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'Climate change? I think that's what these movies are ultimately about'


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“I was lucky to have done the very first drawing of Toothless,” says Simon Otto with a huge grin.

Simon Otto / Image courtesy of Premier Comms

“For me, Toothless represents the relationship I had as a child with my cat, and those drawings are very, very similar to how you see it in the film. He is my favourite character, he’s something that lives inside of me, and it’s a character that has a life of its own now. It’s not only a creation; it’s out on the internet, out in the world and out in people’s minds - and that’s something that’s rare and really powerful.”

For the last nine years, Otto has been head of character animation for all three movies of the How To Train Your Dragon franchise. It's a trilogy that has received three academy award nominations, grossed over $1.5 billion worldwide and has spawned a spin-off television series and numerous video games. Last February the third and final instalment, How To Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World, was released to critical and commercial success.

“There’s a bittersweetness to it,” says Otto. “You have the enjoyment of doing something that you’re really, really proud of but also saying goodbye to the characters, saying goodbye to your mates who worked on this film for almost 12 years, and we’re all now scattered all over the film industry. It’s bittersweet for sure.

“There were certain moments in the last few months where animators came into work and produced their last scenes. I remember Dane Stogner, who was the supervising animator for Toothless, saying, "I can’t believe after ten years this will be the last scene I will ever animate."It was one of the moments where people definitely choked up.”

Otto, who is now a freelance animator in California after working for the last 22 years exclusively for DreamWorks, is also quick to note how repetitive and draining the process is. So, no more drawing dragons and vikings for a while, I ask?

“Yes absolutely, let me live my life!” he almost shouts, before continuing: “The way I see it you go into a deep-sea dive - eventually you have to re-emerge and live a life, have a life and enjoy life, do the simple things. I’ve seen the movie come out, to a great reception both critically and from an audience point of view. We really feel like we have accomplished something that has only happened very rarely in this animation industry.”

Toothless and the Light-Fury in How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

How To Train Your Dragon 3: Hidden World sees viking Hiccup and dragon Toothless finally go their separate ways, concluding an iconic, if somewhat unorthodox, friendship. “The key scene that I will always remember, (is) saying goodbye to Toothless,” says Otto, “and then having that moment, the reunion at the end, that’s so powerful. That’s something we talked about, very early on, which was what if we ended this trilogy with a sort of born free ending.

“We also had lots of great references online of animal trainers meeting up with their animals who were set free in nature, ten years later, and how the animal reacted to that. So that was also another really key moment for us. And we all felt it; we felt what this meant to these characters.”

Otto’s eye for emotion transcends the entire movie. He passionately explains to me the process of crafting new characters, emphasising their feelings and sentiments; almost as if he creates them from the soul up.

He says: “Head of Character animation is kind of split into two parts. Part one, I’m the first one on the film, I have maybe two or three animators with me, and we are the client to every department that comes before us that helps build these digital puppets. I supervise the character creation both from a technical point of view, making these character designs, modelling, building the rigging which is the armature, circuits and to make sure we have these actors ready and we know how we want to perform these characters, from the inside.

“(We ask ourselves) who are these characters, and how do they move, and how do they behave? That takes about 14 months and then the second half of the production is performing each scene with an army of about 55 animators over the same amount of time. You’re working as the right hand to the director in everything that’s related to the character performance, literally building the performances shot by shot.”

Toothless and the Light-Fury in How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Otto passionately relays the film making process, although it is clear it exhausts him. He asks me what I took from the movie to which I reply, rather hesitantly, “a message of coexistence.” He jumps on my answer: “I’m very passionate about coexistence and also climate change. I feel like it’s the key issue in our world. We westerners, in particular, have to take responsibility for the stuff that we’re doing to this planet. I think the dragon’s message is about the preservation of habitats and species and it is a pacifist kind of take on the world.

“Obviously, we’re talking from an emotional point of view and not from an intellectual point of view and in no way do we have the desire to be didactic about it because we’re tasked with providing entertainment but, on a heart and soul level, I think kids and adults feel that that’s what these movies are ultimately about. We talked about it in our story discussions a lot, about these things - we do have very open conversations about all this.”

As our interview approaches its conclusion, I ask Otto what’s next for him and animation. “I’ve done it for 22 years now and I still love it as much as I did on the first day,” he says. “I definitely think there’s a lot more to do; the medium still has a lot of growing and expanding to do, and I think we will find other stories to tell that maybe can be more specific to certain types of audiences and I think that’s really a challenge. My advice to aspiring animators is to keep your eyes open.

“I can give you an example; when I graduated from the animation school in Paris, a studio came through that was called Pixar and they said they were working on a movie called Toy Story, and I was like, in my head, I want to be a 2D character animator, I want to work on hand-drawn 2D films, so I turned it down.”

We both pause. For the first time, Otto has shown an ounce of negativity. “You could’ve worked on Toy Story?” I probe. “Do you regret that?”

“No,” he replies, “but I say to myself in hindsight, how short-sighted was I not to have taken that seriously and say this could really be something that I love - because of course, I would’ve loved to have been an animator on Toy Story and I would’ve enjoyed myself, it would’ve been tremendous. But no, no regrets.”

And with that, our interview ends and I tell Otto how much I enjoyed the film. He smiles: “Thank you so much, I really appreciate your input and it was great talking to you.” His response is undoubtedly genuine. For a man who has made a career animating other people’s emotions, Simon Otto wears his heart on his sleeve.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is available on digital now and is out on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 10, from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

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