Juggling Jon Snow, Toothless, slapstick and tricky VFX work, could Chris resist going full flameball? LBB’s Laura Swinton finds out…
Toothless, the star of the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, is a touch more cheerful and less likely to systematically incinerate a major metropolis and all of its citizens than his grouchy Game of Thrones counterpart Drogon. But whatever their temperament, flappy firebreathers are never super easy to direct – and they’re not known for their comic timing.
So when Framestore teamed up with Toothless, and Game of Thrones and How to Train Your Dragon actor Kit Harington to create a spoof ‘lost’ audition skit, director Chris Waitt had a challenge on his hands. Could Toothless pull off the combination of deadpan humour and slapstick comedy without burning the studio down? And how would Kit feel about revisiting Jon Snow and his soggy furs and Northern accent?
With GoT wrapping up and HTTYD 3 hitting iTunes this week, LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Chris to find out more.
LBB> What were the initial elements of the script/idea that caught your imagination?
Chris> The president of marketing at Dreamworks, a very talented and funny man called Jim Gallagher, had written a great script based on the idea of a fictional meeting between Kit Harington and Toothless the Dragon some time around 2010 as an audition for an ‘as yet untitled fantasy TV show’, which of course alludes to Game of Thrones. The premise was genius because Kit Harington does one of the character voices in the How to Train Your Dragon movies, and of course GoT has dragons in it, so it’s entirely plausible that Toothless, fresh from the success of his film franchise, may be auditioning for other roles.
The premise was a genius and oblique way to promote the upcoming HTTYD film as well as being a great springboard for a string of gags. I joined the project early on and threw some of my own gags into the ring, a good many of which made it into the final piece. Jim and I had great fun collaborating and kicking ideas around - to the point that the night before the shoot in London, we were up until midnight with beers and pizza revising the script and adding new gags.
LBB> Obviously Toothless is already a really fleshed out character, but how did you go about figuring out how he'd act and respond to things when in 'civilian mode'?
Chris> The films obviously gave us a very clear sense of how Toothless tends to behave in certain situations, and we wanted to be true to that rather than create a wholly different off-screen character for him. The one thing Chris DeFaria (Dreamworks’ then-president) said to us was that Toothless shouldn't appear as a kind of Hollywood star with a big ego; in sunglasses, holding a cocktail, that sort of thing.
That was enough of a steer to tell us that broadly Toothless's offscreen character should be aligned with his on-screen persona. This was particularly important for the core audience of kids who don't have as much of a sense of the actor/character dynamic. Fortunately, Toothless is a brilliant character that’s very playful and intelligent, so this creative direction gave us a license to have fun.
LBB> Had you been a fan of the movies beforehand?
Chris> I knew of them through my nieces, who, it has to be said, were and still are obsessed with the HTTYD films - so much so that one of them had a How to Train Your Dragon birthday party, which I attended dressed as Hiccup. I observed then that HTTYD seems to garner the same kind of fan obsession in kids that GoT does with adults!
LBB> The tone of the spot has that super naturalistic kind of comedy that we'd associate with The Office - what challenges does that present when it comes to animation?
Chris> With camera tracking and camera metadata as good as it is, it's much easier to shoot animated characters in this realistic shooting style than it used to be. But there is still a whole bag of subtle tricks that we used to get Toothless properly embedded in the frame - from subtle lighting effects to pre-viz.
It helped that Framestore Pictures was the production company for the shoot, because its expertise in VFX was an important component. At the centre of it all though is the actor's performance, and one of the simplest tricks to achieving that is to use a human to play the animated character on set rather than the famous tennis ball on a stick. Wherever possible we used an actor to perform as Toothless, giving Kit something real to act with and react to.
LBB> The slapstick bits must have been super challenging - how did you work with Kit to really sell them?
Chris> I asked Kit at the beginning how he felt about doing his own stunts and he was very clear about the fact that he wanted to do it all. And I have to say, he really threw himself, quite literally, into all the stunts and pratfalls. We were prepared to use a stunt person or to find VFX workarounds but in the end, we just didn't need them.
In terms of selling some of these moments, we did give Kit a fairly forceful thump with a long foam-padded stick, and this helped give him the momentum to hurl himself onto a crash mat, which he did with great gusto!
LBB> Comedy is all in the timing - something that comes really instinctively to comic actors. When you're working with VFX I guess things have to be a lot more planned. What's the process like when you're mapping out the comedy beats and rhythms? How does directing comedy differ when you have those CG elements?
Chris> Most VFX heavy shoots tend to be fully storyboarded, and this was no exception. We had a full animatic entering into the shoot. But, with comedy it’s important to try to leave room to play around on the day, to give the actors as much space as possible to add their own comedic touches.
One of the great things about working with Framestore is that because of the studio’s experience working on films that mix live action and animation like Paddington, it can be incredibly adaptable on the day, even with heavily prepped or pre-vizzed material. As it turned out, that flexibility paid off as Kit had natural comic timing and very much brought his own touches to the jokes.
LBB> What was it like getting Kit to revisit Jon Snow?
Chris> When we started rehearsing Kit was speaking in his own accent, even when in audition mode. This is of course quite different from Jon Snow’s voice but I only had to say "Kit, would it possible to do this in the..." before he said, "Ah, I guess you want me to do the accent, don't you?". It also made me laugh that when we gave him his costume, he muttered to me, "Christ, I'm going to be wearing pelts my whole career, aren't I?"
Incidentally, there was a moment in the shoot where he pulled me aside and said that he didn't think we could shoot the particular gag we were meant to shoot next. When I asked why, he just said "I can't tell you." There was obviously something in the joke that might potentially give away a major spoiler for the final season of GoT, so in the end we didn't film it. And no, I'm not going to tell you what the joke was.
LBB> You weren't tempted to go full Mad Director and just get Toothless to burn everything to the ground were you?
Chris> Well, I did actually shoot that as a gag. At one point, Kit asks Toothless whether his fire is just special FX. Somewhat offended, Toothless demonstrates that his fire is real by shooting a blazing fireball through the side of the studio. People run screaming from the studio as it goes up in flames. We shot it and it was brilliant, but in the end we felt that the edit shouldn't be more than two minutes, because it was premiering on YouTube.
So we decided to go for the ‘sneeze’ ending instead, as it was more iconic for the How to Train Your Dragon brand and its fans. Ultimately that decision seemed to work as the piece got 5 million views in the first few hours of being posted and has had something like 17 million views to date, across the different YouTube channels it’s on. Dreamworks said to me that, along with some other material that didn't make the final cut, they may post the fire joke on social media to promote the DVD/Blu-Ray and iTunes release of How to Train Your Dragon: Hidden World, so look out for that. As for the joke that Kit told me we couldn’t shoot, I’ll be tuning into GoT next week to see if my hunch about the ending of the show was right!