Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who co-wrote and directed “Lilo and Stitch” at Disney eight years ago, have moved to the DreamWorks animation unit, where together they’ve adapted “How to Train Your Dragon” from the popular books by Cressida Cowell. The project was an especially challenging one for them, as they explained in a recent Dallas interview, because they were handed it by Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation SKG, only fourteen months before the scheduled opening date, when the cast was already signed and much of the design work completed.
But what seemed like restrictions turned out to be a boon. “We sat down with Jeffrey Katzenberg…and he said ‘I want a father-son story, I want a story in which the smallest Viking will defeat the biggest thing they’ve ever seen, and he just wanted all the stakes dialed up—a David and Goliath story,” DeBlois recalled. But beyond that the duo were given a free hand.
“It doesn’t stifle creativity,” Sanders explained. “You want to lock in as many things as you can, because there’s enough variables that will make it hard enough to figure out certain things, so you want to know as many things that aren’t going to change as possible. Then you begin to work around those. There’s a huge relief, because you know you have to hit those marks.”
He continued: “We’ve discovered there’s an ideal amount of time. You want enough time to get it right, but you don’t want so much time that you don’t want to start trying things out just because you have the luxury to do that. This was a huge learning experience for both of us, because it forced us to get down to basics. We couldn’t be distracted by anything that had been done on the film. We got down to the framework and started building it from that, and worked closely with Jeffrey and the studio, so that everybody knew what we were doing at every moment. We never slid back; we made decisions and moved on.”
DeBlois added: “It’s the night before the term paper phenomenon. Everybody had to pull out their best work because time had run out. And when we came into the mix, we knew that we couldn’t mess it up. We had to inspire and be very decisive.”
And they, in turn, were inspired by the books. “The great thing about this film, and it’s there in the source book, is that this has multiple breeds of dragons,” DeBlois said. “Normally you get one dragon, or lots of the same type of dragon. And we knew, coming into the mix, that dragons in movies were a little bit of a tired element. You actually have to overcome it rather than celebrate it. So we thought that the key was that there are all these different types of dragons, and we were going to bring yet another one [a big super-dragon] into the mix, so engineering into each one very specific types of traits, very different personalities—equating them with animals we recognize in our world, so every character has a bit of an animal equivalent out there—we just knew that if we put a lot of personality into these dragons, it was going to make each one of them memorable, and help our cause in engineering a story in which it was going to be a human who sees worth in befriending them and changing the world.”
“I think that as far as the style of animation, and the style of the effects, and even the style of the camerawork and lighting, we wanted to treat this story very, very seriously,” Sanders added. “We wanted it to feel like somebody was there with a camera, filming something that really happened. Because I think that when you have designs like these, that are just a little bit fanciful and so pleasing to the eye, while we never wanted to do hyper-realism or anything like that, we wanted them to feel believable and realistic, because this particular story has a lot of consequences—if you screw up in this world, it’s going to hurt you. So we wanted everything to feel very real, to give everything a lot of weight. I think it’s hyper-believable, but not hyper-realistic.”
“Part of that was bringing [cinematographer] Roger Deakins to the mix [as a visual consultant],” DeBlois interjected. “Because we knew that his sophistication in lighting and his use of natural light was only going to take everything we had—all these advances in hair and beards and fur, this great texture—we knew that in the hands of Roger Deakins that was going to take on even more believability. One of the best compliments that we’ve received came from Steven Spielberg, who said, ‘I forgot I was watching a cartoon.’”
But the project brought challenges beyond the schedule and design work. “This was our first CG film, as well as our first 3-D film,” Sanders said. “Our concern was that it would be the cart that led the horse, and that we would be compelled to do sequences that were just in the film for their 3-D value. But it turned out not to be true as all. You attend to the story before anything else. And 3-D is just one of those things you employ to enhance the moments and get people into the film. And the interesting thing about it is that it’s incredibly pliable; there’s a lot you can do with 3-D. You can actually use it in incredibly creative ways to make things feel gargantuan, or toy-like, or closer than they appear. So it’s actually been a great ride, and not hard to integrate.”
“We’re also lucky to have a movie that actually lends itself to 3-D,” DeBlois noted. “We’re lucky to have characters on dragons that are flying around. It should play equally well for anyone who goes to a traditional 2-D screening. But there are plenty of opportunities within it, because of the flying sequences, to really get depth and make your stomach rise up into your throat.”
Of the technical side—and the 3-D in particular—Sanders added, “You want people to notice it in the right way; then it’s really effective. But you don’t want people to notice it in the wrong way. You don’t want people to be tripping over it when you slide from shot to shot. You want to make those transitions easy. It’s that perfect balance you’re after—you want to make it be immersive and super-effective, but you never want people to come out saying it was too noticeable.”
Both men remembered how they plotted out the elaborate flight sequences using less high-tech instruments. “Whenever we talked to the animators or the camera guys and lay-out guys,” Sanders recalled, “we always had a little model airplane in the room. It turned out to be the easiest way to talk about the scene. It took you back to when you were seven or eight years old, and you’d just finished building your Spitfire. You painted it all up and took it flying around the house. It took me back to that.”
In the end, though, DeBlois emphasized that it was the story that really matters. “We set out to do a movie…about ‘staying true to yourself,’ letting the world change around you rather than changing to suit the world,” he said. What grew out of it naturally was this element of seeing yourself in the eye of your enemy, attempting to understand and have some compassion as opposed to just simply carrying out the creed of your kind. And how that can change the world. That was not intentionally engineered into the story in any kind of didactic way, but it grew out of the story organically. And I’m glad, because it would have been preachy had we set out with that in mind.”
Sanders added, “What we were really attending to mostly was the idea that the smallest Viking in this world will actually end up achieving the largest thing possible. When you attend very visibly to that, the secondary themes and stories start to come up, and may eventually even supersede emotionally the thing you were working on.”
And working at DreamWorks, both men agreed, proved a dream itself. “DreamWorks is a really, really healthy studio at the moment, because they’ve had success with some of their franchises, and it’s allowed them to branch out and try different things,” Sanders said. “I think our movie is a great example of that. They largely charged us with—and didn’t challenge us on—too many of the decisions that we made, and allowed the film to be taken into the direction that was very much colored our particular sensibilities. That’s happening across the studio, and what you wind up with is a large studio that has no house style. I don’t think that can be said of Pixar, or even Disney at the moment…. It’s not so present at DreamWorks, and I think in a very positive way, because it allows so many different types of movies to get off the ground.”
DeBlois added: “It really is a studio in the best sense of the word. Everything that’s going on right now looks very, very different from everything else, and they all have a very different vibe. We were very excited when this film started taking on its own special, particular vibe, and they really encouraged that.”
“How to Train Your Dragon” is a Paramount/DreamWorks release.