Berk's Grapevine

Interview with Richard Hamilton

A week ago, you asked questions for Richard Hamilton, the author of To Berk and Beyond. He is also working on the upcoming graphic novel The Serpent's Heir as well as contributing to School of Dragons and the DreamWorks Press: Dragons app.

Read below for the full interview and answers to your questions!

Dragon fans range from 4 to 40, and live all across the world. Is there something for everyone in To Berk and Beyond? How do you, as a writer, make your work appeal to such a large group?

Yes, the short answer is there is definitely something for every kind of Dragon fan of this book whether they are new to the property or whether they're one of the most diehard fans that frequent Berk's Grapevine and go in cosplay to the shows and stuff. That was done by design: that's not an accident. The reason I did that is because that's pretty much what my family is like! I have two sons — ages four and seven — and they are both Dragon fans. I'm also a fan of the property and I'm definitely closer to 40 than before. I'm writing not just as as a parent who is trying to think like about what is good, exciting, and appropriate material for kids to be reading and thinking about, but also as a fan: what would excite me about a book like this if I picked it up and I was going to do the activities for myself or if I was going to go through this book with my kids and do the activities with them?

You're also working on The Serpent's Heir, which we're really excited about! How do you compare writing this book to The Serpent's Heir, or to graphic novel writing in general?

Oh, thanks! The good news is that it is all part of the same canon. What was important to me when I was writing this activity book — and I knew I was going to be writing it right around the same time I knew I was going to be working on the graphic novels with Dean — I wanted it all feel like like parts of a whole. If you are a Dragon super-fan or if you are just a very attentive reader, you will pick up on little bits of connective tissue between all those projects. The differences are that the graphic novels are pure narrative and pure storytelling taking place between the second and third films. This activity book definitely has little Easter eggs or "Dragon eggs," as we call them, and allusions to what some of those elements are. It also offers a lot of points of contact between what goes on in the films, what goes on in all seasons of the TV show, and even what's gone on in things like the DreamWorks Press: Dragons app that came out last year. It's finding all those little of points of confluence and trying to stitch them together a story from that.

I'd say To Berk and Beyond is more travelogue through Berk. What would it be like to actually get inside Hiccup's head, or Stoick's head, or Astrid's head and see through their perspective? All the main characters have chapters in there. You see what it means to be a dragon rider living in that time and how flying on the back of a dragon changes your worldview. It allows us to go a little deeper into the history of Berk and the history of characters like Drago Bludvist, who we see quite a bit of in the movie, but there are still a lot of unresolved questions about him. We try to touch all those things. Like I said, it's almost like a travelogue. If you're going to take a vacation to Berk, this is the kind of book you want to read about beforehand to learn about the people, what the culture is like, even with some of the cooking is like!

Were there gaps in the Dragon universe that you tried to fill with this book, or is it mostly based on the universe as it exists now?

There's definitely a fair amount of invention in the book, but I would say there are at least equal parts drafting off the incredible work that's already been done by Dean and the film team and Art and Doug and the TV team. In the movies and TV episodes, because of time and budget constraints, we can't get into every single interesting detail. But that's one of the beauties of a publishing platform like this book and like the graphic novels: it really lets you dig deep and spend time with those cool character moments and explore little details that might fly past you in the TV show.

If I can give you an example, it's only featured fleetingly in the second movie, but there's a dragon hanger that exists in the caverns beneath Berk with stables, caverns, artwork, and banners, and bits of machinery that populate that location. But because of the quick pace of the movie, you you really blur past all that. It was such a tremendous amount of expensive design work done by the art department led by the production designer — we call him "POV," but it's Pierre-Olivier Vincent — and his team designed these unbelievably cool things. For me, as a fan of the franchise, when I saw that, I thought it needed to be celebrated and that people should see all the cool thought that went in there. It wasn't arbitrary or done on a whim, it was just some very careful world building. For me, that's one of the fun parts about writing a book like this. I get to shine a spotlight on the great work that other people have done.

And you're in a unique position, having worked on lots of different Dragon projects!

I've just been really lucky, is the bottom line. I started at DreamWorks almost eight years ago — I think it will be eight years ago next month — and I started as a temp. Prior to that, I was writing and publishing my own graphic novels and my own comic books. I started temping at DreamWorks, and one of the first assignments I got was working for a week on How to Train Your Dragon, filling in for an assistant. What I saw just blew my mind. I saw boards on the wall showing the character designs, storyboard sequences, and big page with all the cast members — Jay, Jonah, America, and Gerard — and thinking, "This is going to be really huge." You could see that that there was definitely a wonderful story in the film, but you also got a sense that there was this larger world happening around it. You could very easily imagine that if the cameras just panned a little left or right in any of these scenes, you could see another exciting story taking place. As that temp job became a regular job, I got to work for our chief creative officer and then got to work on Dragon 2, it always felt like Dragons has been part of my career DreamWorks and I really owe my career DreamWorks to Dragons. So to be able to work on the graphic novels, to work on the app last year, and to work on this book, it is no exaggeration and it is no pun the say that it has been a dream come true.

You've also written for Race to the Edge. How does TV writing differ from writing on the page in To Berk and Beyond?

That's a great question, and it was definitely something I thought a lot about as I was preparing to write this book. I would say the most immediate difference is that film, TV, and graphic novels are primarily visual media. The films and the TV show can't just have characters standing around in a room talking. There has to be action, there has to be movement, and there has to be a sense of pace and urgency. And because it's about dragons and kids who fly dragons, you have to have visual spectacle. It's what Guillermo del Toro calls "eye protein" as opposed to "eye candy." You need to have all that stuff in the movies, TV show, and graphic novels for sure.

For To Berk and Beyond, there is still a tremendous amount of amazing visuals. We have art from the film and TV shows, we have character sketches done by Nico Marlet, we even have artwork that Dean DeBlois did — his original designs for Hiccup's Dragon Blade and his prosthetic leg — those are all in the book! So there are definitely great visual treats their, but because it's a book, there are obviously more words on the page. In your comic books and graphic novels, you have to be very economical because you don't want your entire page covered up with word balloons. Whereas in this book, there's greater opportunity to really write prose. The challenge there — and it's a fun challenge — is, how do you, without the benefit of John Powell's score and without the benefit of the amazing DreamWorks Animation artists and teams actually moving the characters and creating gestures and doing the acting for you, how you make it feel like it is part of the How to Train Your Dragon universe, just your text alone? So it really required me to really dig deep into how would Hiccup say this, versus how would Gobber say it. What would Snotlout's take on this subject be as opposed to Ruff or Tuff's? It's fun and it's a challenge.

Ultimately, my experience of all that is, at the end of day when you do that for the characters, you realize how amazing all the characters are. How to Train Your Dragon is very much Hiccup and Toothless's story, but you have this unbelievable ensemble of this cast, and they all have their own unique personalities and voices. And if you do really think about it and analyze it, you'll see that no two characters are alike, they really are distinct.

Is it a goal of To Berk and Beyond to bring in the perspectives of many different characters?

It is! I give all credit, as with most things, to Dean. It was his idea to make Hiccup's journal a communal document, something that he would share with his other friends and neighbors on Berk as opposed to keeping it as a private document that only he would add to. Once Dean made that suggestion, structurally, the book open itself up and wrote itself. Then I realized, okay, Hiccup would definitely write the beginning of it. But he respects his dad even though they don't always agree, so one of the earliest chapters would be written by Stoick. And he would, of course, have Astrid write about the subjects with which she's familiar and a specialist. And then it was easy to imagine, while Hiccup might not ask Ruff and Tuff to write a chapter, they might steal the journal and scribble in a chapter themselves as a prank or to upset Hiccup.

Once we had that kind of conceit, then the fun part was thinking, "What would these guys write about in this chapter?" It also allowed us to chart the progress of the narrative from Dragon 1 all the way through to Dragon 2. So you'll see in the later chapters in the book, we start introducing characters that that we first meet in the second movie, like Valka. And so, although Stoick won't be writing anymore chapters after certain point, you start getting this cool perspective of an outsider like Eret and learning a little bit more about his background and what he's about, and teasing a little bit his role in the graphic novels.

When does the book start and end? Does it follow Hiccup's journey throughout the films and TV series?

Absolutely! In my mind, Hiccup probably started writing it the night after the final shot of Dragon 1. So he's just woken up, he's got his prosthetic leg, and he's seeing now, all of a sudden, the people on Berk are starting to embrace dragons because of the lesson that he and Toothless have shared with all of them and have demonstrated through their friendship. And I think he was probably — again, this is just in my mind and based off conversations I've had with Dean — that Hiccup probably started his journal then. And over the course of five years, he handed it around, people would add to it, they would contribute to it, and then by the time we get to the second movie, we see it's got the map that Hiccup has developed through five years of exploration on Toothless. It has a lot of other information, and goes a little bit beyond Dragon 2. You'll see there are chapters in there that Valka and Eret have written after the events of the second movie. So it's a little bit of a glimpse into the relative future of the Dragon universe.

How do you connect the different elements of To Berk and Beyond — writing, cards, artwork, word games — into a single book?

I definitely had a lot of help in that department with my editors. You can see their names in the book, and they definitely deserve a lot of credit. Lisa Rojany offered tremendous guidance and the entire team Insight Editions. It was very important to them that this be a quality book, and that if we insert anything in there, that it be not just as a gimmick, but something that is germane to the storytelling and is additive, not a distraction. They had some very, very good ideas. The DreamWorks in-house publishing team had some great insights in that and were able to provide many of the assets that we needed. What I wanted is for whoever picks up this book to feel like it's a modern-day reproduction of a journal that actually did exist on Berk, written by Hiccup and the gang a thousand years ago. It's like an archaeologist unearthed it, they reproduced it, and Insight Editions printed nice copies of it. That was the vibe I was going for.

So then I thought, "What would be the cool artifacts that I would want in a book?" I saw that scene in Dragon 2 when Astrid and the guys kidnapped Eret and they track down Drago's camp. Fishlegs is flipping through his cards saying, "deep water dweller, maybe a class five or six leviathan...." I was like, "I want those cards. Those are awesome cards." I thought that would make sense to be in there. Some of these inserts are the sketches that Dean did of the Dragon Blade, Hiccup's leg, and some of Nico Marlet's original designs for Hiccup's flight suit. I knew, as an adult fan or as a kid, that would be the stuff I want. I also looked at like what Insight had done. They did a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles book a year or two ago. It's a beautiful book and it's got a lot of cool stuff in there, like a poster and reprints of the original books. Hiccup's got this amazing map that he has been working on for five years, and I wanted one of those my desk at work. And I'm pretty sure my boys want one for their room. So that seemed like one that should should go into the book. The cool thing about that map is that it is the most up-to-date version. I believe it is even more up-to-date than what you see Hiccup pull out in Dragon 2. Spoiler alert, but some of the locations on the map are hinting at events to come in the graphic novels and TV show. I'm sure the very smart fans at Berk's Grapevine will be able to decode all that in a matter of minutes, but we were trying to be very clever.

Well, we'll definitely try!

You guys are sharp! I was looking at some of the discussion after you guys were kind enough to post information about The Serpent's Heir, and man, Dragon fans are very smart. All the stuff that we thought were being very cool about, being oblique about, and hiding, you guys got it pretty quickly! They definitely know their stuff! The more surprises to come, so hopefully it will be totally anticlimactic for them, but we definitely have to step up our game because you guys are smart.

Now I'll have to go back and read through all the comments on that article!

There's one person in particular, but a couple of people were definitely circling around it. They were close, but not in the way that they think. I'll leave it at that. I'm not saying anything more!

I pride myself on being an expert on dragons. Ultimately, that's my day job, and it is a great job to have, especially because even if I were not involved in this, I would be a fan of Dragons, even if I were not a DreamWorks employee. This is just my bread-and-butter. I love the characters, I love the world. But even though it's my job to be on top of this, every now and then I'm writing something and I realize, "Wait a minute, I don't know the answer to this!" And so I usually turn to Berk's Grapevine. You guys are this amazing collective repository of information, and it's very well curated. Sometimes you go to Wikia, and the information is tenuous at best. Whenever I get information from Berk's Grapevine, I have good peace of mind knowing that it's been fact-checked and it's accurate. It's definitely a virtuous cycle going on between you guys and whatever stuff I'm fortunate enough to be involved in!

What is your favorite part of To Berk and Beyond, either as a writer or a reader? What should someone who hasn't read it look forward to?

There are a couple things. At the risk of sounding vain because I'll be talking about stuff I wrote, but since you asked, I think probably my favorite chapter is when Hiccup gives all Valka kind of, as Dean would call it, the "real estate" tour of Berk. In the second movie, the first time she comes back to Berk after 20 years, it's covered in ice and at the verge of being completely decimated by Drago and the Bewilderbeast. My thought was — and I'm very close to my mom — if I got a good report card or drew a nice picture in school, my mom would put it on the refrigerator, and I loved the idea that my mom would be proud of me. I thought, once the smoke cleared on Berk, Hiccup would probably want to show off to his mom all the progress they've made in the 20 year since she said she left, and especially in the last five years since Hiccup and Toothless had been friends. And again, this is drawing upon the great thought and work that was put into redesigning Berk for Dragon 2 that the film team did. I wanted to highlight all that, but I wanted to do it through the filter of a boy — well, a man — who is just trying to make his mom proud. Personally, for me, that was the chapter that I was really excited about because I got to highlight all the cool stuff that is new to Berk, but I also got to speak to Hiccup and Valka's relationship, which I find a little complicated, but ultimately very deep, very moving, and very relatable.

I would say, for a completely different reason, the other chapter that I really like — I don't know if anyone's going to like it — but I'm a big fan of oral histories. The second to last chapter is an oral history of how the kids distracted the Bewilderbeast while Hiccup went to reconnect with Toothless at the end of Dragon 2. I don't know if this made it in the final cut, but the idea was that they were telling it to Gothi who's transcribing it all. It's a really great way to hear all the kids give their perspectives on the moment and give quick snapshots of their personality at the same time. If you read any the stuff of mine on Dragons, I hope it's clear that I love Snotlout. He's so much fun to write, and I love Ruff and Tuff. Any chance I get to include them into the mix and to provide color commentary, I will take that chance any time I can. I would say, though, for the fans, especially younger fans, getting to hold tangible copies of Fishlegs's cards, which were very faithfully reproduced from the art of the film and Hiccup's map — those are pretty cool keepsakes.

I have copies of a couple of those cards, and they're incredibly detailed for the five seconds they're shown on the screen during the film.

Yeah, exactly! It just really gives you the sense that there is greater world because it's stuff that you see almost subliminally in the movie, right? And even in the TV show, the design work they've done on the Dragon Eye — I have to be careful what I say because of how many episodes are out right now — but there's so much care and artistry that goes into it, and it really does lend the audience that sense that there is this larger world here. That's what ultimately makes writing books like these possible, but also a lot of fun.

What has been your greatest inspiration for writing in the How to Train Your Dragon world?

As a writer, my greatest inspiration has and always will be Stan Lee. I really attribute to him the successful execution of the notion that your heroes are imperfect, that they make mistakes, and that they learn along the way. With Hiccup in particular, I really see that brought to life. As I mentioned, I have a four-year-old and a seven-year-old. They're kids: they make mistakes and are always in the process of learning, as we all are. I see it acutely, on a daily basis with my kids. When I was young, through nobody's fault but my own, I was afraid to take chances and afraid to make educated guesses because I didn't want to be wrong. In somebody like Hiccup, I see somebody who's a scientist and futurist who's willing to take chances. It won't always turn out right and sometimes he will make mistakes, but he will learn from them. I think that's a wonderful role model, not just for kids but for all of us. It's a little later on in life for me, but I'm I'm trying to retrain myself to be more like that. I attribute that to the work Cressida Cowell has done in her book series and first conceiving of Hiccup, but that's definitely something that Dean and Chris Sanders latched onto in the films and really took to the next level.

You mentioned earlier that you started at DreamWorks eight years ago as a temp and now you're working on a ton of great projects! Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who want to do what you're doing?

There are the standard things that I think every writer tells every other writer, which is to keep writing no matter what. If you can get into daily rhythm, I find that's best for a couple reasons. One is that you generate more work, obviously. I think if you really get into the habit of doing it every day, you will realize that not everything you write is going to be good. It's not supposed to. You have to go through a lot of bad stuff to get to something that — even just one or two words — that are good and that at work for you. Second, it teaches you to be a little less precious with your writing. If you're too precious with it, you will second-guess yourself to the point that you don't even write at all. The third reason is — and maybe this is just for me — but I think it's the case of writers in general, there's something therapeutic about it. I'm fortunate that I'm in a position where I get to write for a living, but for the longest time, that was not the case. I had day jobs at DreamWorks Animation, but being able to write, whether it's Dragons or just my own personal stuff, I found it very therapeutic. I found that I love working at DreamWorks, but like every job, it has its stresses and has its good days and bad days. On the days when I did not write, I feel a little grumpy and take things a little worse than on the days when I did write and I was a much happier person. My wife could definitely vouch for that. She can tell the days when I haven't had a chance to write and the days I have written. That's a given, you have to write and rewrite. And don't worry about it sucking because it will suck a little less, and a little less, and then it will be pretty good. I'm not saying I'm at the "pretty good" point at all. I think any writer should have a healthy dose of self-doubt, this really is a great motivator to keep writing.

But beyond all that, the one thing I would say the thing that has really worked for me specifically is to not be shy about being a fan of something and about wanting to do something. For me, like I said, I'm a fan of Dragons and from the time I was a temp through to right now, I make that known any chance I can. And because I expressed a passion, interest, and knowledge about Dragons, it led to me getting to write on these very cool projects along the way. If I had not done that, people at DreamWorks would not known I was interested in it, and I wouldn't have gotten it. I would say no matter what you do, no matter what your job is, whether you are writer or aspiring, don't be shy and don't be afraid about telling people what it is that you are passionate about, what you like to do, and what you're good at. You don't have to brag about it, but if you're too modest, people won't realize that it's something that you take seriously and that you're passionate about.

Writers really do have to stick together and be like a support group for each other because it can be tough! You're putting some of some of yourself out there with everything you write. It's good to get a pat on the back and get the sense that there are other people who going through it with you at the same time.

Finally, the most important question: which dragon would you train, and why?

It's a very good question! I usually say Zippleback because it's two for the price of one. I think a Snaptrapper would be too much, too much upkeep. But you know, lately, I like Speedstingers a lot. And I know they get a little bit of flack because they don't have wings and maybe look more like dinosaurs than dragons. But without being too spoilery, I often wonder what it would be like to be a dragon rider on a Speedstinger and what the applications of that power set would be. Say, in a graphic novel.

Thank you so much to Richard Hamilton for answering our questions about To Berk and Beyond and providing us with a couple hints of what's coming up! And of course, Berk's Grapevine will continue to cover The Serpent's Heir as we hear more about it!

You can get your copy of To Berk and Beyond from Insight Editions!


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