The directors of “How To Train Your Dragon” come from very different backgrounds.
Chris Sanders hails from Colorado while Dean DeBlois hails from Canada. Though a decade older, they both began their professional careers around the same time, working for two of Hollywood’s legends: Jim Henson and Don Bluth.
Sanders began working for the Walt Disney Company in 1990, where he served as a character designer on “The Rescuers Down Under.” In 1991 he helped write and create an impressive string of animated films regarded today as classics, including “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” “Mulan” and “Lilo and Stitch,” which he also co-directed. Finding the work with Don Bluth not to his liking (“A Troll in Central Park” was a long fall from the heights of “An American Tail”), DeBlois joined Disney and soon found himself paired with Sanders on “Mulan.” Their next project, which both men wrote and directed, was “Lilo and Stitch,” which earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Animated Film. The film, and it’s various animated spin-offs, also kept Sanders busy as he provided the voice of Stitch. Their next project, which opens this week, is the 3D adventure “How To Train Your Dragon.”
Michael A. Smith recently shared a phone call with the two filmmakers, who were promoting the film in our nation’s capital. I was tempted to ask Sanders to answer my questions as Stitch but realized I would never understand his answers!
MS: You worked on “The Muppet Babies” television show. Was that your first professional job?
CS: (surprised) Oh my gosh! Yes. I drew models for that.
MS: Was (Muppet Creator) Jim Henson someone that had inspired you growing up?
CS: When I was a kid? Yes. My two big influences were Carl Barks (who drew the popular “Donald Duck” comics) and Charles Schultz (the creator of “Peanuts”). Carl not only drew Donald Duck but he told some great stories.
MS: Though you have a few directing credits the majority of your film work has been writing. I mean, you’ve written or helped write five modern animated classics. Was your intention to make writing a career or is it just something that you discovered you were good at?
CS: That’s interesting. When I got to Disney I started in the story department. And to my surprise, I discovered that there is a little bit of writing you can do all the time when you’re in “story” because when you’re given little sequences to movies you always have to do a little customizing, so it becomes very natural to start writing sequences when you’re in the story department. On “Mulan” I started out as the head of story and actually ended up doing quite a bit of writing for the movie. And from there I went to “Lilo and Stitch.” I should mention that Dean and I met on “Mulan, where we both were writing the story. And then from “Lilo and Stitch” we went on to the “Dragon” movie, where we’ve continued our relationship.
MS: What is the time frame from sitting down and knocking out a script to the finished animated feature?
CS: Animated films, in both traditional animation and CG, tend to go about three years average. They can go four years, a little bit longer or they can go shorter. The interesting thing about “How To Train Your Dragon” for Dean and I is that we actually joined the film after it was being developed, so we came on fairly late in the process. By the time we were asked to come on and write and direct the film it had about fourteen months to go until the start of production. So that was a very fast schedule by anybody’s standards. But the amazing thing is that the crew we worked with was able to pull it off. We really did re-writes and started the film, story-wise at least, from scratch, fourteen months before the end of production.
MS: That’s some serious speed. Do you enjoy spending that much time on one project or are you looking forward to doing something that’s live action with a much shorter production schedule?
CS: (laughing) We definitely look forward to doing that at some point. We’re very interested in trying out as many things in the business as possible. We love animation. We love live action. One of the amazing things, of course, is now-a-days when you’re doing CG you really are taking your first steps towards the live action realm, because so many live action films are now a hybrid…half CG…it’s all mixed in. And we’re interested in doing…you name it!
MS: I really enjoyed the film. I must tell you that I wasn’t thrilled with “Avatar.” Technically brilliant, but there was just too much…STUFF…happening. I couldn’t keep up with it. Plus your film actually has a story…
MS: When you both came on board, was the original story concept based around a dragon? Or was that something that evolved in the writing stage?
CS: The story came from a children’s book written by Cressida Cowell. Dreamworks had optioned the book so we did have some source material to work with. We did do a bit of changing. The fact is you can get into more details with a book then you can with a film so there’s always an adaptation you have to do. The trick is to try to stay true to the spirit of the book and to keep as many things that keep the flavor of the book in the movie. It was also a very unique experience for Dean and I because, of all the projects we’ve worked on, this is the first one where we knew we’d eventually run into the author! Of course we were very anxious to see if she liked what we did. At the same time, we had to make some big changes, some big choices, to make the story work for the screen. We did finally meet her when she came out from England to watch the movie. She was actually very, very excited about what we did…she totally understood why we made the changes we made and has been incredibly supportive of the direction that we took.
MS: When two people direct a film…I know on a live action film one person will be responsible for one area, one for another…how does it work on an animated film in deciding which vocal take to use, what to feature in the background?
CS: That’s a really good question. (Thank you) There are different ways to do it and different people do it differently. Dean and I actually share all of the responsibilities. One thing we found is that we both have a very similar taste…similar tone with what we like. So we are almost always making the very same movie. In fact that’s what makes the whole thing easy. If we do have a disagreement we learn very quickly…who’s the most serious about this? Who wants this change the most? Almost always one of us wants it more then the other one, so whoever wants it most gets it. We always write together and we always record the voices together. And we’re also in animation together. Because we need to be there for the most important aspects of the film…and it’s also important to keep in touch with the story. We pretty much share all the responsibilities.
MS: When you are directing the voice talent, do you have them do various takes….try it sad, try it happy, because you’re still not sure visually how you’re going to portray the scene?
CS: For the most part, we know the general tone of the scene, and we pitch that to the actor. But that being said, we always encourage the actors to bring as much to the party as they want. We always encourage them to experiment with things…to put things in their own voice. Every once in a while an actor will say, “you know, I don’t think I would have said it this way.” And you encourage them to put it in their own voice. But for the most part you are telling them what angle to take on a particular scene and they will follow that angle.
MS: When Wes Anderson recorded the voices for “The Fabulous Mr. Fox,” he had all of the actors in the same room, encouraging them to play off each other. Is that something you would like to do, or do you have to grab them based upon their availability?
CS: A little bit of both, but you said the right thing. The best way to do it is to have as many people as possible in the same recording session, because then you don’t have to direct as much…they’re going to play off of each other. And you’re going to get better – and more happy – accidents that way. I think you’ll also get a better interlocking of emotions between the two or three voices you have in the room. We definitely do record people on their own. A lot of people are busy…we might be under a tight schedule and not have the time to wait for everyone to get together. The nice thing about this movie was that all of the key moments between Stoic (Gerard Butler), Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Gobber (Craig Ferguson)…we were able to record them in different combinations in New York City over the course of one weekend. That was especially valuable for us. It just made those scenes that much better.
MS: Is there perhaps a dragon or two in the background with Stitch’s head on it?
CS: (laughs loudly) We weren’t able to hide anything inside the film like that, though it would have been fun. I just don’t think we had time!
With a final laugh Mr. Sanders handed the phone to his creative partner, Dean DeBlois.
MS: Good afternoon. Or actually “good evening,” since you’re in D.C.
DD: Good evening.
MS: You began your career working with Don Bluth (“An American Tail”).
DD: Yes, that was my first studio job coming out of college. I went to work at his studio in Ireland.
MS: I know Chris had admired Jim Henson and then got to work with him. Were you a fan of Don Bluth?
DD: Absolutely. I loved “Secret of N.I.M.H.” And I liked his style…his character design style in particular. And when I was in my first year of college “All Dogs Go To Heaven” came out…the same time as (Disney’s) “Oliver and Company” came out. I though the design of the characters in “Dogs” was superior. It was clear that they were holding their own quality wise. Of course, this story grows increasingly worse because eventually I was really excited to go to Disney where I could work on films I was actually proud of. (I can hear Chris Sanders laughing along with Mr. DeBlois in the background).
MS: Chris mentioned an admiration for Charles Schultz. Did you have any animators or cartoonists that influenced you?
DD: I wanted to be a comic book artist. I was a fan of many different comics, but my favorite was “The Savage Sword of Conan.” (Interviewer note: among the many artists who contributed to this publication: Neal Adams, Dick Giordano, John Buscema, Ernie Chan and Jim Starlin). I really learned to draw anatomy. Most of my drawing skills come from emulating people like Ernie Chan, who I think was my favorite “Conan” illustrator. I just realized at age 16 going on 17 that it was time to think about what I was going to pursue as a college path. I started looking around and found a program that taught animation just outside of Toronto, which wasn’t far from where I lived. I decided to give it a try over the summer session. And it contained everything I really liked. It had story telling, character design. It had elements of comic book artistry…you got to compose frames. It all appealed to me. Plus the whole illusion of animation was pretty exciting. So I stuck with it. And I got hired right out of school to go work for Don.
MS: “How To Train Your Dragon” is in 3D. Was that something that was decided on at the start of production or was that a process that was added later?
DD: No, let me clarify that our film was authored in 3D as opposed to retroactively made 3D. There’s a big difference on screen because when it’s organically authored it means your elements from the beginning are separated in depth layers. And it’s so ingrained in the Dreamworks pipeline that all films going forward have the 3D option built into them and, for the foreseeable future anyway they’re all going to be 3D. It’s not something you have to think a lot about. It’s there…it’s a tool in the box. We realized we could go ahead and make the movie we wanted to make and dial up those moments that felt very dynamic and a good use of 3D and let the other ones, the private, intimate moments, flatten out so your eyes get a little rest and refresh for the 3D effect throughout the movie.
MS: I told Mr. Sanders that “Avatar” drove me crazy because everything was jumping around, and you watch the film and your eyes are darting to this and that…
MS: … but as you said, in “Dragon” you have moments where the 3D is very important to the story…it draws you into the story…and then in the more emotional scenes, especially those between Hiccup and Stoic…
DD: I have to tell you, they kept giving us lists of all the things you could and couldn’t do in 3D and a lot of them felt like we were having our hands tied as filmmakers. So we just decided to hold hands on the idea that we would make the best film we could make and then let 3D find its’ way into the story. And that’s what we did. In areas that weren’t conducive to 3D we just didn’t push it. We allowed it to soften and let your eyes re-adjust and take a break. And moments that were exhilarating and exciting and organically seemed to beg for more dimension, that’s where we put it into effect. It’s like music. It should draw you in and make the experience better without ever reminding you of itself. Gimmicky was not the route we took.
MS: This is a two part question: do you both intend to keep directing as a team? And do you have any interest in doing live action?
DD: Well the first part is absolutely. We love working as a team and I think we will continue to do so. We absolutely love it because, in a way, we inspire each other to go a little further and push beyond the cliche’s that we sort of carry with us in a sense. I can always rely on Chris to read anything I am working on and know that he has a great nose for anything that feels a little to cliched. And the moment he points it out I know it’s been discovered and I have to go back and work on it a little harder. And I do the same for him. I just make sure that I am his kind but stern critic and make sure that the stuff we’re putting out together…and even separately when we read each other’s work…is the best we can do. You get a lot of notes when you work in film but there are very few people whose notes you trust implicitly and I think that’s the case with Chris. I know I can trust him because he always “gets” where I’m going. His notes are usually always additive and never detractive. We enjoy working together and will continue to do so. We have plenty of ideas in our hopper.
MS: The things you mention are very important not only for a working relationship but for a friendship.
DD: Yes. As for the live action side, absolutely. I have a whole bunch of projects. Some of them certainly much better suited to live action. I’ve been pursuing that since “Lilo and Stitch.” I’ve set up a couple of projects at both Disney and Universal and maybe, with the momentum of Dreamworks, can probably get some of those re-stoked and some new ones set up as well. The one thing that working in 3D and CG taught me is that I love expanding the tool box. I love that the medium can be appropriate to the story and not something that you are encumbered by. It’s great that we’re not just known as traditional animators. Now we can be the “3D animation” guys. And hopefully, the “live action” guys. Stop motion animation guys. (laughs). I hope it’s all there. That would be great.
MS: Since you mentioned your hopper, do you know what your next project will be?
DD: Well, I’ve written my script and, fingers crossed, it will get going. But beyond that it’s kind of like lining up your planes on the runway. It’s good to have several that are ready to go. So there are several things being talked about and absolutely nothing committed to just yet. We’ll be sure to talk to you when we do have something.
MS: That would be great!