How long do they forget. One day you are a renowned, albeit somewhat problematic, part of your cultural background, and then barely 1,300 years later people doubt you ever really existed. Of course, all of that can change when a geological anomaly opens up a huge crack in the Earth’s surface, and suddenly, not only are you rediscovered, but you have a lot more to worry about than just being forgotten.
In Dragons: The Nine Kingdoms – the latest iteration of DreamWorks Animation’s beloved How to train your dragon franchise – a group of misfit kids uncover the truth about dragons and where they’ve been hiding for about a millennium – but it’s a discovery that could lead to disaster if the wrong people find out.
For anyone longing for more reptilian humor and adventure in their life, the six-part CG animated series, which premiered December 23 on Peacock and Hulu, couldn’t be a better Christmas present. For anyone who wants to learn more about how it all came about, supervising producer Beth Sleven has some insightful answers.
AWN: How did the idea for the new series come about and what were the main considerations in expanding the franchise?
Beth Sleven: DreamWorks contacted me to tell me that they wanted to expand the world of How to train your dragon and bring it into modern times. I thought it was a great idea. It meant we could open up the world in exciting new ways and tell new stories. It also meant that we could watch a whole new group of runners as they uncover a life-changing secret while dealing with the challenges children today face.
AWN: How did you integrate the style and tone of storytelling from previous shows into the new series – giving fans what they enjoyed most, while taking them on new journeys?
BS: It was important to us that Dragons: The Nine Kingdoms felt like part of the How to train your dragon world we have all come to know and love. Tonally, I wanted the show to have the feel of the first movie – I wanted it to have a nice scale and a nice cinematic reach. we filled Dragons: The Nine Kingdoms with action, heart, humor and adventures that have been thrilling Dragons fans for decades. And eagle-eyed fans of the movies will have some surprises along the way!
AWN: How have the character and dragon designs been influenced by past shows? What should fans be looking for that is new and different?
BS: We drew inspiration from the films for the design, and our design team, led by Nadia Vurbenova-Mouri, did an incredible job incorporating these influences into the series. The design language of the film is visible not only in the characters, but also in the world of the series as a whole. For example, the ICARUS station sits on the edge of a giant chasm, much like Berk sat on the edge of the northern cliffs.
The modern setting has allowed us to try new and different things with both the designs and the situations children find themselves in. We asked things like, how would technology work for or against these new horsemen and their dragons? What would a science station look like in a remote wilderness? And how would the people who work there live? This new show has given us so many new design and story opportunities.
AWN: Where do your designers find inspiration for new dragon designs?
BS: We were inspired by the amazing designs of Nico Marlet [the character designer on the first How To Train Your Dragon film and other entries in the franchise]. He even did some exploratory design work early in production. In addition to studying dragons from previous movies and shows, we also drew a lot of inspiration from the animal kingdom.
AWN: How did the pandemic impact production?
BS: The studio closed and sent everyone home the week we were supposed to officially start storyboards for the series. We’ve worked hard to find ways to create a new production pipeline on the fly. It was a bit like laying tracks when the train was already going full speed.
AWN: How does production compare to the past Dragon Properties? Have there been specific innovations or new methodologies?
BS: Technology is constantly evolving and we can now do things in TV shows that were unimaginable just five years ago. But what made this show different from any other show I’ve worked on at DreamWorks is how the pandemic affected the production itself. Having to do all production remotely meant that we couldn’t rely on the “old way of doing things”. If anyone, from the highest level to the newest intern, had any idea of a more efficient or better way to do something in production, we were all open and eager to hear it. And once we had a method that worked, it was never set in stone. If we found a better way to do anything in any department, we were all open to changing or modifying it at any time. The incredibly positive thing that came out of all of this was that we came together and helped each other in ways I’ve never experienced on other productions.
AWN: What do you like best about the show?
BS: I am incredibly proud of this show. Every ounce of the team’s passion, talent and hard work shines through in every image on the screen. Growing up I was the super nerdy kid who loved to get lost in fantastic worlds, where danger and adventure awaited around every corner. I can only hope that with this show I helped create a world like this for all children (and adults) who feel the same!
Jon Hofferman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and editor. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline that makes a wonderful gift.