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“Dragons: Race To The Edge” Interview With Director Elaine Bogan

DreamWorks Dragons: Race to the Edge

DRTTE_ep0106_01012608_RGBElaine Bogan began her career at DreamWorks as a storyboard artist on Shrek the Halls. She directed the pilot episode of Netflix’s Dragons: Race to the Edge, “Dragon Eye of the Beholder.” Following the screening of the episodes, she sat down with Toonzone News and other members of the press to answer some questions.

ELAINE BOGAN: I’ve been at DreamWorks Animation for about ten years, it’s flown by.  I started working on the Dragons franchise on the first feature film as a storyboard artist briefly. In between then and now, I worked on various different projects like feature films and special features and Christmas specials and that kind of thing. And then after six or seven years of doing that, I moved into TV to branch out and learn more about that process. So I switched over to TV and began storyboarding all the first Dragons series, Riders of Berk. The second season was when I started co-directing, then directing on the second series, Defenders of Berk. Between that series, there was the Dawn of the Dragon Racers special which I co-directed with my friend John Sanford, and from there I began as an episodic director on the new Race to the Edge series. So now I’m an episodic director on that, and I was fortunate enough to be given the task of directing the two introductory pilot episodes for the new series for Netflix. It was a great, daunting, and fun experience where I got to finally release a lot of the new effects and locations and atmospheres and character developments. So the kids are aged up a little bit but not quite leading to the second feature. It’s sort of in the middle between the first series and the second movie, so there was a lot of exploration that we were able to do. Now that we’re with Netflix, the limitations on the show have expanded a little bit. We were able to play a little more with very broad story arcs that will last throughout an entire season. Instead of being more episodic like the first series was, it is more of serial show now, which I think is a lot of fun. It’s a lot of good stuff to play with.

Q: How does a director on television differ from the role on a feature?

ELAINE BOGAN: Well, I can’t be too specific because I never directed on a feature before, but I think for me, directing on TV is it’s kind of like a spinning plates act. Being an episode director means that me and three other directors are cycling through episodes as they come into production, and the first two or three are fine, but then in the height of TV production, in the middle of the season, I’m directing anywhere from seven to nine episodes at one time all in different stages of production. So all the way from storyboards through to lighting, which storyboards animation, layout, all that kind of stuff. All these episodes are in different stages, nine at once, and if someone runs into my office and says, “Hey, what happens in this shot of this episode?” you have to crazy recall back to whatever episode it might’ve been. It could’ve been six months ago you worked it. It’s just balancing all the different episodes, making sure everything’s in order, keeping track of them. We’re fortunate enough to work with a crew where they’re all so jazzed about the new content coming up that everyone’s very motivated and task oriented. I can count on the fact that everyone’s around doing their jobs.

DreamWorks Dragons Race to the EdgeTOONZONE NEWS: Do you have a lot of the same crew from the previous shows?

ELAINE BOGAN: There are, yes. The main writing team and also the two showrunners, Art and Doug, are still the guys leading the production. Myself and one other director started at the beginning of the season, but he has since moved on. We also have a handful of the original storyboard artists working on the crew as well. So it’s good to have some veterans around, of course, to keep production flowing and making it a little easier, but it’s also nice that we have a handful of new people that have come in in to bring in new ideas and new thoughts and additions to the episodes upcoming. It’s a nice balance.

Q: You talked about how this show has a little bit more room to play with, can you talk about how this show is going to look and play differently?

ELAINE BOGAN: You guys must’ve noticed a little difference in the outright visuals and the amount of effects and the look and atmosphere of the characters and locations so there’s the visual difference, but I think the main difference is going to come in the fact that Netflix is going to be dropping these episodes thirteen at a time. It really allowed the writers to take a general look at the series as a whole instead of being very episodic. It expanded and made some room to create series-wide story arcs that start at the beginning of the series. Maybe you won’t get a resolution until halfway through or the end of the series, so it’s all very serial. If you took two episodes out, you might miss a very integral piece of information you’ll need for a conclusion closer to the end. It’s really inspired the writers to push the envelope in that respect and play with larger character relationships or introducing new characters that may have a storyline that will last throughout instead of just one or two episodes. The venue has changed the writing, which is essentially the point, and I think it’ll be great for the show.

Q: What does the collaboration look like with all the departments? How often are you in the room? Are you there when the actors are recording?

ELAINE BOGAN: Yes, and yes. The writers write the script, and as soon as I get that script in my hands, I’m literally with that episode from start to finish. I lead a team of board artists for the first section and we create the storyboards and then it goes into editorial, which I spend a lot of hours in the edit bay. Getting the animatics together and ready to ship to layout. After the animatics lock, I’ll supervise and approve dailies for layout animation and then supervise lighting. From lighting we do all the sound mixes, and I’m there at the voice records for the actors as well. When all the lighting’s approved is when I usually step back, and then it just goes through final actual sound mix and something they call Smoke, which is making sure all the color correction is perfect and ready to air.

Q: Roughly speaking, long does an episode take?

ELAINE BOGAN: I would say one episode is generally in production anywhere from six to eight months. And each episode begins each month, so my nine episodes will start at month one, and then every month I’m beginning a new episode, so maybe over the course of a year and a half, it’ll take to complete the nine episodes.

Q: How difficult is it for you to say, “Wait a minute, I’m on this episode and not that episode?”

ELAINE BOGAN: I ask myself that question every day. It really is a spinning plates act. I have many helpful assistants in each department that help keep my thoughts in order and have lists of things that help keep track of. Say I’m having a problem with this episode but I don’t have to prioritize this episode because it’s locking first, and it’s really just relying on the crew and trusting that everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing so I don’t have to be stressing out about every single problem.

DreamWorks Dragons Race to the EdgeQ: Are you good at delegating?

ELAINE BOGAN: I try to be. I’m working on it. The Dragons show Defenders of Berk was my first directing gig, so from there going into the Netflix series has been a huge learning curve for me, but it was very helpful growing up as a story artist. I’ve come from being a story artist and moving through into directing. Having that background really helps me understand how and why the process works instead of just coming in and asking for a bunch of ridiculous things that I don’t even know if they’re possible. I do know what is and isn’t possible in a certain amount of time, so it really helps having that knowledge behind it.

Q: Now that these characters and personality traits are formed more, can you envision what they say?

ELAINE BOGAN: Yeah, the first time I read a script, once or twice, that’s when I usually start doing a lot of the visual planning and imaging. If I close my eyes, can I see it? That’s when I know that the script is awesome if I can read a script and instantly see what I want to see on the screen. That’s the most fun part for me, the creative process. Then, of course, what also helps is being in the room with the actors as they’re reading the lines. It’s kind of a collaboration between the voice actors, myself, and the writers. It’s great when we can all get together and say, “Wouldn’t it be great if they said this one sarcastic?” That part really helps to bring the characters to life. It also keeps a nice consistency, having everybody have a little bit of input on each episode. It’s important that each director doesn’t baby each episode and hold it close. It’s nice to open it up to the whole crew so we can keep a good rapport and consistency throughout the show.

Q: Are the dragon voices at the readings?

ELAINE BOGAN: The dragon voices are not. Unless it helps the actor get into the spirit. Sometimes I‘ve had to make a few dragon calls into the microphone, but the record sessions are very nice and alive. A lot of the actors just because the content is so fun, they love what they’re doing and that really comes out in a lot of their recordings.

Q: Are there ever any time when they’re together and working off each other?

ELAINE BOGAN: I can only recall one record session where we had two actors in the booth at one time, and that’s generally because the cast that we have are on so many different projects at one time. A lot of them live in London or Canada. They’re all over the place physically, so it’s very hard for us to get a table read of all the actors together.

Q: How do you build the understanding amongst the directors?

ELAINE BOGAN: It’s been pretty great with the other directors on the show. Fortunately, we’re all willing to collaborate. It might mean one or two meetings a month where we all sit down and talk about what we’re up to. I like showing the other directors my work in progress animatics just to keep them up to date on what’s happening throughout the series, and I just think it’s important for a nice, consistent feel over the season. It’s all about communicating and letting everybody know what you’re up to behind closed doors.

DreamWorks Dragons: Race to the EdgeQ: How has your relationship with the different departments developed and are there things that you are able to do now than when you were first getting to know each other?

ELAINE BOGAN: The first episode or two is like the first date when you’re still feeling it out. I was even learning about my own director abilities because it was a new show and we had some new crew. It’s just figuring out what my strengths and weaknesses are as well as what can the crew offer and help me with and what I can trust and let go for them to do, which is a big part. It’s easy to get very precious about what you’re working on and not want anyone else to touch it, but it’s important to put it out there and let everybody do their job. It’s what they’re here for, and they’re here to help.

Q: We learn more about these kids. Does it remind you of the old Amblin days at all and getting to explore them?

ELAINE BOGAN: That’s a great question. It definitely does, and I feel like that’s actually one of the major differences between the TV series and the features. It may get a little out of hand sometimes, but I feel like we really go in depth exploring the hero kids’ characters and how they relate to each other. For example, Ruffnut and Tuffnut probably only have a handful of lines in the features, but we have entire episodes dedicated to each character, and it really brings out personality. We get to explore a lot of how they relate to each of their specific dragons, which is nice. It’s nice to have the episodic venue in order to be able to explore the characters more.

Q: Do you ever walk in and go “What am I going to do today”?

ELAINE BOGAN: Every morning. It does get pretty overwhelming, especially with production season. Which is why I make lists. I am a little OCD about it now. I have to be very organized. A big part of my job is constantly having work for people. Nobody should be sitting idle because our schedule is so tight. It’s important to balance and disperse all of the time. And on top of that, I have to be doing what I have to be doing. So it’s daunting sometimes.

Q: Who is your favorite character to work on?

ELAINE BOGAN: To direct and draw, I would have to say I’ve always had a softspot for Snotlout. And the reason for that is he can never seem to catch a break with Hookfang. I adore their relationship together. It’s kind of that love/hate thing. It reminds me of me and my pets when I was a kid. You can tell a cat to walk that way a hundred times, and he’ll just sit there staring at you. I feel like that’s a lot like Hookfang. I love those guys.

Q: How do you direct dragon sounds?

ELAINE BOGAN: Those so far for temp purposes we use lot of, before the episodes get finished, just to have something before it goes to animation, we end up using and compiling and mixing up a lot of animal sounds, like tigers and bears and things like that as temporary information for the animators, and then that goes on to a post-mix production type process. It’s all very technical, but it is usually a mixture of a lot of different animal recordings.

DreamWorks Dragons: Race to the EdgeQ: Do dragons have different personalities?

ELAINE BOGAN: I think every dragon on that show is such a completely different character and we keep that in mind, too, when making the show. The default is kind of they’re like the kids’ pets. We try and maintain very different personalities. Like Hookfang and Snotlout. Hookfang can be aggressive and difficult to communicate with and kind of feisty. Whereas I think Stormfly is much more compassionate, but she can step up and be a great battle dragon too. She’s very loyal to Astrid. I think loyalty is probably her strongest trait. And then there’s Toothless, who is playful, loyal, kicks butt in battle sequences. They’re all very different to me. And Meatlug is the cuddly teddy bear. She’s also really feisty herself.

Q: Technology and art in animation evolve so rapidly. How much of a difference do you notice between the first series and what you are doing here?

ELAINE BOGAN: It’s actually kind of funny when I’ve been working on this new Netflix series for quite a while now, and it’s shocking when I go back and look at the first episodes from Riders of Berk or Defenders of Berk, it looks like a completely different show. The look of that show, I feel, really fits the target audience. It’s a little more simplified, a little more graphic and less textured and simple looking, and that’s all it needed to be. Now that the kids have grown, the story arcs have grown, the show is growing. They’re leaving Berk. It can only emphasize all the new elements and content within the story to have a more mature, evolved looking show with all the new effects and the environments.

Q: Will there be anything that leads into the concept of the Alpha Dragon within the series?

ELAINE BOGAN: I’m not sure I’m allowed to talk about that. I should probably leave that alone, sorry.

Q: Is it harder to direct animation than live action?

ELAINE BOGAN: I’m not sure. I’ve never worked in live action before, but I would imagine animation for TV might be similar to live action than animation for feature just based on the fact that we have six months to make this, let’s go out and shoot it. Live action you’re all set, gotta do it in 24 hours, and TV animation is very much, okay, we’ve got to make this because it’s going to be on TV in six months. It could be similar as far as schedule and pressure and demand to get things done right the first time instead of having a lot of play room.

Q: Are we going to see any more cute dragons like Toothless or will they be ferocious?

ELAINE BOGAN: I think this series has a really great mix. A really diverse up and coming cast to be introduced.