By Barbara Robertson
"Hiccup sees his weaknesses as flaws," says writer-director Dean DeBlois. "His journey is to discover those weaknesses are strengths in disguise."
Jakob Jensen, who animated Hiccup alongside Fabio Lignini, observes, "In the first film he accepts himself. "In the second, he battles with responsibilities as he takes over for Stoick. ‘The Hidden World' is about letting go," says Jensen.
During the trilogy, Hiccup ages from 15 to 30; his visual coming-of-age is unprecedented in American animation.
In a dramatic turn at the end of the first film, Hiccup loses part of his leg. The decision to make him a Viking with a disability, and to continue that through the rest of the story, was also unprecedented. "It's not a handicap," says head of animation Simon Otto. "It makes him a unique and more capable person."
"Just because life has been a certain way doesn't mean that's how it has to be," says Jay Baruchel, Hiccup voice actor. "Just because you aren't like everyone else doesn't mean you don't have something to offer."
Starting in the first film, Hiccup controls Toothless' tail fin with his prosthetic. In the third, he gives Toothless a permanent fix — again, letting go. Hiccup has learned to thrive with his body, now too must Toothless. And although they part, their bond remains.
Young Hiccup sketches by Stephanie Stine; Hiccup chief outfit by Woonyoung Jung
By Tara McNamara
Hiccup's best "bud," Toothless, was always designed to be, in Dean DeBlois' words, "intimidating, flight-worthy, powerful and almost a ghost in the Viking world," while still evoking every beloved domestic pet. In "The Hidden World," he returns to the wild as king of the dragons. It's a surprise for audiences accustomed to seeing him as a snuggly pet.
In "The Hidden World," says supervising animator Dane Stogner, "Toothless reverts back to the first ‘How to Train Your Dragon' film when he was wilder, more panther-like, less domesticated." Stogner has animated Toothless throughout the trilogy.
These aspects come together in his mating dance with the feral Light Fury. "I referenced the birds-of-paradise from ‘Planet Earth'; the sage-grouse's tippy-tappy feet; and a springbok," says Stogner. The film's poignant end is also rooted in reality. "When Hiccup is pulling his hand away from his nose while saying goodbye to Toothless, that was one of the last things I animated, so it was a very personal moment for me," says Stogner. "What I was animating was what I was actually doing in real life."
Storyboard by Bolhem Bouchiba
By Barbara Robertson
"Astrid is a sort of prodigy," says Dean DeBlois. "She is the next-generation Viking who excels in everything."
Even her clothing looks strong; character designer Nico Marlet put spikes and skulls on her costume.
Adds DeBlois, "She's confident, she's brave and I think the nuance that we tried to give her is that she's also the first to change."
Over the course of the trilogy, culminating in "The Hidden World," Astrid becomes Hiccup's perfect partner, his moral and intellectual compass and the provocateur who prods him to greatness. The challenge for animators was in making "confident" Astrid's relationship with "hesitant" Hiccup feel real.
"We had America [Ferrera] and Jay [Baruchel] perform the dialogue together for the subtle moments," says head of character animation Simon Otto. "Then we gave the entire sequences to the animators, told them to go away for three months, and come back with something that feels truthful."
The character was rigged so animators could give Astrid some subtle behaviors to make her seem more real. "I made sure she could push her bangs behind her ear or flick her hair out of her eyes," says supervising animator Steven "Shaggy" Hornby. "It lends itself to a more feminine touch. A woman might put hair behind her ear subconsciously while she's thinking."
Ferrera observes, "Girls and boys love Astrid because of her warrior spirit. She also knows what she cares about. For Astrid, the answer is always choosing love and choosing to be the best version of yourself, even when it's the hard thing to do."
Astrid hair designs by Nico Marlet; Astrid costume by Woonyoung Jung
By Tara McNamara
“The Light Fury represents the engine of change in our story,” says “The Hidden World’s” writer-director Dean DeBlois. “She represents the call of the wild to Toothless.”
Just like Toothless, the powerful Light Fury is a mashup of real creatures: lioness, snow leopard, axolotl, beluga whale and tern. “We’ve always established a world that is not magical, but could be grounded in reality,” says Simon Otto, head of character animation, who alludes to day-hunter Light Fury’s necessary camouflage. “She could heat up her scales which would turn into a kind of mirror, somewhere between a chameleon and a disco ball, and disappear.”
Light Fury is the yin to Toothless’ yang, but production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent says making her Toothless’ visual opposite was challenging. “It’s very difficult to bring light on a pure white character on screen,” he says. The solution was to create subtle stripes that revealed themselves under specific lighting conditions.
The Light Fury’s air of mystery is projected with an “icy stare”: her iris shrunk to tiny slits so her pupils mask her feelings. Supervising animator Thomas Grummt says Toothless’ mate becomes more engaging for a reason. “With the somewhat sad ending of separating our main characters, I had to give the audience the satisfaction of Toothless finding a new family. The Light Fury had to be interesting and likeable enough that the audience would be fine with that.”
Light Fury sketch by Simon Otto
By Barbara Robertson
"Valka is the flawed shade of Hiccup's soul," says writer-director Dean DeBlois. "The other half of him. The one that is completely sympathetic to dragons and very much against the warring ways of humans. But she learns a great lesson.
"She only believed in the segregation of dragons in order to protect them and comes to realize that her own son and his love of dragons could change the world."
Hiccup long thought Valka was lost in a dragon attack, but discovered her in a vast dragon lair in the second film.
"Dean wanted Valka to dress like a dragon, taking on the characteristics of the dragons around her, so I tried to take some of the elements from her dragon, Cloudjumper, and add them to her costume," says character designer Nico Marlet.
"We struggled to get her right," says head of character animation Simon Otto. "She's an animal activist who almost lost her connection with humanity. But, she needs to be a mother and take the parental place Hiccup's father inhabited. Cate [Blanchett] played her regal and distant at first, almost animal like. Feral. In ‘The Hidden World,' she is softer. We took that slightly cold, disconnected aspect out of her, allowing her to embrace her role as mother."
Valka costume sketches: Nico Marlet
By Tara McNamara
Unlike the physically imposing villains previously encountered by the Vikings, "The Hidden World's" baddie challenges Hiccup intellectually.
"Grimmel presents himself as a hero," says writer-director Dean DeBlois, "who is liberating human beings from the scourge of dragons, but he is ultimately just a narcissist and unwilling to see another side of the argument."
A big mouth became Grimmel's dominant feature, but it was his voice that completed the character. Several actors tested; none were the right fit.
That is, until, animation supervisor Rani Naamani surprised the team with a design of Grimmel he animated to an audio clip of F. Murray Abraham that he found on the Internet. "It's the only time I know of that an animator did a test and convinced everybody that this is the voice of the character," says Simon Otto, head of character animation.
"The way F. Murray delivers his lines is so entertaining," says Naamani. "Part of that has to do with how unexpected his delivery is, in terms of the timing, the pacing, what words he accentuates and how he says his words."
Abraham's mannerisms are infused into Grimmel, but his unique elocution mattered most to animators. "It set up a good starting point for our performances," Naamani says. "An interesting thing between animation and live action is that animators and actors both act, but it's a very different approach."
Pencil by Carter Goodrich
By Tara McNamara
In "The Hidden World," Eret has evolved from dragon-trapping scoundrel to protector of the dragon riders' home village. His trajectory across the two films influenced his initial design.
At first, he is in it for the money, explains Simon Otto, head of character animation. "His moral and intellectual match is Hiccup. Through that experience, he comes around and changes. So, we needed him to be more noble physically, a bit regal, a proud warrior."
That, however, presented a challenge: "A straightforward, good-looking, heroic character is not particularly entertaining. The solution we found was he's unknowingly attractive," Otto says. "He has this masculinity to a fault; he doesn't realize it comes across sometimes as silly."
Eret costume concepts by Iuri Lioi
Animators referenced popular action films for muscle-bound, testosterone-charged characters imbued with a similar seriousness. Says Otto, "There's a humor to how they take themselves so seriously. They always think they're making big important statements."
The casting of fantasy star Kit Harington plays with that idea. "When you juxtapose the role that made him famous with a more contemporary dialogue, it's instantly funny," Otto says.
Animation supervisor Sean Sexton says Harington made his job much easier. "Every line we had with Kit, you knew what to do, because it was so perfect, the inflection was so great, and the line reads were so perfect. He gave you so much to dig into," he says.
Harington, for his part, salutes the artists who brought Eret to life. "Being in a film like this reaffirms for yourself that you're just a tiny cog in all of this," he says. "The real magic of it is happening in that studio, and what all those artists are doing."
By Barbara Robertson
What does a father do when his son doesn't live up to his expectations? That's Stoick's dilemma at the beginning of the "Dragon" trilogy.
"Stoick is a powerful Viking set in the old ways," says writer-director Dean DeBlois. "However, he has a strong paternal side to him. Ultimately, he becomes Hiccup's most stalwart champion."
Physically, lead animator Kristof Serrand notes he's "almost square," not flexible, and fights "like a bulldozer." The animators started to create a "a rough, brutal, Viking guy" but changed direction off of Gerard Butler's voice performance.
"I look at the lipstick camera when an actor does dialog to see the way they move," says Serrand. "I had used tough-guy actors for reference at first. But when I saw [Butler's] performance that changed. He was great."
Stoick gave his life to save Hiccup in the second film but appears in flashbacks during the third. "I love that ‘The Hidden World' shows us that the memories Hiccup has of his father are sweeter than you might have thought after seeing the first movie," says head of character animation Simon Otto.
Butler observes, "Stoick was very reflective of the old ideas of his people, but he was moved by his son's vision for their people. He offered Hiccup so much heart and wisdom when he came to change his mind."