The Glendale campus of DreamWorks Animation feels like a serene Mediterranean oasis with its Italian-inspired architecture, fountains, duck ponds and shady courtyards ringed with olive trees.
Since its inception two decades ago, the studio has become a powerhouse and technology leader in the world of animated movies, producing such mega box-office franchises as "Shrek," "Madagascar" and "Kung Fu Panda." Next week comes the release of "How To Train Your Dragon 2," the much anticipated sequel to its 2010 worldwide hit. "Dragons" has been so successful it has spawned a TV series, a live arena show, and hundreds of types of merchandising.
Loosely based on the English book series by Cressida Cowell, the fanciful, high-flying adventure told the story of a young Viking named Hiccup who may lack the brawn and physique of his fellow Vikings, but befriends an injured dragon ("Toothless") and soon becomes a hero as he teaches his fellow humans how to interact harmoniously with their fire-breathing residents.
"When the first movie came out, it was a real risk and no one was sure if it would be successful," says Simon Otto, head of character animation on the films. "The movie really grew an audience over time and the fan base has expanded. For instance, we were surprised to find out that it is very popular with girls."
"The books are more comedic and whimsical. The movie was unusual because it was funny but had a lot of drama as well," says production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent (known at DreamWorks as "P.O.V.").
Otto, originally from Switzerland, and P.O.V., who hails from France, have both been working for DreamWorks since 1998. Sipping coffees from the campus' in-house Starbucks, as a couple of ducks meander past our tree-shaded courtyard table, the two animators agree, DreamWorks is a great environment for work. "It's a community of artists from all around the world here," says P.O.V.
"This is truly a great immigrant experience," comments Otto. "I wanted to be an animator since I was a child. I come from a small mountain village in Switzerland. It was like telling people there I wanted to be an astronaut, but here I am in Glendale at one of the biggest animation studios in the world doing what I love."
In "How To Train Your Dragon 2" the story moves five years ahead with Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) now a young adult, even more skilled as a dragon master with his trusty companion "Toothless." Vikings and dragons now live side by side in peace in the dragon oasis of Berk.
Instead of fearing them, now everyone owns their own personal dragon like a pet, so life has to accommodate these sometimes dangerous inhabitants — including an aqueduct in place for putting out fires in a hurry and all you can eat feeding stations so the voracious beasts never go hungry.
"It's a much more joyful decorative place now," says P.O.V. "It's a rich world of incredible detail and color."
"When our director and writer Dean DuBlois decided to move the story along by five years, I think everyone on the team got so excited. You don't often see animated characters age. It gave us a tremendous amount of freedom," says Otto.
They also had great fun developing so many different types of dragons. "If you Google 'dragon,' you generally come up with a fire-breathing lizard," says P.O.V. "But these movies completely reimagine dragons."
Different dragons had inspiration from other real life animals from cats, dogs to owls and even baby emus. "People always related to Toothless because he had elements of a pet like a cat or dog, so we expanded that idea using all kinds of familiar animals," says Otto.
There is also the introduction of a gigantic mammoth-like dragon called a Bewilderbeast. When Hiccup embarks on exploring the outskirts of his world, he discovers a secret dragon sanctuary lorded over by his long lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett). She is protecting a giant benevolent Bewilderbeast, but the story takes a dramatic turn when their world is challenged by a power hungry Viking Drago (Djimon Honsou) who controls a dark and malevolent Bewilderbeast.
"The inspiration for the Bewilderbeast came from Dean DeBlois," says P.O.V. "He wanted a creature as powerful as a Polar Bear but we still had to turn that into a dragon."
"And it was P.O.V's idea to have him breath ice instead of fire," injects Otto. "It was a design decision that really changed the whole movie."
The sequel has also benefited from the introduction of a new technology developed at the Glendale DreamWorks campus called Apollo. This is the first film to utilize the new technology which gives the artists free reign with a tool that allows them to work effortlessly and efficiently when making creative decisions.
"On a design level we can move faster and can try different scenes and ideas quickly," says Otto. "It's like the difference between texting on a phone five years ago without a full keyboard and texting now."
And it seems both P.O.V. and Otto will have plenty of more opportunities to flex their creative dragon muscles, as a third film in the series is already planned. "Dean DuBlois has always seen this as a trilogy so we are looking forward to continuing the story."
"How To Train Your Dragon 2" opens everywhere June 13.
KATHERINE TULICH is a regular contributor to Marquee.