HOW TO SOUND
LIKE A DRAGON
Famed designer Randy Thom needed some alone time to give Toothless a voice that spoke to the audience.
By Karen Idelson
Once upon a time, onscreen dragons merely roared and breathed fire, priming audiences to believe them fearsome, evil creatures.
Enter Academy Award-winning sound designer Randy Thom and his team, who gave these once misunderstood creatures something they had never possessed — "emotional language."
Armed with a sound arsenal of animal growls, bellows, screams and squeaks (and the team's own manipulated voices), Thom was determined to upend everything we thought we knew about these mythical creatures. Suddenly dragons cooed with affection, boomed with anger and whimpered with sadness.
Randy Thom, a two-time Academy Award winner and 13-time nominee, is one of the most influential sound designers working today. He put his 40 years of experience in sound design to the test in "How to Train Your Dragon" by incorporating these never-before-heard vocalizations.
"Dean (DeBlois) wanted us to give the dragons personality and emotion," says Thom, who has worked on all three films in the series. "And with the third film he wanted us to go as far as we could in giving them their own ways of communicating."
There’s probably the most of me in Toothless because there were many emotions we needed for him that I couldn’t quite find in animal vocalizations,” says Thom. “It was a wonderful challenge and a bit of a scary challenge early on when I had discussions with Dean about the range of emotions Toothless would need. Now, I’m credited as Toothless and it’s incredible the number of kids who want me to autograph things for them as this character.”
- Academy Award-winning Sound Designer Randy Thom
"Any attempt we made to create a sound with our own voices was pretty identifiably human," says Thom. "But if I'm really desperate, I go away by myself in a dark room and just start making sounds. I might try a hundred things before I hit on a sound that actually seems dramatically credible."
Toothless and the Light Fury are in close contact in many scenes, so Thom had to distinguish the vocalizations of the two dragons so audiences could follow their "conversations."
"A female horse is probably able to tell whether it's a male horse calling from across the pasture, but humans can't really distinguish the difference," says Thom. "And, to us, a male tiger sounds just the same as a female tiger. So, we leaned on the stereotype that female voices tend to be higher in pitch than male voices."
Gary Rizzo, re-recording mixer and two-time Academy Award winner, carefully constructed a mix that brought out the "voices" of the different dragons, made aural sense of battle sequences and even heightened drama in quiet confrontations.
"You have to go with your instinct and check in with your heart," says Rizzo. He cites Hiccup's first meeting with dragon-slaver Grimmel as a favorite sequence. "It starts off as very quiet, intimate and wildly uncomfortable but eventually turns into an action scene where the ultimate threat is placed upon Hiccup. We take it to the point where you're emotionally heightened but not so scared that you want to run out of the room. I have kids so they're my emotional barometer."
Like many fans of the films, Thom feels a special connection with Toothless, who turned out to be a dragon unlike any other.
HELPS STORY TO TAKE FLIGHT
John Powell's music has always been essential to the trilogy. In 'The Hidden World,' it often says more than words ever could.
By Jon Burlingame
"How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World" director Dean DeBlois doesn't mince words when it comes to the application of music to his images: "Music is half of the equation. I can't emphasize how important it is in the mix.
"Music transcends dialogue and speaks directly to the heart. It can move storytelling along and bring a depth of dimension to what's on screen."
In all three of the "Dragon" films, John Powell's music captures the colorful locale, the magical period, the majesty of the creatures, and the thoughts and feelings of the characters. And while he had already scored such animated box-office hits as "Happy Feet," "Kung Fu Panda," "Rio" and the "Ice Age" films, it was his score for the 2010 "How to Train Your Dragon" that garnered him his first Academy Award nomination.
His score for "How to Train Your Dragon 2" served to deepen the experience for moviegoers, and his latest, for "The Hidden World," has earned the best reviews of his career. Powell's music conveys the danger, the romance, the grandeur, and finally the power of this trilogy's emotional finale.
"John Powell is himself a fantastic storyteller," says DeBlois. "He brings a surprising counterpoint in terms of theme, and I'm often surprised how he articulates it both musically and also verbally in how he sees themes that I might not even be aware of.
"It's almost as if I'm working on the A story and John is working on a B story, and together, in their melodic harmony, they play in a way that the movie would be so deprived without it."
Two key scenes posed significant creative challenges, says the composer; the courtship scene with Toothless and the Light Fury on the beach, and Hiccup's discovery of the Hidden World. "The hardest scenes in the movie were the ones on the beach," Powell admits. "I spent weeks and weeks on that."
"I trusted John completely. I said, 'Go to town, but remember this is your last opportunity to put anything and everything that you would love to have represented into the score.
"So, it was a challenge to outdo himself yet again."
- Dean DeBlois
His delicate melody and dance-like rhythm — flavored with harp, chimes, penny whistle and Uilleann pipes — whimsically convey the sense of the two dragons falling in love, a scene that runs nearly seven minutes without a word of dialogue.
"He took such a playful approach," says DeBlois. "The first moment he played it I thought he had elevated the scene far beyond what it had been." The composer extends the joy with the soaring "Furies in Love" sequence as the pair sail through menacing storm clouds toward an uncertain future.
Powell tackled the discovery of the dragons' Hidden World early, as Icelandic musician Jónsi – who contributed songs to the first two films – visited Powell's studio in Los Angeles.
"I sketched out a very brief piece for him to work against," the composer recalls, "and he basically vocalized over this track, coming up with these musical jewels."
The result was a haunting, ethereal five-minute piece for the lost home of all dragons featuring Jónsi's wordless vocals, augmented by Powell's 60-voice choir and 98-piece orchestra.
Powell's score matches the electric colors and thrilling sight of thousands of dragons in their secret, happy home, and dramatically sets the stage for a moving conclusion to the trilogy.
Personal tragedy played a role in the creation of the score, Powell confides. His wife died in 2016, and the film came "at a time of my life when I was ending a period of mourning. It was cathartic for me to finish the series at a time when I needed to finish that part of my life."
So, the sense of loss, palpable in so much of "The Hidden World," may have had its roots in Powell's own life.
Art by: Gluekit