Fiercely independent, innately graceful, surprisingly affectionate, and able to wreak enormous destruction while still remaining completely lovable. When you put it that way, dragons are not that different from your typical cat.
The first five minutes of this summer's "How to Train Your Dragon 2," seen here first on Yahoo Movies, offers the complete hair-raising "Dragon Racing" sequence — an expanded version of a scene we debuted on Friday.
At one point during the sequence, our hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon, Toothless, get a little competitive as they wrestle about. And if you mind the dragon's movements, you may notice the adorable Night Fury comes across as more feline-like than ever. Indeed, the supervising animator for the first film, Gabe Hordos, based much of Toothless's behavior and physicality in the original 2010 film on his own personal cat companion.
"At first we wanted him to be like a panther," said Hordos in a 2011 interview with Salon.com. "[Toothless] was full of all this anger and then we had to find ways to make him sweet."
That sweetness came from Stufen, a red tabby that Hordos adopted from the Humane Society in Los Angeles. Winning Stufen's trust and affection took some time and patience but eventually the two were the best of friends, with the young kitty more than happy to be his owner's muse.
"I watched his behaviors and you start to recognize the personality in him ... these creatures that have no facial expression can actually be emotive and actually make you feel something," observed Hordos.
Simon Otto, who served as head of character animation on both 'Dragon' films, told Yahoo Movies over email that there is actually a bit of a divide within the animators between those who fancy cats and the ones who are devoted to dogs. He said, "Most of the animators that were working on [Toothless] are cat people, but our director, Dean DeBlois is a devoted dog lover. This created some really interesting debates during our dailies sessions, but ultimately the best idea would always win."
That meant that Toothless would often display more serious emotions like a cat, narrowing his eye slits and folding back his ears. But the dragon can become a big puppy once he warms up to a human. Otto explains, "Within a few shots Toothless licks Hiccup the way a large dog would splatter saliva all over his owner, followed by a shot of Toothless tapping Hiccup's head the way a cat would play with a ball of yarn."
Otto said that the animators became experts at observing animal behavior, both by studying their own pets and digging up footage on the internet. He said, "Most of the study of each of the dragons' animal references was done based on online footage that we then studied frame-by-frame, trying to understand how a certain animal movements work." But the team always went back to their furry companions living in their own homes. Otto recalled a scene in the first film where Toothless gets annoyed with Hiccup and walks off with a one-eyed blink and a strange gait. Otto said he'd seen his own cat do that exact thing, and "it just was something that I remembered and then tried to recreated from memory."
Hordos's Stufen-the-cat story eventually won him a Genesis Award, an honor bestowed by the Human Society of the United States for entertainment that involves animal welfare issues. Yes, his adopted cat inspired him and nearly half a billion dollars in worldwide box office returns.
"Dragons used to be a bit of a problem, but that was five years ago," explains Hiccup in voice-over. "Now they've moved in," complete with "custom stables, all-you-can-eat feeding stations, a full service dragon launch" and, inevitably, "top of the line fire prevention."
"How to Train Your Dragon 2" hits theaters on June 13.