If you think flying on a dragon can only happen in a fantasy world, think again.
"How to Train Your Dragon 2" hits theaters on Friday and will give moviegoers a heady 3-D ride from their theater seats. But a team at DreamWorks Animation's DreamLab has gone a step further and created a virtual reality journey in which people can fly over the island of Berk on Toothless the dragon.
Using the Rift, a virtual-reality headset from the Irvine-based tech company Oculus, anyone can ride a dragon — even a semi-tech-savvy reporter.
"This is kind of the first thing we are able to share publicly," said Shiraz Akmal, head of business and product development for DreamLab at a media event for the film Friday at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. "We wanted to focus on helping people understand what it feels like to fly."
DreamWorks' animated sequel, set five years after the events of 2010's "How to Train Your Dragon," follows the Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless as they navigate the skies to protect their kinds from power-hungry warlord Drago (Djimon Hounsou).
Akmal said the virtual reality flying experience enables people to immerse themselves in the movie's world by becoming Hiccup and flying on Toothless.
"One of the best things about the DreamLab is that we work on creating interactive experiences to tell the story," he said. "A lot of the animation — like of the dragons and the world of Berk — is actually from the movie."
Though the Oculus Rift headset is only available to developers and filmmakers (for now), Akmal said the team at DreamWorks spent several months last year developing the immersive experience to help promote the film.
Also at the Four Seasons promoting the movie the old-fashioned way were actors Gerard Butler (who voices father Stoick the Vast), Kit Harington (dragon trapper Eret), Craig Ferguson (Gobber) and Hounsou, who all had members of the media laughing as they cracked jokes and discussed the film.
"The first one is one of my favorite movies, ever," Butler said. "I was so blow away by it. I think the second one is even better — it pushes the limits and stakes in so many ways. Animation has come along so much and they made absolute beautiful use of that to make this visually exhilarating ride that you go on."
At the same time, Butler noted, "Dragon 2" "never shied away from bringing up darker issues and keeping it very exciting and emotional."
Two central themes the film deals with are separation and abandonment. "It goes to deeper and darker places than most animated movies would dare to go to," Butler said. He could relate, he added, because he went through a period when didn't see his father for 14 years.
"I didn't even know he was alive and he turned up out of the blue," he said. "It's profound for a lot of people to suddenly imagine that the parent you didn't think was there or the love of your life that you thought was gone is actually still alive and well and there's a chance to rekindle everything that you thought was lost in your life."
Harington, known for his role as Jon Snow on the HBO show "Game of Thrones," is new to the animated film franchise, but he shared similar thoughts on why he's sure the second "Dragon" film will be popular.
"It's not just a kids' film, it deals with some very adult issues," he said, noting that the plot touches on a storyline about estranged parents and a boy growing up. "I haven't seen many animated films where they deal with something that so many kids in our world deal with."
Also, Harington added, "kids love fantasy."
Hounsou, who saw the first film with his son, said he never dreamed of being in the second one. Then, on request, the Oscar-nominated actor demonstrated his vicious Drago voice.
"I just went to the bathroom a little bit ... that was very good," said Ferguson after hearing Hounsou.
But mastering the voice of a villain wasn't easy.
"I felt extremely challenged because I remember seeing the first one and thinking, 'Wow, Gerry's voice has so much power." [It's] such a presence in the story. ... When I got called in for this I thought I had to outdo this man," Hounsou joked, pointing to Butler. "Obviously [Drago] is a bad guy ... you can't polish and tone down just because you're doing a film for kids."
And for kid-minded adults. Certainly the kid in me couldn't wait for my turn at experiencing the Oculus Rift dragon ride.
As I prepared to embark on my flight, Akmal told me to raise my hand if I felt nauseous at any point. The health warning posted on a sign inside the room also advised: "This experience and technology is capable of eliciting disorientation, strong emotional and psychological responses that can last for some time after taking off the headset." Reassuring.
Step 1: Sit and put your knees on a padded area below your chair/stool.
Step 2: Place headphones and Oculus Rift on your head.
Step 3: Clutch the controller.
Step 4: Fly!
The moment I grabbed the joystick, I felt a breeze hit my face, as if I were by the ocean. I found out later that the breeze was a fan in front of me (all part of the virtual reality experience).
I then felt a jolt on my knees as I moved forward on the dragon, whose wings were flopping at my sides on screen. When I moved my head from side to side, the Rift headset gave me a sky-high 360-degree view of the world of the isle of Berk.
At first I felt a little dizzy. But once I got the hang of dragon wings and occasional jolts, I started to enjoy my flying freedom. Before I knew it, my 80 seconds were up.
"You're a pro dragon flier," Akmal said, after my flying experience came to an end.
That's something I never thought I'd ever hear someone say to me. I took it as a compliment.
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