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How To Train Your Dragon animator Thomas Grummt talks emotional endings, industry advice and creating the light-fury

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“It really got a little sad towards the end,” says DreamWorks supervising animator Thomas Grummt, who, for the last two years, has worked considerably on the critically acclaimed How To Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World.

“When everybody realised that you’re doing last scenes with these characters that you’ve come to really like over these years. That’s when it really hit people that you’ll probably never animate them again. Maybe ever.”

Thomas Grummt / Image courtesy of Premier Comms

The How To Train Your Dragon franchise has come a long way from Cressida Cowell’s original children’s book, released in 2003. After the first movie grossed nearly $500 million (£395 million) worldwide in 2010, gaining two Academy Award nominations and a passionate global fanbase, a sequel, spin-off television series and video game were commissioned.

Last February the third and final instalment of the trilogy was released. “It was one of my favourite projects I’ve done so far,” Grummt tells me. “I’ve been at DreamWorks for nine years. But this one was special to me both because it was the last part of the series and because it was the first time I supervised on a movie.”

Hidden World sees the culmination of a celebrated story arc, as Viking Hiccup releases his pet dragon Toothless back into the wild, with the night-fury falling for a new colourless dragon - dubbed the light-fury.

“I was the supervisor for that character,” says Grummt, “It’s a challenge of finding a worthy companion for Toothless, who everybody loves, and making sure that we do it in a way that the audience can forgive that we separate them in the end.

“I did a lot of the early development on the character, which means finding a lot of references in terms of which animal she should be like. We used big cats like a snow leopard as a reference, and then some really elegant birds like falcons and hawks in terms of how she flies.”

You can hear the pride in Grummt’s voice. After graduating from Stuttgart Media University in 2005, the animator worked on various freelance projects in Germany before moving to the US to work for DreamWorks in 2010. For Grummt, this movie is undoubtedly his finest work. His character flies with a graceful maturity, perfectly counterbalancing Toothless’ awkward adorability.

 Toothless Dances For The Light Fury Scene - HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 3 (2019)

He laughs: “On this movie I think I maybe did one scene with a human; everything else is just dragons. Usually, when you animate, you do everything in a scene; you just do whatever you get cast, humans, dragons, everything. But on this one I mostly did just light-fury scenes.

“I did this one scene, I like how it turned out, which is, at first, they have this first date - the two dragons - and Toothless doesn’t really know how it works and he’s pretty clumsy. But there’s another scene later on when they’re in the hidden world together where they do they’re mating dance again and then Toothless kind of learns how it works.

“So that scene is one of my favourites, where they kind of dance around each other and do this weird animal behaviour. That was a fun one because the scene needed to tell the audience that they are home. That they’re comfortable with each other and they’ve learned the ways of the dragon and they can now be a couple and be happy there.”

Grummt was nominated for an Annie Award for 'best character animation in a feature production' for How To Train Your Dragon 2, and was featured in Variety's '10 Animators To Watch' list in 2015. Yet, he is strong to emphasise the importance of teamwork in animation.

“On the production it does feel like a family," he says. "Most of the same people who worked on the second movie worked on this one, so it really did feel like coming home.

“And the director, Dean DeBlois, is amazing. He’s great to work with, and one of the benefits we have at DreamWorks is that we get to work with the director directly almost every single day, which doesn’t normally happen. It’s nice to have this close collaboration with the team.”

The German’s passion for this movie is deeply evident. He takes me through the gradual process of crafting an animated classic with childlike glee: “In animation you always storyboard the whole movie, and that’s how it starts to get visualised. We also have pre-vis and layout. Basically, it’s a rough version of the scene that gets done by the layout department. They set up a camera and use simplified versions of the characters which gives you the positions in space and a little bit of the performance.”

Once more he returns to the dragon’s dancing scene, with a glint of joy in his voice: “Interestingly enough, the prancing in that scene where they hop around each other, wasn’t in the original storyboard or in the pre-vis, but we felt pretty strongly that we should call back to that moment where (the dancing) didn’t work on the beach. And now we can really show to the audience that they’ve kind of figured out how to be together."

Such is the franchise’s cult following that DreamWorks set the film’s budget at $129 million (£102 million), introducing new technologies and allowing for more creative freedom for animators. “They developed a new ray-tracing engine, that’s completely brand new for the whole studio, which allowed us to basically create a more complex, beautiful world,” Grummt adds.

“And you can really see that stuff in the hidden world that I think we couldn’t have rendered with our previous software. Or in the forest scenes where there’s tonnes of grass on the ground and ferns and moss growing on the trees with all the little flowers. Overall, the lighting has become a lot more sophisticated and it’s just really lush. I can’t imagine not having that anymore, it’s very nice.”

Hiccup and Astrid in How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

So, what is the one thing you had wished you had known before becoming an animato, I ask? There is a long pause. “Erm, there are probably many things,” he laughs. “I think whenever people ask me for advice in terms of, what’s important to get onto this path, I just tell them that animation is a craft and the only way – the only – to get better at it is just to do as much of it as you can.

“I keep telling people that the best thing you can do early on is film yourself doing lots of different exercises. Like standing up, sitting down, rolling on the ground, running, jumping you know it can be very simple things but the more of the stuff you do, you develop a library of movements you understand.

“You can do the same thing with facial animation where you just film yourself doing expression changes or blinks or even talking and then you just really, really analyse what’s going on in the face and the body and really try to understand how to translate that into animation.

“It’s the same as drawing,” he says; “you just have to get all the crappy drawings out of the way to get the good stuff. It only works through a lot of practice.” I get the feeling Grummt has not sketched a ‘crappy’ piece in decades.

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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