to focus on the funnest bits, which is making those big creative calls about how things work and how the story will unfold on-screen. I love my day-to-day job and the more holistic view I have of the show were I get to deal with aspects of every single episode, not just certain ones. But the ones I get to direct occasionally is great fun too. We're spoiled on all fronts. My day job is fun, and then my little hobby job of directing episodes is great fun too.Were there some stories that were especially challenging to tell from a visual effects perspective?
Whenever a story calls for a lot of what we call effects. For instance, the rain of the Fireworms when the twins take over the island and the Fireworms set the island on fire. That's a lot of unusual things — shots of burning trees, smoke. The episode where we introduced Stoick's dragon, Skullcrusher, there's a tidal wave coming onto the island. Effects that occur in numerous shots can be a challenge because we do have somewhat limited resources for delivering these very big, time-intensive effects. But it's been a fun challenge and a learning experience to work with the directors to limit the number of shots that show these expensive and complicated things, but to then show them at the most dramatic and story-useful way possible. So for that tidal wave sequence, you really didn't have a huge number of shots that showed the tidal wave, but I don't think you felt we were cheating and not showing it to you. It felt like about the right number of shots. That's the goal. How can we tell the story in a way that doesn't feel like we're cheating, but we don't overstrain the pipeline that we have set up here by trying to do these very complicated additional effects?It sounds like there are two jobs you're doing: you're making a fantastical world with dragons, characters, and effects, but you're also trying to make them believable and realistic. Is this a challenge that you feel like you have to work with for each of the episodes?
Every episode has lots and lots of these special effects going on outside the normal dragons and humans. Those are always the interesting challenges because you want to figure out a way to tell that part of the story, but to tell it in a way that won't collapse under the additional weight of all the work that has to be done.
Absolutely. I think that's a great question, and one of the things people respond well to in the franchise is that it's fantastical — Vikings and dragons, which is straight out of a fantasy story — but we try wherever possible to present that scenario in a realistic way. This goes all the way back to the first movie where each of the dragons' breath weapons felt like it was based on some physical property. Hookfang's breath was a kind of liquid-like flame thrower, Stormfly has this sparky breath that looks like a road flare. We tried to relate things back to the physical reality because that makes the fantastical elements a little more fantastical because they're based in a more realistic look. It's a daily struggle, but a fun one, to always try to show these unbelievable things in a context where they feel kind of believable. It makes them a bit more magical. Because if everything in the world is completely unrealistic and unbelievable, then having dragons isn't such an amazing thing. But if the world feels more grounded like the world we live in, then putting in these fantasy elements like dragons just is so much more exciting and rewarding for people.That's one of the great thing about the show and films. It's a show about dragons, but they're treated like real animals, almost like some kind of documentary.
If you think about it in some ways, it's a story about the Wild West and a group of teenagers and their horses. They are sort of magical horses that have really bizarre personalities — they're modes of transpiration, but also friends and big parts of the show. I think the more we try to ground the dragons, the more they feel real. The dragons don't speak English, but they sort of understand the emotional tone of conversations between people. If you are upset, the dragon gets upset, like a smart dog or horse. It's that realistic, animalistic component of the dragons that helps people really get into the series. People are so responsive to Toothless, obviously having elements of cats and panthers — big green eyes and a black body — but I think in some ways, his attitude is more that of a really smart dog. He doesn't speak English, but he's obviously got a rich internal life and deep emotional connection with Hiccup. When Hiccup's in the shot, he's not necessarily following along with the dialogue and shaking his head when he's asked a question because he's not a person who speaks English. But he's very emotionally aware of what's going on. If someone put a saddle on he didn't like, he would be scratching away at the saddle in the background for the rest of the episode.Do you often look to animals or nature for inspiration?
We as a group feel as much interest and compassion toward the dragons as we do to the riders. We love them both. Obviously with the voice actors, we have TJ Miller and these great comedians doing wonderful voices. So it's very easy to get fantastic fun animation for the humans. But it's also a lot of fun to complement that with really fun animations for the dragons, where there's this interplay between the funny riders and the dragons who are often playing straight men. But I think that's the nature of the work, where you have a kind of Laurel and Hardy team-up between Snotlout and Hookfang, where Hookfang plays the straight man to Snotlout's comedian.
Oh yeah, definitely. Whenever possible, when we're designing anything or trying to decide how to animate anything, we're the hugest fans of Google! When we're out there looking for reference, we can say something like, "the eel should move like water snakes," or "this type of dragon should fly with big, powerful flaps of an eagle." Because when you can find real reference in nature, it inherently feels real. And anything that helps us ground the world in reality enhances the whole thing.
Do you think looking toward nature and real-world things to ground the show comes from your background in live-action?
It's where we've always turned in the past. In Black Hawk, we spent endless hours studying how real helicopters turn, their weight, landing and taking off, and how they disturbed the ground. That allowed us, when adding the CG helicopters, to really try and make that reality. For How to Train Your Dragon, we obviously don't have the benefit of studying real dragons. We don't want to be derivative of other cinematic examples of dragons. So instead, we try and find things that have characteristics of a particular dragon, study those, and then extrapolate the dragon's movement and animation from that.What kind of animals do you study for the dragons?
For instance, Stormfly we think of a very bird-like dragon, like a parrot. So her little preening motions and quick head movements were often inspired by the movements of parrots and parakeets.What has it been like working on Race to the Edge compared to what you have done in the past?
For the Gronckles, a lot of the times we go to small or mid-sized dog breeds, especially dogs with short tails, like bulldogs. There's something about the movement of a bulldog where it's trying to wag its tail, but there isn't much of a tail there, so it wags its whole butt. We have lots of reference of that sort of movement. I happen to have a bulldog, too, so it's easy to get reference. But there's something very funny and cute and proud about a bulldog's motions that we try to get into the Gronckle.
For Toothless, obvious we're deeply inspired by cats. There's something very catty about Toothless. The stretch after they've had a nap, the way cats jump from one surface to another. We have lots of reference of that. I think whenever you can integrate the real animal spirit into the dragons, you always get animation that seems right in character with the dragons and is really fun.
Before I came to work on Dragons on DreamWorks, I've always been a bit wary of computer-animated projects because I thought it would be tedious. There's nothing that exists. There's no real-world set you can go to. When you're shooting a film, you build lots of sets. But there are also real-world locations you got to that inspire you, that you shoot things in. And there are real actors in front of the camera. It feels very grounded. I thought for these CG animated things, where every single molecule of what you see on-screen you have design from scratch, would be tedious and would take the fun out of storytelling.What about visual effects or design work on the show do you find most interesting or fun?
When I ended up coming in and working on the How to Train Your Dragon series, what I realized is that it's not tedium at all. It's huge creative freedom. Everything in the entire universe, every single thing you see, can contribute to telling the story in the best way possible. Everything has a sense of an art direction. Even the rocks, the grass, the clouds in the sky, all contribute to the mood and to better contributing to the story we're trying to tell. And it's not tedious at all, it's actually delightfully liberating. I've become a very big fan of it. I find it very hard to go back to live action now because I so enjoy the huge toy box we get to play with in CG animation.
I think you can never go wrong with designing dragons. It's so much fun because it really is letting your imagination run wild. Designing new characters is brilliant, especially when you know the voice actor you're going to have. Because if you know what the person looks like and sounds like, then you can close your eyes and imagine, "If I could remake the universe, what would this person look like?" So you come up with a few idealized or different versions of the person, which is immensely rewarding.What do you think will the future look like for visual effects in animation?
For visual effects, every time we get new, big effects that we're working on, I have to say there's a great "wow" factor for these explosions, dragon breaths, avalanches, and it's such a treat when we get those things up and running. Everybody enjoys that. There's no one that doesn't like a good explosion once in a while.
The industry has changed quite a lot in the twenty years I've been involved in it. Originally, in visual effects, which came into being in the early nineties from a very infant form where very few people were doing it, it was initially very expensive to do visual effects. The computers you needed to do it was expensive, the software you needed was expensive. Now you have a ton of experience. Over time, software became cheaper and cheaper. And more importantly, the computers became cheaper. So the cost of entry into the business went down. And ultimately, what this leads to, is once it becomes very cheap to get a computer and software to do visual effects, then it becomes globalized. That's when a lot of the work starts going overseas to economies where the cost of living is lower and it costs you less to do the same work. Then it's no longer prohibitively expensive to get the equipment.Do you think changes in technology will change the importance of live-action inspired effects? Will it always be a part of visual effect design?
So visual effects over the past 20 years has gone from being very centralized in California to being a truly global enterprise which is focused in huge population centers in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, and then a lot of work being done in places with very low costs of living, like India, China, the Philippines, and Taiwan. It's been interesting to see what started as a very small group. I remember when there was a time when we tried to count the number of people that were doing visual effects in the whole world. And at one point around 1994, we estimated there were probably less than 2,000 doing visual effects.
Whereas right now, there are probably more than 2,000 people in the state of California taking classes in visual effects in universities, let alone doing it for a living, and let alone the entire world. So that's been a very big change, and I think you're seeing a similar change in animation where it starts with tons of expensive equipment and software that, in many cases, was written by studios and wasn't publicly available. And now the tools are so much better, so much cheaper, you can do it on almost any computer. There's still a lot of expertise required in becoming a really good animator. But that expertise can now be learned in university, it can be practiced at home when none of this was possible 15 years ago.
I think it's not impossible that the animation industry will follow a similar course to visual effects, where it becomes very globalized. It has to a certain extent, and a lot of the work moves to places with lower costs of living because it's a more cost-efficient way for studios to produce films. But that doesn't mean that there won't always be a need for experts and people passionate for the art. It just means that you'll have to be smart about how you jump into the business because there are no longer huge buildings full of people in Los Angeles doing it all the time. There still are now, but I wouldn't guarantee it for 15 years from now.
It's always preferable to do it entirely on the computer. Because then it will be absolutely correct for the lighting of the scene and the camera angle. There will be no compromises or cheats. As we got better and the software has gotten better, we relied less and less on using live-action elements. But it is a great shortcut for getting something that looks very complicated very quickly. Nothing is as complicated as the real world. So whenever you use real-world elements, it adds a layer of sophistication that's hard to duplicate. But we're getting better and better at duplicating it.What has inspired you personally as a visual effects artist or designer?
I'm just a huge nerd and huge fan of the genre. Growing up, I always loved science fiction and fantasy, both books and films. So the opportunity to operate in the arena that also entertains me is a great opportunity. The films that I watch when I go home are the same sorts of films that I worked on. I'm a huge fan of Star Wars Rebels and The Clone Wars before it, which are series that operate in the same sphere that we operate in and use similar kinds of techniques. They're really fun, colorful, and imaginative, and I like the stories. So that's always been what drives me. These are the types of stories that I'm passionate about, so it's great fun to tell them and to watch other people tell them.
I think a lot of people who see Dragons feel the same way and want to get involved as well. Do you have any advice for people who are interested in visual effects or animation in general?
Absolutely! I think the important things to keep in mind is that there are fantastic schools now for the sorts of things we do here that give you a great head start. The thing that differentiates people when they come out of school is what's on their demo reel. What did you spend your time doing your projects on? That's what you'll then get to present to potential employers. If you know exactly the sorts of things you want to do, then getting stuff that appeals to the people who do that on your demo reel is very important. For example, if I decided I wanted to be an animator on How to Train Your Dragon — and this is a "for example," not a roadmap for someone with the expectation of becoming one — what I'd want to do is come out with a reel that really directly applies to the sort of animation and storytelling that the show does. Obviously, you don't have access to the super complicated characters that we have in the show. But if you can make a simplified character that felt like it embodied the same personality and spirit as the characters on the show, I think that would be such a step up. If you did a simplified version of Toothless that had the charm and personality of Toothless in the show and movies, that would be such a strong sales tool for your skill as an animator applied to a show like ours.I think we're all really looking forward to it!
That's a very specific example to our show because that's what I know, but if there's a specific genre that you really like, even though you will never have access to the exact, complex materials people use to make shows, for things like animation, it's really not about the complexity of the character. As we know from the famous Pixar opening of a desk lamp jumping around, there's enough character and personality in that so that a thing with very few joints can tell a story and have a personality. So if you can capture the spirit and personality of the things you like in your own work, then you're well on your way to having other people believe in you and want to be part of the process.
And if it's lighting that you're interested in, then it would be lighting in a way that you feel reflects that work that you like. And when you bring that to the people you are interviewing with and say, "I not only enjoy your show, but these are my versions of lighting in similar circumstances," more people respond to this in the interview process. We talk to people all the time, interview them, and hire them for the show. People who are fans of the show, interested in the show and the franchise, it's hard not to feel a fondness and favoritism for them because we're all fans of the show. You want people to work on things they are passionate about. So any time you're going out for a job, if it's a job on something you know about, become passionate about it and that passion will affect the people in the interview who hopefully are also passionate about their work.
What should we look forward to for the rest of the show? What are you most excited about?
There's so much to be excited about. I've read some of the questions on the website. While obviously I do know what happens right up to the end because we've finished all the scripts, it would be irresponsible of me to ruin it for everyone! I'm dying to tell everybody what's going to happen because it's so fun, but also, as a fan who watches the show, I don't want to spoil it. Because really, it's not just episodic entertainment. There's a serial element to it that becomes stronger as the seasons go on, where stories stretch beyond single shows, beyond even two-parters. There are arcs for characters that span whole seasons or multiple seasons. There's not much that I can say that won't spoil something, but I will say there will be lots of new dragons. We introduce new villains and new allies that are absolutely fantastic, voiced by brilliant actors people will know. And as I think you've said on the site, the 52 episodes are really spanning some of the time between the first and second dragon movies. Within the confines of that, where we know where we have to end up, there's a lot of very satisfying storytelling to come that completes all of the arcs and questions that have been answered in the first 13. More questions will come up, but everything concludes in a very satisfying way at the end of the 52 episodes. I don't think people will be disappointed, and I strongly believe that each 13 is stronger than the 13 before it as we get better. We find the questions we're asking and ask them in a better way, then answering them as the show goes on. And the look is getting better and better as we present the complicated things we're trying to do. It does take us 10-11 months to make an episode, and we have lots of teams going at the same time. There is a physical reality to how much can get done and how quickly, but we are getting it out to the fans as quickly as we conceivably can. Just to give you some scary statistics, the 52 episodes represent approximately 13.5 million render hours. So if you had one computer rendering the shows, it would take 13.5 million hours to do it, or about 1,500 years.
We don't do it on one computer, we do it on lots of computers. But it's a huge investment of time and technology to get this done, and we're going as absolutely as fast as we can. I think people are in for such a treat. The next 13 are really good episodes with lots of good episodes coming up. I can't wait to go on Berk's Grapevine and see what people's reactions are.
I'm very excited and very proud. I don't think people will be disappointed, that's for sure.
I'm can honestly say, the show gets better and continues to look better, and we're as proud as we can possibly be. The work we're doing feels like it's all come together in a really satisfying way. The script is great, and we're just trying to make them look as cool as we possibly can.Thank you to everyone who submitted a question for this interview! And huge thanks to David Jones for such an incredible and in-depth look at visual effects, design, and animation on the show!