by C. J. Hirschfield
Because I run a storybook theme park that boasts nine resident dragons and hosts over 200 birthday parties a year, and because I have a degree in film and broadcasting, the fine folks at the online magazine EatDrinkFilms thought I’d be the perfect person to interview an animator whose baked dragons are the talk of Hollywood.
Oh, and I love cupcakes, too. I was game.
Brazilian-born Fernanda Abarca is a 3-D surfacing artist at DreamWorks Animation in Glendale.. She’s also the owner of Fernanda Abarca Cakes in Southern California. One element ties together her two work worlds, and his name is Toothless.
For those who don’t know, Toothless is the dragon star of the DreamWorks hit films How to Train Your Dragon and How to Train Your Dragon 2 . The latter recently earned the company’s first-ever Golden Globe, and it’s considered an animated-picture frontrunner when the Oscars are handed out Feb. 22.
The story of Fernanda’s unusual dual career owes a lot to her parents: Her father went to art school, and her mother is a chef. They encouraged all four of their children to develop their creativity, but for Fernanda art was a full-fledged passion by the time she entered high school.
In 2006, after studying illustration and 3-D animation in America, she was offered a character-animation position at DreamWorks. Her work has since been featured in The Croods and Kung Fu Panda, but she says she has a special affection for the How to Train Your Dragon movies.
Here’s what it means to be a surface animator like Fernanda. She gets the characters from the art department, along with suggested textures and backstories. “Basically, we get a bald character in gray clay,” is how she puts it. She “paints” the model on a computer screen and styles the hair and fur (or scales) to the satisfaction of the art director. In the original How To Train Your Dragon Fernanda was responsible for the look of supporting character Astrid, a teenage girl who wants to be a Viking warrior, and of tough tomboy Ruffnut and the Deadly Nadder dragon.
While she was working for the studio, Fernanda’s family began a catering business. She was put in charge of desserts. She left the baking to her husband while she started experimenting with sugar. Decorating “appealed to the artist in me,” she says. “It was exciting to take everything I’ve learned from my traditional background in animation and art and bring these skills to work with sugar.”
Inspired by that triumph, in January 2013 she founded Fernanda Abarca Cakes, an online cake boutique that brings characters to sugary life for entertainment companies. The company is now a Facebook favorite.
Although Fernanda didn’t animate Toothless, the small but brave young dragon who’s the star of the “Train Your Dragon” films, she has given him three-dimensional life through the medium of cake. “People love dragons,” she says. She’s pleased that her baked art brings more attention to her studio’s movies.
After making thousands of Toothless character cupcakes—and offering a hugely popular online do-it-yourself tutorial—she thought she was ready when DreamWorks Animation asked her to create a four-foot-tall cake of Toothless for the release-day celebration of How to Train Your Dragon 2.
Easier said than done. Among the challenges: fitting the winged cake through the door, dealing with wafer-paper wings that starting shrinking, and transporting a 70-pound confection across town. Not to mention the person who didn’t realize the dragon was a cake—and tried to hug it.
And here’s my favorite bit of information from Fernanda: When you create a cake this big, the head can’t be eaten. Why? Because it must be created long in advance, so it’s made of Rice Krispies Treats. Those treats have a long shelf life, but not long enough that you’d want to eat them many weeks after the fact. Instead, the event VIP gets the head delivered on a platter to mark the event.
As if animation and cake decorating didn’t keep her busy enough, Fernanda and her husband have two kids under age 7. And yes, she creates artistic cakes for them, too. (Most recent birthdays: Jack Frost from “Guardians” for her son, My Little Pony for her daughter.)
Fernanda says that she’d love to work on the planned How to Train Your Dragon 3, preferably on the same characters she’s helped create. Until then, she and everyone else at DreamWorks are hoping to take home a statue at the Academy Awards. If it does, Fernanda may soon be making a cake for Toothless’s new friend, a guy named Oscar. He’ll be covered in gold icing, of course.
Fernanda Abarca shared her Strawberry Buttercream Recipe with us.
Make your own Toothless Cupcakes with this tutorial! (Click the image to enlarge it.)
C.J. Hirschfield has served for 12 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry. C.J. is former president and current board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District. C.J. writes a weekly column for the Piedmont Post and OaklandLocal, where she loves to showcase the beauty of her city and its people. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.