Training Dragons in Rio de Janeiro

How many of you have dreamed about leaving your job and daily routine to go and pursue your passion? Simon Otto did just that when he left his Swiss bank career to go study at the renowned animation school Les Gobelins in Paris. His talent landed him a job at DreamWorks where he has been working as an animator for 17 years now. He is currently the Head of Character Animation for the How To Train Your Dragon trilogy.


Simon Otto in actionSimon Otto giving a talk at the Escola de Artes Visuais Parque Lage

How to become an animator?

Simon Otto lives and breathes his animation passion and says, “I never go anywhere without my sketchbook. I can find inspiration in anything because everything has a character. The taxis in Rio, a water bottle, the most profane things inspire me.

If you want to become a successful animator, you need to wake up in the morning wanting to draw and go to bed at night drawing.

Of course a good animation school where you can develop your skills, as well as a healthy portion of ‘being in the right place at the right time’ is also indispensable.” Patience is perhaps another important ingredient. For an animated movie, Simon Otto’s team usually spends around 18 months of planning, drawing and testing before beginning with the production that takes another 18 months. This means that for 90 minutes of film at least three years of hard work, long nights and a lot of dedication are needed

Bull-dog-cat-horse dragons

A particular challenge that Simon faced as Head of Character Animation was the development of the personalities of the dragons. The dragons were uncharted territory, as most dragons in animation so far were either done crudely in early adventure films, or more or less successfully in visual effects films (non-animated films with some animated aspects like “Avatar”). For the How To Train Your Dragon series the DreamWorks team was able to create characters that look and feel real, but at the same time they maintained a playful approach.

“We ended up mixing and matching different types of animals and creating dragons that reminded us of our pets.

As a cat person, I was very inspired by my cat, whereas director Dean Deblois, a dog person, tried to bring as much dog into the dragons as possible. It is for this reason that “Toothless”, the main dragon, turned out to be a bit of a mix between a cat, a dog and… a horse,” chuckles Simon Otto. This was in fact a goal of the animators: to let the audience connect to the creatures on multiple levels by associating them to real life animals.

The paradigm change of 3D

A challenge that becomes increasingly important is 3D. Animators have traditionally been used to animating to a single camera view, which allows them to cheat a lot with depth. With 3D, they have to be incredibly accurate when it comes to how fast things move towards or away from the camera. On the other hand, it also creates amazing opportunities for grabbing the audience and immersing viewers in the world of dragons, making them feel as if they were inside the movie. The world of animation has never been as fast moving as today and animation fans can be looking forward to what is coming next!

Simon Otto created fascination among all the people who were present that day, young and old. They felt inspired by his tales of the world of animation and by his example of pursuing his passion and doing what he really loves.

Thanks to the collaboration between the Consulate General of Switzerland in Rio de Janeiro, Anima Mundi Festival and swissnex Brazil, this past July, Simon Otto taught a Master Class at the largest animation festival in Latin America – AnimaMundi – and spent an afternoon hosted by swissnex Brazil and the Escola de Artes Visuais Parque Lage where he shared some secrets of the craft of his trade with an enthusiastic audience.

Simon Otto demonstrates the new technology used to create How To Train Your Dragon 2 developed by the DreamWorks Animation team. Go to video. image-7

Click here to view the trailer of How To Train You Dragon 2 and here for some further Behind the Scenes insights from Simon Otto and Director Dean Deblois.

Text: Malin Borg, Operations and Project Manager at swissnex Brazil

Cover picture:  © O Globo