Books offer quality, well-told stories. Music is a treat for your ears. Movies are, first and foremost, a visual medium. This continues a series focusing on that element of filmmaking: the art of cinematography. The following is a collection of my favorite shots from How to Train Your Dragon. [contains spoilers]
I’ve got good news and bad news. Bad news: as might be apparent by now, this post isn’t with the times because there were no new home releases in the past week that got me excited. Sorry Hunger Games fans, I don’t count myself among your ranks, so I am in no hurry to gif and write about Catching Fire (granted, I enjoyed that one a good deal more than the first movie, and MUCH more than I did the book). Good news: I’m not out another twenty five bucks this week! Also, more relevantly, this means that I got to reach into my collection and pull out a movie whose visuals I distinctly remember appreciating... a movie that also happens to be one of my favorite animated movies ever.*
Looking back, the advertising for How to Train Your Dragon didn’t do the film any favors at all. It wasn’t until the eve of its release that I finally decided it might be worth checking out in theaters because one of the trailers highlighted some pretty large-scale action. When it was all said and done, I think I’d seen Dragon in theaters three times. At least one of those screenings was in 3D, and it remains one of the best examples I’ve seen of a movie using that tech to good effect (Avatar, Hugo, and Gravity being others).
3D is pretty low on my non-existent list of what I look for in a quality film, though. Much more important features include an engrossing story, a good score, and, of course, nice visuals. How to Train Your Dragon was able to check all of those things off the list. Emphatically. With a permanent marker.
The soundtrack contains pieces that I still revisit to this day. The art and animation was often times some of the best I’d seen back in 2010. It's Dragon’s story, however, that made the biggest impact on me. I love that the movie, a family movie, wasn’t afraid of leaving an everlasting mark on its hero, a physical ‘consequence’ for his actions. Even better was when the movie proceeded to turn that animated hero into a positive role model for actual kids with disabilities.
I love this movie.
One thing that directors Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders, and their art department got oh-so-right was the various atmospheres for very distinct scenes. A pink-ish sunset for a romantic scene, vibrant colors for the exciting first Toothless + Hiccup flight, grays and desaturated browns for the post-battle sequence when Hiccup can’t be found, the list goes on.
Included in that excellent atmosphere work was the above scene, taking place in a forest that has been cast in fog and painted in dark greens and browns. They really nailed the mood for Hiccup wandering aimlessly, fruitlessly searching for a downed dragon and some direction for his future. I also like the techniques used to make Hiccup visible in the center of the frame.
If I could choose what form I’d take if I were to get another life after this one, I’d choose to be some kind of cross between David Beckham and Lionel Messi. But if I had to settle for my second choice, I’d come back as a bird. Being able to fly would be incredible. This dream is realized on the big screen in How to Train Your Dragon; the flying sequences are among the film’s best. I especially enjoyed the two or three times we got a sort of over-the-shoulder perspective on Hiccup as he and Toothless were flying around at speed.
Conversely, the effect of fixing the camera to a point while Toothless flew across the frame was fantastic as well. That slow motion shot of Toothless diving after the plummeting Hiccup as the flames expand and encompass them is one of several in the film that have been firmly imprinted in my memory. It is an excellent visual, and a fine transition from the intense climax to the dramatic and eerie scene that immediately follows it (see the larger gif below).
I paired these two shots together because I thought they were solid examples of Dragon’s excellent lighting practices. Astrid's attempt to look like a badass is aided by the rays of sunlight shining through the trees behind her. The reflection of light off the axe and onto Astrid's face is an especially nice touch.
Cue another comment regarding the beauty of flight... really, what I like about the shot on the right is the framing of everything; each element in the shot has its own designated space and it all fills the frame comfortably.
This shot is so well-realized visually that when you single out a lone frame of it, it’s as if you’re looking at a piece of concept art. Simply gorgeous. It just so happens that this is also one of the sequences I referred to above when talking about the filmmakers doing an excellent job conveying specific moods and atmospheres in their environments. Careful lighting and draining much of the color from what’s on screen contribute to really effectively generating a somber tone.
Finally, I must hit you right in the emotions. If How to Train Your Dragon has an iconic shot/moment, it has got to be the one on the left. The one on the right, however, quickly became my favorite in the film. The whole scene is downright marvelous (see: that stuff I said before about an animated hero and positive role model), but the shot says so much without using any words.
At the start of the movie, Hiccup shot down a dragon in an attempt to realize his ambitions. That dragon happened to be Toothless, whose tail got mangled in the bolas that took him down. The damage done to Toothless's tail renders him unable to fly. Hiccup befriends Toothless and they learn to fly together, thanks to the aid of a sort of prosthesis that Hiccup made. During the battle at the film’s climax, Hiccup sustains an injury to his leg that necessitates it being amputated. Some people have speculated that in order to save Hiccup as he’s falling into the flames, Toothless may have caught Hiccup by the leg... with his not-so-toothless mouth.
So Hiccup gets fitted with a prosthetic leg. As that final shot shows, it was Hiccup’s left leg that suffered the damage, same as it was the left side of Toothless’s tail that got shorn off by Hiccup’s bolas. And Hiccup limps toward the door, only making it so far thanks to the aid and support of his pal Toothless. Parallels are brilliant, aren’t they? I can’t imagine how this summer’s sequel could possibly match the best moments of the first Dragon....
Last week - Thor: The Dark World
*The only animated movie I may love as much as I do How to Train Your Dragon is The Lion King. A few Pixar flicks and a general appreciation for most things out of Studio Ghibli fall into the next tier in my book.