How to Learn from Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon is more than just a movie for me. It changed my life. And not in the “my heart is so full of love” and “I’m crazy about the characters” way, though it was that, too. No, this was for real. Real life.

I had been vastly disappointed in my college and its quality. I was a graphic design major. Its introductory courses in Adobe tools (Flash, Dreamweaver, Fireworks; Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign) were not challenging at all and didn’t even make the student explore at least within 100 miles of the soaring limits of these applications. I saw a person on deviantArt who posted one of her school projects from her Adobe classes — and she had to combine several Photoshop techniques, create things from Illustrator, and do all these complex skills, all for just one image.

Like Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon, I wasn’t feeling all too peachy about the current state of affairs…

I knew something was wrong with my choice. But then I took one more class in graphic design — the first of the major courses, thinking maybe I’d give it one more chance. I’d been stunted by art from my Understanding Art class the semester before. Clearly, that politically-left, imm- and a-moral world was not my cup of tea. So, would graphic design be mine?

Since the beginning, I never really knew just what graphic design was. Pictures and ads, I thought. Hopefully some Photoshop painting or cool photo editing. Maybe Flash extravaganzas, like the That’s a Fact series from ICR. But graphic design’s history, as I learned in this class, was much more, well, textual. This was a world of fonts and typespace and posters. Now I like fonts. Very much. I collect them avidly. But there are other computer graphics I would rather explore. Biola University noted in its Cinema and Media Arts page that “at the heart of every young filmmaker is the love of story.” Well, that was my heart, and graphic design didn’t seem to share it.

(movie spoiler in paragraph below)

And then came How to Train Your Dragon. I’d known about it from deviantArt, where some folks posted fan art depicting the depth of the program. They mentioned the protagonist losing his leg at the end, and how deep and serious that was for an animated picture. They also mentioned the stunning, ground-breaking animation. Suddenly I knew I wanted to see that. It wasn’t for a year or so till we did, though. I would have never guessed how it won me over.

We saw it first at midnight on April 5, 2012, to scrub over the very unpleasant The Hours. How glad I am we saw it! At 2 AM, the thrill was still strong, as we watched special features and rollicked in the joy.

The flying scenes fill me with awe time and time again. What it would have looked like in the original 3D!!

Suddenly I realized animation wasn’t for kids anymore. It could look real, feel real, be real. With all the seriousness, depth, nuance, theme, and drama of any live-action film. All those dreams of Bible films and meaningful movies I had — my sister said I could do them animated, and I didn’t believe her. Animation was too “cute.” Dragons taught me differently. I discovered Computer Animation in all its stunning glory. I discovered the power of detail and the possibilities of sweeping motion and tenderness. Animations don’t have to look goofy like Madagascar, void of natural physics. Dragons‘ Toothless appears tangible. The way his wings move, the way he grunts and breaths, how he skids to earth under the weight of his missing tailfin, how he flies. He is real. And Hiccup, too — the incredible nuance of his expressions, so detailed and delicate. Animated people need not be comedic. Dragons taught me the soaring possibilities of the medium.

The texture of the rocks, the detail of the moss, the shadows, even the shield — if it weren’t for Hiccup, this would be live-action film… (and with the detail of his expression and appearance, I could still maintain that impossibility!)

Then I started reading the classic The Illusion of Life by Disney animators, and although they talked about classic, hand-drawn animation, I was still fascinated and thrilled to be in that world. This was where I belonged, with debates on expression and emotion, tricks of movement and story, drawing and creating characters.

Should I change from graphic design to animation? I had a scholarship attached to my old college, but they didn’t have animation — nor quality, in my opinion. I prayed about it heavily, and when one day I just announced it to the world (my family, incidentally), I suddenly felt free, totally free — and happy. This was my path.

Just like Hogan’s Heroes and Band of Brothers changed my life by making me more patriotic and fascinated by World War II, and The Killer Angels delved me into the Civil War and honest historical fiction, so How to Train Your Dragon will live in my heart as the inspiration of a sudden change in my life. I thank the Lord that I have maybe found what I can really do and truly enjoy.

Hiccup and Toothless — possibly the most tender and precious friendship on film…

2 thoughts on “How to Learn from Your Dragon

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