Known for his moody, dark images in films like No Country for Old Men and Skyfall, cinematographer Roger Deakins might not seem the obvious choice for helping to create the look of a Dreamworks animated film. But it’s exactly his unconventional approach which helped How to Train Your Dragon to stand apart, and why he was brought back for the hit film’s sequel, How to Train Your Dragon 2.
“Animators see like painters, with the human eye; so every sky and shadow is fully exposed, expanded, like the way the brain does in real life,” visual effects supervisor David Walvoord tells ICG Magazine. “Roger sees the world through a camera, which has a set range of exposures. He’s not afraid to put a character in the foreground in complete shadow, which was so different and fun for me. Of course, there are similarities: we’re both very graphic, dividing the frame up into light values that designate foreground, mid-ground and background to create depth. But Dragon 2 goes so much further than we would have dared without Roger’s influence.”
“My input was often about taking away lights, asking them, How much do you need to see to tell a story?” Deakins adds. “I remember having the exact same conversations back on Wall-E, and I would ask: ‘Why add another light source? Keep it simple.’ Because we had built up trust over the first film, it was easier for them to go further – darker, less saturation, more depth of field, with out-of-focus backgrounds not often done in animation.”
Deakins and director Dean DeBlois based the look of the film on a scouting trip they took to the Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Ocean. They were also keen on making the film’s camera movements look as physically viable as possible. “We’ve seen examples in other CG animated and motion-capture films where the camera does anything it wants,” says DeBlois. “One restriction we set for ourselves is that each shot needs to look like there is an operator behind the camera. Steven Spielberg commented on that in the first Dragon and again this time. He said every shot is something I could go out and create with a live-action crew. We’re very proud of that.”
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