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Producing Animation: Bonnie Arnold (‘How To Train Your Dragon 2’, ‘Toy Story’)

// Featured, Interviews

Whilst the majority of producers tend not to share the same limelight or appraisal as their directorial counterparts they play a key role in facilitating movie directors and their crew of artists with what is needed to take a story to the big screen. With a chameleon like working method of finding a fit with a variety of projects and people producers tend not to find themselves tied to the same style or a brand which directors are associated with. With the release of Dreamworks How To Train Your Dragon 2, we were lucky to talk to Bonnie Arnold, one such producer who’s CV reads like a book of feature animation milestones, having produced the first Toy Story film at Pixar, worked at Disney on Tarzan and spent subsequent years shaping feature animation at Dreamworks producing Over the Hedge subsequent to the Dragons franchise.

You’ve been heavily involved in the How To Train Your Dragon franchise, since the first film and through
the shorts, TV series and now sequels.

Yes, I feel like I’ve been entrusted by the studio to see whats going on with How To Train Your Dragon but my focus at the moment is with the film, I’m enjoying it all so much!

HTTYD seems to be a huge departure from other CG films that seem to languish in a comfortable bland area, with the success of the first film why did you decide to evolve the characters?

That was the choice of Dean DeBlois, When Dean was asked to direct the sequel (How To Train Your Dragon Co-Director Chris Sanders was working on The Croods) he pitched to Jeffrey Katzenberg and the creative leads of Dreamworks the idea of doing not just a second movie but also a third movie so that the three movies become a coming of age story of Hiccup and Toothless. Hiccup, being the son of the chief of Berk has a destiny to fulfil and the studio said “absolutely!” So in some ways we have to think of How To Train Your Dragon 2 as the second act of a three act play

tumblr_mh7bn8pQA41qmzwx0o1_500I’ve heard it compared as an The Empire Strikes Back style sequel, is it darker than the previous films?

I’m not sure about dark, but definitely with everyone being 5 years older the stakes are higher. There is this great line in the movie which Dean wrote which says “With vikings on the backs of dragons the world just got a whole lot bigger” so I think Hiccup and Toothless are going to explore the world out there and have whole new adventures, not everyone is keen on having vikings and dragons getting along like Hiccup and his buddies on Burk so I think some of the things they will come across will be more challenging for them but I think that’s makes for a better movie experience. We have to live with not only the expectation of ourselves and of the studio but of our fans – we can’t let them down.

Always nice to hear that they are being considered

Absolutely, We have some great fans, we even found one website which had a countdown clock with the release date on it!

There seems to be a child/family heavy diet of CG feature animation around, do Dreamworks mind taking risks?

I think if you look at Jeffrey Katzenbergs history as a movie maker and as a businessman he does take risks, we have a studio in India, we have a studio in China, he is also always on that level which supports Dean and his vision for the film and storytelling ability. I think that’s the best thing about Dreamworks is that there isn’t a set Dreamworks style so to speak, take a look at Rise of the Guardians, look at Mr. Peabody and Sherman – The Croods! All of them have different styles and I think that is why filmmakers like to come here because they feel like Jeffrey will support them telling the story that they want to tell.

Like the aforementioned Jeffrey Katzenberg, you didn’t start of in animation, what clawed you in?

I remember meeting with the folks at Disney a while ago, they were looking to hire producers for one of their projects and over the course of meeting them and talking to them they suggested I meet the guy who ran Disney animation, at the time that man was Peter Schneider. I had just finished the first Addams Family movie which at the time was the state of the art for effects work in a pre-CG world. I was curious about animation but didn’t know what they meant so I took a chance and went to see Peter Schneider. He told me about a movie they were working on with a company in northern California which was going to be an all CG movie, which he thought was going to be managed like a big effects movie. He said the company knew how to do CG but didn’t know how to do movies and so thought I might have been a good match for them. So I said “Okay!” It was one of those things, I don’t know why I said yes but the next day I met John Lasseter and we had this amazing two hour conversation about what he wanted to do and even though I didn’t know much about animation production per say he pitched me the idea for Toy Story and I felt like I clicked with John. It just seemed like I had something to offer him and help him realise his movie. I felt like I had really found my calling, I liked the people I worked with, I liked the artists, I liked taking the time to see the movie evolve and I felt very fortunate for that to be my Segway from live action to animated films, that’s how I met Jeffrey Katzenberg whom I’ve worked with for 20 years now which has been an amazing experience for me.

I believe he was the one who suggested Toy Story became a buddy movie at one point early in production?

Yes! A buddy movie in animation – at that time nothing like that had ever been done before and it was an interesting idea that made the story evolve, Jeffrey was the champion of the movie for a time even though he ended up leaving Disney a year and a half before the movie came out.

So movies about toys coming to life, movies about snack food obsessed animals and movies about vikings riding dragons, are there certain films that can only be made in animation?

I think there are movies that are more appropriate for the technique of animation, a movie is a movie is a movie and I definitely think of all these movies as films, but I also think the technology changes and something like How To Train Your Dragon 2 is ground breaking, when you see it the line between live action and animation tends to get more blurred all the time, you could argue that movies such as Thor and Iron Man are sort of live action cartoons. When you see how far the look and believability of How To Train Your Dragon has advanced movie two is just… -And the goal isn’t to make it real, its to make it believable where the audience forgets they’re watching a movie or animation and they become part of the world and get involved with the story of Hiccup and Toothless.

how-to-train-your-dragon-2_valka-posterThe first trailer was accused of giving away quite a heavy plot point

About the mother? I think there was some debate and if it was up to me and Dean we wouldn’t show anything at all! The story is complex, there are twists and turns and to be honest the reveal of Hiccup’s mother is just one. In a good way a lot of people have said it is intriguing and they want to see more which is the challenge – I’m not a marketing person but the challenge of marketing is to give you just enough information to make you curious, we know he discovers her but we still don’t know that much about her. In a way I saw just as many people saying that they need to know more and speculating about where she came from and what role she would play in the movie, I think in a way that’s a good thing

Theres still a “is she friend or foe” element that needs to be established.

Exactly! Theres a lot more story to be told and a lot more twists and turns as we go through the story – This is just the beginning!

At one point Pixar, Dreamworks and Disney were tugging at your sleeves begging you to work for them, you ended up working on Tarzan what was that like?

I have to say as one of the few people that has worked at all three places, for me its all about the movie I am working on and at the time I was a huge fan of the Tarzan movies. As a little kid, my father and I used to watch the movies together and I really liked the directors Kevin Lime and Chris Buck. I always wanted to be a creative partner with the directors and filmmakers and I felt like that was an important part of why I decided to take the film. I liked the material, the filmmakers, they’d talked to Phil Collins about doing the music which I thought was an interesting element and I feel I made the right decision, it was a great experience for me both professionally and personally.

Is How To Train Your Dragon 3 in production?

It is not in production yet but we have an outline and Dean has begun to work on the script so it’ll probably take place shortly after movie two so we will be using the same assets and maybe they’ll be a few different locations so a lot of the stuff is in play and were excited to get started on it.

You must be itching to continue with the story

I am, I am! Not without a little vacation first!

Isn’t travelling the world talking to press people a bit of a vacation?

I guess so, if you love your job you never work!

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is in UK cinemas now

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100 Animated Shorts Greats - "The Family Dog" - from Brad Bird, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, pure gem in comedy! t.co/gb9JSKxqTg
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