How to Train Your Dragon (John Powell)

Adapted from Cressida Cowell's children's book series, 2010's "How to Train Your Dragon", was a surprise hit, spawning two feature sequels, and a host of shorts and TV spin-offs. Directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois brought along English composer John Powell to score this animated fantasy. Powell got his start in the 90's as a protege of Hans Zimmer and the Media Ventures studio, and already had a strong connection to DreamWorks through his previous collaborations with Harry Gregson-Williams. I consider the film to the one of the finest works of American animation of new millennium, and Powell's score is, in my opinion, a bonafide masterpiece, and one of the primary drivers behind the film's emotional potency. For my money, Powell's composition is my favorite score of the 2010's, and although for personal reasons, he scored relatively few scores during the last few years, his work on this film, its sequels and a few other projects, have made him one of the most beloved and exceptional Hollywood composers working today.

This score has been released twice now, by Varèse Sarabande records. The generous original release featured the majority of the highlights, and then an expanded 2-disc Deluxe Edition was released just last month, featuring the complete score, multiple demos and alternates, as well as remastered sound. Unfortunately for cover collectors, they chose to keep the exact same front cover art (only adding their Deluxe Edition banner onto the left side). I was never a big fan of the existing cover, even though the art itself is iconic and minimalist, the cropped version for me just does not capture the dynamism of the film adequately. So, I'm providing a few alternate options. Frankly, I'm not in love with these covers, but I hope they're a reasonable improvement. A few of these seemed to only exist in relatively low quality, and just the overall style of the poster art (and the title treatment) are a tad garish for this first film (something that would be significantly improved on the sequels, which I look forward to tackling at some point down the road). I also switched the font of the additional text to match that used on the sequel film for the (much nicer) first half of the logo.

The first cover features Hiccup and Astrid flying their dragons. There's several variations on this poster, including one of them flying together, but I can't stand the baffling 8-bit look to the forest below them. I simply comped on part of a wallpaper version of this to add a bit of extra width to the left of the image. With most of these flying posters, it was actually quite a challenge to figure out how to integrate the title logo and additional text, as most of them are asymmetrical, to capture the energy of flight. While that works well in poster format, it's frequently difficult to adapt to in a tighter square crop. 

Cover 2 captures the magical "Forbidden Friendship" scene where Hiccup and Toothless first bond. It was relatively painless, other than trying to salvage a little bit of quality out of a highly pixelated image. 

The third cover is another variant on Hiccup/Astrid flying, with a different pose from Toothless, though I much preferred this night variant IMAX edition over the other one. Again, I couldn't find an elegant way to fit all the usual text, so I opted in this case to reduce down to just the one credit in the corner.

Cover 4 uses the same Hiccup/Toothless pose as the first cover, but I like the 3D effect of flying through the frame. This one was a bit of a learning curve, as several of my sources had the image, but over a white background, so trying to pull a clean matte to reapply over black, took a bit of research and experimentation, as well as several passes to make sure the multiple posters I'd patched together for the full image were all color-matched.

Finally, the fifth cover features maybe my favorite poster of the lot (apparently for Japanese marketing), a spirited image that captures the thrill of our heroes' first "test flight" together--one of the most exhilarating and joyful sequences in all of cinema, and one which always brings tears to my face. Again, composition was a bit tricky. I first planned to put the title in the bottom left corner, but the secondary text caused a problem, and call me old-fashioned, but I generally prefer things centered. As is frequently the case, I had to comp together both the taller poster and a wider wallpaper version, adjust colors to match, and then clone in the gaps in the corners of the sky, ocean, wings, etc. I then elected to rotate the whole image counter-clockwise to better suit the framing. Hopefully since the image already was built around off-kilter angles, that new horizon won't upend anyone's sense of gravity. 

Hope you enjoy, and let me know your favorite pick in the comments below. Also (sidebar), I chose to skip adding in the Varèse DE banner, or any text specifically addressing a complete release, as I normally might, mostly cause most of these images were hard enough to balance visually as is, but let me know in the comments if anyone's dying to have that option...


  1. I'm leaning towards the last cover as my personal favourite; I think you're right in that the Japanese poster design really jumps out towards you. Funnily enough, and I'm pretty sure this is just me, but I get a combined Spyro The Dragon/Crash Bandicoot vibe from that image: Spyro The Dragon for the colour palette and dragon theming, Crash Bandicoot for the impossible verticality and multi-environment design of the island, which is not like that in the film so I could see that bothering me perhaps, but the cover is so nice looking I don't mind. I'm also not the biggest fan of the transition from the yellow sunset to bright blue sky, I know it's like that on the original poster but even the clouds look odd and disparate when you compare them, they look like they're from different stock images. Ah well, still a good poster.

    I agree with you as well on the general art direction of the poster designs for the first film, it doesn't quite fit how surprisingly down-to-earth and cinematic the film actually turned out to be. I wish they took a leaf from Disney's Renaissance poster design. Off the top of my head I'm thinking of two of Aladdin's posters; the main poster with the full cast and the genie taking up most of the space, which is standard but nice (I don't prefer these covers but I understand there's a time and place for them, and am generally okay with them as long as there are alternate designs!). But then you have the teaser poster with just the lamp, the smoke, and the hand preparing to rub it and summon the genie within, and it's fantastic! I desperately wish How To Train Your Dragon had at least one poster design like that.

    If you'd like something along those lines, then I'd highly suggest seeking out some scans of the "Art of How To Train Your Dragon" books, some fantastic minimalist art design in there that could be made into some interesting covers. I'm thinking of doing some myself if I get the time (don't worry, there's enough images for the both of us methinks!).

    Anyways, great set as always, really looking forward to your take on 2 and The Hidden World in the future (especially The Hidden World, seems like hardly anyone did covers for that one). Keep it up!

    1. Thanks for the feedback! As to that final cover, I'm no gamer, so I definitely didn't put up on those Spyro/Crash connections, but maybe you're onto something. Though I do love the sunset and the variety of colors, I agree the sunset does disappear rather quickly into the very-blue sky.
      Yeah, mostly these don't quite capture the truly cinematic lighting of the film's, under the consultation of legendary DP, Roger Deakins. I think they didn't quite know what they had on their hands film-wise when designing the early marketing, it definitely it geared towards a more primary-colored, gamer/anime, kid-centered look, rather than something more artistic and universal. Maybe that's just my read, haha.
      I agree that some of those Disney renaissance posters are terrific. John Henvy Alvin painted many of my faves of those gorgeous promo posters for Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Hunchback, as well as dozens of other films. I do wish they'd commissioned something along those lines for these films as well. Actually, they kinda did--they got legendary poster artist Drew Struzan to do a triptych for series, but honestly I don't care for them--they just seem like quick sketches, and don't really capture the film's quality nor are up to his usual standard.
      I haven't read the Art-Of books (though I usually Adore those books), so not sure what art is available (besides the main sketch used on the front cover), and I couldn't find any high-quality scans that seemed usable. Anyways, if you do make your own covers, I'd love to see them! And yeah, I agree 2 and Hidden World are really begging for better options, I'm just not sure if I'll do them right away, or work on some other composers first...