Cast and Crew Teach How to Train Your Dragon

ON

Be it flames of the Deadly Nadder, the tusks of Gronckle or double heads of the Hideous Zippleback, Dreamworks Animation will be issuing a public service to theatergoers everywhere this Friday when they reveal the specifics of How to Train Your Dragon in full Digital 3D.

Going back to a time and place you may not have known ever existed, “Dragon,” based on the book series by Cressida Cowell, tells of the epic wars waged between Viking and dragon and how a young outcast, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), finds his place as a dragon trainer.

Joining Jay in the cast is Gerard Butler as Stoick the Vast, the viking Chieftan, who just happens to be Hiccup’s father. Also providing voices are America Ferrera as fellow teenaged Viking Astrid, Craig Ferguson as a Viking warrior, Gobber the Belch as well as parts for Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig and David Tennant.

“For me, it was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had,” says Butler of providing the voice, “I remember Craig calling me when he had just seen a bit of [the finished film]. Just to hear someone so genuinely excited. He’s screaming, ‘I’ve just seen some of the movie! It’s better than ‘Lord of the Rings’! It’s incredible! Never been done before! I took my kid. We were so excited!’… To see the whole thing finished and in 3D… There’s only a couple of times I’ve stood up and beamed and been surrounded by all my friends who were all just as excited as I was. This, ‘300.’ That’s about it.”

“The rest of us are so excited to be part of his thing,” adds Ferguson with a laugh, “This is kind of a departure for me. Usually I’m in crap. So when I’m in something that’s good, it’s gonna off my brand.”

Butler and Ferguson, who bonded over the three-year production process, are quick to defend their natural Scottish accents with a real-life history lesson.

“Up along the Northern villages [of Scotland] there are a lot of Viking names,” explains Butler, “A lot of Vikings came down and settled in Scotland and in Ireland. And a lot of them didn’t, but [still] took many of us with them. Mostly the chicks. Iceland, they say fifty percent of the blood is Celtic blood from the females they stole from us.”

“Which is why,” he adds with a grin, “our country only has dogs left,” before pleading, “It was a joke! I’ll never be allowed back in Scotland again.”

On the technical side of the project is the directorial pair of Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, two very familiar faces to the world of animation, having co-written and co-directed Disney’s Lilo & Stitch) (with Sanders also having provided Stitch’s voice). Together, the two took on the already-in-development “Dragon” adaptation and forged the long path from the page to the screen, adapting themselves as well to the differences between hand-drawn and CG animation.

“When we joined the project,” Sanders explains, “they had this special meeting where they were just so excited to show us the tests of [Stoick’s] beard and it was funny for us because… it was our first real journey into CG animation, so we sat there and said, ‘Yeah, it’s impressive,’ but we had no idea the complication. The battles won to get that thing looking the way it did… The stuff that makes us so excited, like blowing up a building, is relatively simple to them and something as simple as having a boat sit on water — the contact of water versus something hard-edged– is extremely difficult. So it’s funny what remains a problem and what has been relatively solved.”

Part of the production process involved Chris and Dean welcoming cinematographer Roger Deakins to the “set” to get advice on how to achieve both realistic and cinematically impressive lighting. Officially a “visual consultant,” Chris and Dean were thrilled by how devoted Deakins became to the process and how much of his talent rubbed off on the final film.

Less directly, Sanders and DeBlois also cite the work of Hayao Miyazaki as a chief influence for “Dragon,” especially his 1992 animated flying epic Porco Rosso, which inspired a number of the flying scenes, this time animated with fully rendered 3D landscapes.

“We had two very important people in the world of filmmaking come in and give us opinions on 3D,” recalls DeBlois, “Both Steven Spielberg, who said, ‘Well, I don’t want to see No Country for Old Men in 3D’ and then James Cameron [who] said, ‘We see with two eyes and we hear with two ears and why not have every film take advantage of it from an offering stage?’… I think they’re both valid opinions and it’s certainly here to stay from a DreamWorks perspective.”

“I heard about these kids,” adds Butler on the 3D topic, “that, after watching ‘Avatar,’ went into depression because they couldn’t really live in that world. Whenever I watch [the flying] in this movie, I thought, that’s where I want to be. I want to be up in that sky. I want to be flying through the clouds and be living in that environment. I think if I had a dragon, I would spend most of my time up in the air all over the place, taking in this beautiful planet.”

On the other side of the coin, Jay admits that his own real-life dragon adventures might not be so exciting.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he mumbles, jokingly when asked what he’d do if he could really befriend a dragon, “Go to the store and buy Coca-Cola? I don’t do much. It’s slim pickings in my life. I don’t aim so high so the dragon would be lost on me, I think.”

As for Baruchel’s character, Hiccup, Cressida (who only receives an “as told to” credit on her novels, listing Hiccup as the actual author) insists that the Viking is quite happy with his adventures hitting the big screen.

“He was amazed,” she says, “I mean so excited. He wasn’t really expecting them to make it, to be honest, when they optioned it. Again, that’s amazing. But then you don’t know if they’re really going to make it. But then he loves the movie.”

Depending on the success of this first film, Dreamworks could well develop How to Train Your Dragon into a full-fledged franchise based on Cressida’s book series, currently at nine books and still growing.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” says producer Bonnie Arnold, “We actually have the rights to Cressida’s whole series of books… and we’ll see how the movie plays and what people think. But I think our fondest wish as filmmakers is that we continue to live with Hiccup and all his buddies and do some more stuff with him.”

How to Train Your Dragon opens this Friday, March 26th in theaters.