Designing the Spectacular Realm of the Dragons for DreamWorks Animation’s ‘The Hidden World’

From concept art to finished frames, production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent brings a singular touch to the final film in the blockbuster ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ trilogy.

Already spreading its wings abroad, DreamWorks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World flies into U.S. theaters from distributor Universal Pictures on February 22, giving domestic audiences their chance to see the highly anticipated film.

The Hidden World is the culmination of the animated trilogy launched in 2010 with series writer and director Dean DeBlois. The first film, the Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe-nominated How To Train Your Dragon, made $495 million globally for then-distributor Paramount and received 15 Annie Award nominations, winning 10 awards including Best Animated Feature and Best Production Design in an Animated Feature Production for art director Pierre-Olivier Vincent.

Like the film’s director and much of its crew, Vincent has remained with the blockbuster franchise over its entire lifespan, going on to serve as production designer on both How To Train Your Dragon 2 and The Hidden World. The second film, which made $622 million for distribution partner Fox following its release in 2014, went on to win Golden Globe and Annie Awards for Best Animated Feature as well as receiving BAFTA and Oscar nominations.

Vincent, or POV, as he’s known to colleagues, first joined DreamWorks from French animation studio Gaumont, where he worked as a visual development artist on various television projects. At DWA, he started out as a layout artist on The Road to El Dorado(2000) and went on to character design for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002). Vincent also served as lead sequence design artist on the Academy Award-nominated film Shark Tale (2004), garnering an Annie Award nomination, and as art director on Flushed Away (2006), receiving an Annie Award for Best Production Design in an Animated Feature.

According to Vincent, plans for the spectacular realm of the dragons unveiled in The Hidden World — a seemingly-infinite crystal cavern sheltered by a massive volcanic caldera decked out with cascading waterfalls and glowing foliage — were already underway during production of How To Train Your Dragon 2. “We knew that we wanted some sort of subterranean world,” he recounts, explaining that this new “Hidden World” of the film’s title had to be dramatically distinct from the dragon environments of the first two films.

“In the first movie we have some sort of cavern, like the inside of a volcano. In the second movie, we had the oasis of Valka, which is located in the Arctic. In a way, they were both very contained small spaces,” Vincent notes. “We knew this world was key,” he continues. “We had to provide something that would feel almost limitless, something that, if we are leaving the dragons at the end of the movie, and if we let them go to that place, it wouldn’t be just to put them inside a grotto or a cavern. It would be a place where they can have freedom,” he adds. “And a lot of space for flying.”

Seeking a credible and tangible feel to ground this fantastical new realm, Vincent and his team relied on real-world physics to help make the Hidden World believable to audiences. “We had to make this world as big as possible,” Vincent says, “but we couldn’t go completely science fiction on it. We had to somehow find a little theory inside it all to help it all make sense.”

It was vital to the story that the design of the Hidden World didn’t feel otherworldly. “It’s not a different planet, it’s still on Earth, which is something we had very well established during the three movies, and although the dragons are really the element of fantasy in those stories, I think that pretty much set the benchmark for the design,” Vincent remarks. “We wanted to use a little bit of crystals, a little bit of corals, but not go crazy. Just to feel like the space was having some justification compared to the world outside.”

The vast environment of the Hidden World presented one of the biggest challenges to the production team. “The Hidden World was definitely very, very complex,” Vincent affirms. “It’s a very large environment, with an immense number of characters. There are also a lot of crystals that even with today’s technology are still really heavy in terms of rendering time. With all the light passing through the crystals and bouncing off all those creatures with their bright colors, it was a very complex scene to do.”

MoonRay, DreamWorks Animation’s new proprietary rendering tool, was a key component to bringing the expansive Hidden World to life on the grand scale the filmmakers envisioned. The studio’s first ray-tracing renderer, MoonRay calculates light as it functions in the real world by injecting billions of light rays into a scene, giving sense to light and shadows based upon the path they naturally take, and rendering shots in real-time. MoonRay joins the Academy Sci-Tech Award-winning Premo, the studio’s in-house animation production platform first employed on How To Train Your Dragon 2, to form the backbone of the pipeline for The Hidden World.

“MoonRay isn’t necessarily changing the way we design, but it’s definitely changing the answer when we are asking, ‘Can we get that?’ And that’s the big game-changer, in a way,” Vincent comments, noting that, for the production team, the intention for all three How To Train Your Dragon films was always the same. “As much as possible, we are trying to represent the world in a very detailed way,” he explains. “It’s just that, obviously, the technology today is allowing you to go a lot deeper in that subject than before. So, when we are designing the forest, when we are designing the Hidden World, it was really not a problem anymore to keep asking for more crystals, more plants, more everything — just to give the sense that the world was really a rich, deep, credible world. So the technology is fascinating for me in the way that it just allows us, in a way, not to think too much about it.”

With MoonRay in operation, removing many of the technological constraints faced during production of the first two films, Vincent was able to indulge his wildest imaginings while designing the eye-popping Hidden World of the third How To Train Your Dragonmovie. Concept art was a crucial part of communicating his vision to the filmmaking team, and he notes that he did “a lot of paintings” in the earliest phases. “Every time you talk to people and you say, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a really magical environment with incredible complexity. It’s going to be huge. It’s going to be…’ whatever, you think you’re trying to create excitement. But actually you’re worrying people sometimes because then it’s really going to cost a fortune!” he wryly observes.

“So concept art is very important, actually, you do a lot of development on those just to bring understanding,” Vincent continues. “Those movies are very expensive anyway, but a lot of what we do through artwork is just communicating the potential of something, or the possibility of something.”

Completing the How To Train Your Dragon trilogy is a moment of particular pride for Vincent, who acknowledges how unique it is to work with the same team over a ten-year span. “We were always proud of what we had done before, but the images we were able to do now I think are really good, are really interesting,” he says. “We have a better technology. We learned so much over the years. And Dragon 3 in a way represents what we can do after having learning altogether for all those years. A lot of the guys that I’ve been working with on those movies, I’m going to probably work with them again on the next project.”

While bidding farewell to the dragons and dragon riders of Berk is a bittersweet experience for Vincent, “I’m very happy that I don’t have to say goodbye to my crew,” he discloses. “The thing about working in an animation studio like DreamWorks is that it’s not just one artist. It’s teamwork. And we are a team. We are a community. And not all of them may work with me on the next project, but I know already that a lot of the people that I enjoy working with so much are going to be part of the same journey. So it’s a little bit of an interesting feeling, because I’m really excited about continuing working with my friends, and specifically after what we achieved on this film.”

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