Dreamworks animates Museum of History with a wild ride from Sketch to Screen

The Viking village in How To Train Your Dragon. Photo: Olivier Vincent

Folks, you’d better buckle up for this one.

Our flight begins at the end of the Canadian Museum of History’s new show, Dreamworks Animation: Journey from Sketch to Screen. The exhibition includes more than 400 objects from 20 years of Dreamworks studios, including Shrek, Chicken Run, Kung Fu Panda and others. There are drawings, models and interactive opportunities. There’s also lots of video, and none more spectacular — and, depending on your equilibrium, more destabilizing — than the flight of the dragon.

The short video is a brief blockbuster, in the sense that it’s bursting with action and epic cinematography, and even has a rudimentary story.

You enter the ad hoc cinema and see a room-length bench and a few bean bags. If you’re over a certain age (let’s say, 50, ahem), you’ll want to sit, as the oldest trees in the forest are most likely to tip. Whether you sit or stand, get as close to the centre of the room as possible, for maximum effect.

In front of you is a large, 180-degree screen, empty but for a few typed words that appear and describe the scene, as if from a movie script — ocean, rocks, coast, village, dragons, etc. Then the fiery beasts and the land beneath them start to appear, first as rudimentary drawings and then in increasingly fine detail. It is, crammed into a few dozen seconds, the entire animation creative process, from concept to completion, from word to world.

Drawings of Toothless the Dragon. Artist: Simon Otto. Courtesy Canadian Museum of History

Still feeling confident about your balance? Don’t get cocky, folks, because this stuff is about to get almost real.

Soon enough you’re riding on the back of a dragon in flight, over lands and villages that are still coming together down below. The dragon soars and swoops, and you see the back its head and — peripherally, thanks to the wrap-around screen — the rise and fall of its mighty, grey wings. At one point the dragon banks hard into a right turn, and if you’re standing and are (cough, cough) lacking the reflexes you once had, you just might do a face plant into one of those bean bag chairs. And that would be an inelegant finish to an otherwise enlightening tour of how animation is made.

Dreamworks is one of the biggest animation studios around and was originally the child of the ultimate Hollywood power trio SKG — as in Stephen Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. The studio’s been a major part of animation’s evolution in recent decades into fantasy worlds of almost infinite detail and realistic movement. Yet, every animated film still begins as they always have, with a few words on paper and a few rough sketches.

The exhibition is split into sections for character, story and world. The character section comes first and is full of dozens of drawings and models that were created by studio artists during the development process. Drawings from Kung Fu Panda, for example, show the authentic martial arts techniques of each character.

Three-dimensional models are referenced by animators while drawing the characters for screen.  Ant heads, from the movie Ants, are comparatively early examples, and one head still bears the mesh-like lines drawn on it to aid the subsequent computer modelling.

Po from Kung Fu Panda. Photo: Kate Whitely

There’s at least one model that actually appeared on screen, and that is Gromit, the industrious dog of Wallace and Gromit fame. Here, the canny canine works in his garden, which is full of giant carrots and cabbages, in one of an exhausting number of claymation scenes. (“Each minute of Chicken Run took 80 artists one week to create,” explains a nearby wall panel.)

The stories also begin in the old-fashioned way, with “storyboards” drawn on paper. One neat exhibit shows the stacked storyboards for five familiar movies, and the range in heights is stark. Shrek, with 45,000 storyboards, is a pipsqueak next to Kung Fu Panda’s 100,000.

There’s plenty of interactive stuff to do throughout. A computer station allows kids (whatever age) to modify the faces of movie characters. Elsewhere, kids can put on costumes and “become a troll,” which may be a risky suggestion in the internet age.

Overall, the exhibition clearly lays out from start to finish the process of animation, and it’s not difficult to imagine that a few kids will come out the other end thinking, “that’s what I want to do when I grow up.”

Doug Cooper has some advice for those who do.

“We live in a time where people have the luxury of having tools accessible to them everywhere. You can make stop-motion animation on your iPhone,” says Cooper, a long-time special effects supervisor for Dreamworks, who lives in Los Angeles and whose wife teaches animation in high school. “The tools and the processes are available to everyone, and I encourage everyone to just do it as early as you have a passion for it. The sooner you start the better, because that’s what develops the skills and experience.”

In other words, just get on your dragon and fly.

Dreamworks Journey from Sketch to Screen continues to April 8.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.