When you watch anything from the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise, it’s easy to get so swept away by the story that you forget you’re watching computer animation. Without uttering a single word, Toothless says volumes. Don’t you wonder how the animators managed it?
While a big part of the answer obviously lies in the creativity and talent that Dreamworks’ artists applied to the software they used to bring the dragon to life, the true magic came from a much more mundane source: an animator’s pet cat.
A striking resemblance
Our Darby, a strikingly solid black cat with golden eyes, answers to Toothless. Well, as much as a cat answers to any name, he’s accepted it. My husband gave him the nickname after spotting a clear resemblance between the animated dragon and our familiar feline.
He wasn’t just seeing things. Gabe Hordos, the supervising animator for Toothless in the original “How to Train Your Dragon,” found a lot of inspiration for the dragon protagonist’s expressions and movements by watching and interacting with his own cat, Stufen, according to this article in Salon.com. Bits of other animals appear as well, but cat owners around the world have noted that, just like their feline companions, Toothless conveys an amazing amount of information with a tip of his head, a narrowing of his eyes or a flick of his ears.
Taking a leap of faith to the big screen
One of the most touching scenes in the movie is when Hiccup holds his hand out to Toothless, unsure whether the dragon will sniff it, touch it — or bite it off. That moment, more than any other, conveys the growing trust between this unlikely pair. It’s also a moment Hordos pulled directly from his own experiences. The animator explains to Salon.com that his red tabby, Stufen, was a rescue cat that he’d recently adopted from the Humane Society. Abused by a previous owner, the wary cat took a while to warm up to Hordos. Like Hiccup, Hordos found himself holding out his hand and letting the cat come to him. Then the animator took his own wonder at the magic of overcoming fear to build trust and funneled it into “How to Train Your Dragon.”
Inspiring other rescues
In recognition of its work raising awareness of animal issues, the Humane Society of the United States awarded “How to Train Your Dragon” a Genesis Award in 2011. After all, although most people will never have a chance to rescue a night fury, there are plenty of animals in shelters around the country in need of good homes.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have several cats join our family with the help of rescue organizations. Jasper, a chatty, exotic-looking tabby with huge eyes and a bobbed tail, was one of my most faithful friends for fifteen years. Martian Cat napped beneath my children’s crib and let them hold onto his too-long tail as they took their first steps. Our own Toothless, Darby, is a feline gentleman who joined us when he was already an adult. Clancy, our newest furry family member, is a cheeky tabby who burrows beneath blankets like a mole. As different as they are, they’ve all brought so much love and fun to our household. All of them are perfect examples of the benefits of adopting a cat from a rescue organization.
Looking for more information on why cats do the things they do? Check out “Catly Curiosity: Why Does My Cat Do That?”