Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois Talk How to Train Your Dragon
The co-directors of the DreamWorks Animation hit discuss the movie and the new DVD and Blu-ray
How to Train Your Dragon was certainly a bit hit at the box office, grossing over $200 million domestic and nearly $500 million worldwide. That massive success looks to continue this weekend when the movie arrives on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow in a rare Friday release on October 15. To celebrate this new DVD release, Paramount Home Entertainment put on a nifty "virtual junket, where we were able to watch one of the special features on the disc - a comprehensive hour-long documentary which takes us from script to screen on the movie - and we were also able to pose questions to co-directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders.
We reported earlier this week that the sequel, How to Train Your Dragon 2, was announced and a new TV series was also announced this week as well. All of these topics and more were addressed during the virtual junket and here's what Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders had to say:
You've directed both live-action and animation, do you prefer one over the other?
Dean DeBlois: I love both equally. It's all storytelling at its core. Though I've directed a few live-action music and documentary films, Chris and I both have aspirations to direct live action narrative films. We're developing several as we speak.
Chris Sanders: Although I constantly have a camera in hand, I have yet to direct a live-action film, but am very much looking forward to it. I think different stories thrive in different formats and some stories work best in animation while others work best in a hybrid between the two or in pure live-action.
Chris Sanders: Really, we focus on the story and the task at hand. Rarely, do considerations for the DVD and the Blu-ray come into the process. But they do occasionally. Our team is adept at looking down the road and flagging any concerns whether it be a future DVD or with 3D, or the theatrical releases.
Dean DeBlois: Having been through this a few times, we started thinking about it from the outside, which is why we bought some HD camcorders and began documenting the entire process, knowing that the time would come when we had a "Making Of" documentary in the works.
Chris, how has the Dragon experience impacted your next film, The Croods?
Chris Sanders: Dragon was my first 3D film as well as my first CG film so every aspect of the film was a learning experience for me. I know much more about the process and strengths and weakness, what is hard and what is easy. So all of these have carried through to The Croods. Above all, its taught me the nearly limitless abilities of the artists at DreamWorks.
Was there any Norse legend elements that you wish you could have kept in the film?
Chris Sanders: I guess I would have to say, we are very satisfied with the Norse flavor we were able to imbue the film with. We had great fun when we started the project reading Norse legends. In the future, we may have even more opportunity to explore Norse mythology.
Dean DeBlois: The film was heavily steeped in Nordic legend and many of the story terms were originally driven by Deus Ex Machina events. In other words, our characters weren't driving the story. So in making it focused on Hiccup and his father and the dragon that drives the wedge into their relationship, we found that we needed very little of it.
What was the inspiration for the story? It all looks very fresh.
Dean DeBlois: The story is inspired by a series of books by Cressida Cowell and one of the freshest ideas that Chris and I both responded to was her use of many different breeds of dragons. Most dragon-centric films feature one dragon or one type of dragon, and her story had a broad cast with many different personalities and abilities. We specially sparked to the challenge of creating a relationship between two enemies that would change their world. As so, we brought to the mix a brand new dragon, one that was fierce and feared and dangerous but who possessed the ability in both temperament and design to become a big cuddly pet.
How much did you rely on the book for the narrative?
Chris Sanders: The book was the source for everything and all the characters. We wanted to stay true to the story of a small Viking making good in a tough Viking culture, but we did make adjustments for the screen. The most obvious to anyone who knows the book would be how we scaled up Toothless. In the book, he is one of the littlest dragons. In the movie he is one of the most feared of the dragon species. But we did work with Cressida every step of the way to be sure that we stayed true to the spirit of her original book.
Dean DeBlois: We drew mostly inspiration from the book. The plot departs significantly from the first moment, in that the book is largely about a runt Viking who raises a runt dragon to do tricks that none of his peers can accomplish with their dragons. In Cressida's book, the Vikings have a symbiotic relationship with the dragons, much like cowboys and horses, with a dragon/Viking confrontation at the end. We found great strength in beginning with a long standing war between Vikings and dragons, so that we could tell the story of the first Viking to cross that divide and befriend a mortal enemy.
The dragon flying sequences are thrilling. How close to the original concept are the finished sequences?
Dean DeBlois: In many ways they exceed our initial concept in that everybody came to the table with great ideas, pushing the 3D aspect, the cinematography, color, light, and just the dynamic feel of being on the dragon with Hiccup as he learns to fly.
Did you hear certain accents or actors in your head when you were crafting the characters?
Chris Sanders: By the time Dean and I arrived on the project, it had already been cast save for one character - which was "Gobber." We approached Craig Ferguson about doing that voice and it was an added bonus that he had the same accent as Gerard Butler. Once we had those voices firmly in place, we decided to stay true to their Scottish accents by populating the rest of Berk with the same accents.
Dean DeBlois: The cast was largely in place when we joined the film, with the exception of "Gobber." We cast Craig Ferguson in that role because first and foremost, he and Gerard Butler are great friends in real life and have terrific chemistry together, but also to support the thinly veiled conceit that the older Vikings retain a touch of the accent from the land they're from.
Is this also hitting home video in 3D?
What was the inspiration for creating a dragon character with distinctively cat-like qualities?
Chris Sanders: One of the most important things we gave Toothless was the ability to act. He was carrying so much story on his shoulders so the first thing we did was to give him a very mammalian vibe which is a slightly different vibe from the other dragons which were much more reptilian. Its interesting to note that the lead animator on Toothless had recently bought a cat and there is no question that he imbued Toothless with some of his pets qualities. But other people have noticed that he has the qualities of a dog or a horse and it was our intent that he feel like a mixture of beasts.
Dean DeBlois: When we decided to redesign Toothless as a larger and dangerous creature, we also knew that there would come a point where he would need to behave like a giant cuddly pet. So we found inspiration in big cats and wolves and in particular their deep mesmerizing stares. We loved the idea of making Toothless much more mammalian in his design, as opposed to the reptilian dragon that populate the film. In particular, we found that a beautiful photo of a black panther with yellow arresting eyes. Its sleek, powerful body and black sheen seemed graceful, dangerous while looking like a giant pussy cat. In the animation, we were always channeling behaviors observed in our pets, be they dogs, cats or horses. We wanted Toothless to seem familiar.
How do you prepare for the first internal screening, and the premiere screening for the public?
Dean DeBlois: We have learned from experience that his is a very nerve-wracking moment in our lives. However, it's very informative because some of the moments you thought were funny are not laughed at, and some of the moments you thought were tense are laughed at. So it's a very unbiased and honest response.
Chris Sanders: I'd say it is really the moment of truth because you and the crew will inevitably find things funny that the audience may not and vice versa. It's very nerve-wracking but overall there is no question that it makes our films better. And if we've done a good job reacting to our audience in our test screenings then it means that we don't have to be so nervous for the premiere. The premiere is a big relief in the sense that no more changes can be made so everyone goes in with a celebratory mentality.
Chris Sanders: We are big fans of any sort of behind the scenes bonus material. In particular anything that isn't staged and is real which is why we are very excited about the bonus material that we were able to shoot for BD Live. It was also exciting to include a few deleted scenes and a running commentary from Chris, Bonnie [Arnold] and I.
Dean DeBlois: One bonus feature in particular, the mini documentary, "Finding the Story," we were very involved in, as we shot most of the footage that make up the piece.
Now that you have some distance, what are your thoughts on the film (story and animation) and what you accomplished?
Chris Sanders: Truly, the more time that passes the more I am astonished at what our crew accomplished. It would have been an amazing achievement given any amount of time to make this film. But given the shortened time we had to make it I am even more astonished. I've truly never seen the level of details and artistry our crew was able to achieve on this film. I would add, that the unseen part of this process was the good humor and grace that the crew exhibited during the entire making of this movie. It truly was a joy to be a part of this project.
The sequel was announced earlier this week. I was curious if you will go off some of the other books in Cressida's eight-book series for the sequel, or if you're going in another direction?
Dean DeBlois: The story deviated so significantly from Cressida's first book that it is mining its own path and carrying forward the story elements in motion from the first film. Though elements from her many books may find their way into the story, the plot itself is an original and continues Hiccup's coming of age as a second act in the larger story. We left the first story with Vikings flying on the backs of dragons, so their world has expanded exponentially.
How many drafts of the script did you go through?
Chris Sanders: Dean and I write almost constantly the moment we arrive on the project to the last test screening so it is more like a house where we keep painting it. We do the windows one week, then the doors and trim the next, then we go into re-doing the roof and the plumbing, then circle back to the windows as needed. Dean and I come from the story department and are story artists ourselves so we're very familiar with the unpredictable and exciting story process. I always liken the creation of the story for these animated films most closely to sculpting. Every change so heavily affects the story that it does take on a very dimensional feel.
How do you feel about the 3D experience in the home, in other words how ready do you think audiences are to experience cinematic 3D at home?
Chris Sanders: I think its a very welcome technology. I think the way its been accepted in theaters it will be welcomed in the home. I myself do not have a 3D TV but when it comes time to get a new TV, I will definitely get a 3D TV - and a bigger bowl for my snacks!
This was such a big hit critically and at the box office. What sort of creative avenues has it opened for both of you moving forward, either for sequels or for brand-new projects?
Dean DeBlois: Thank you and I think any success in our favor opens up doors for us going forward. Chris and I love stories that not only have a lot of heart but take a quirky approach to the characters and the humor. So the more success we have behind us, the further we can push into territory that we feel is creatively fresh... The best part of the first film's success is that we get to continue the story. There are many threads that were intentionally left open-ended, with the hopes that we would be able to build upon them and continue the story of a young man transforming his world. We can't disclose details as of yet, but the aim is to stay bold, fresh and heartfelt, while expanding on its epic tone and mining parts of the world as yet undiscovered by Hiccup.
Do you feel that each of your films from now on will be in 3D or might you go for 2D on future projects?
Chris Sanders: Well actually, CG films in particular lend themselves so beautifully in 3D because we can integrate it into the process as we did at DreamWorks Animation. Dean and I are both huge fans of traditional animation as well and as I often have mentioned that some stories lend themselves to one medium or the other. I honestly have never seen a 3D film that was traditionally animated and I'm not really sure how that would work. But as far as CG is concerned I really think it is here to stay and has given us yet another tool from which to tell our stories.
How difficult was it to create a children's film with a central character (the dragon) that would never utter a word of dialogue - something relatively uncommon in children's animated films?
Dean DeBlois: Well firstly, we don't consider it a children's film, and we try to make stories that appeal to the broadest audience possible (that includes the adults in the theater). But more to the point, our favorite films growing up and today have featured powerful relationships between disperate characters. Films like E.T. or The Black Stallion were a great inspiration to us in writing this story.
We get to see many different dragons during the training - do you have a favorite and why?
Chris Sanders: My favorite dragon overall will always be Toothless. But I have a gigantic fondness for the Gronkle. I love his design, his attitude, his personality. I think he's just the most appealing of the dragons in many ways. Riding a Gronkle is a little bit of a cross between riding a helicopter and an unreliable motorcycle.
How much does the visual inspiration for the film influence the story and vice versa?
Chris Sanders: In the case of How to Train Your Dragon, the incredible sets and the overall vibe of that Northern island were incredibly inspirational to Dean and I. It was one of the key factors in approaching Roger Deakins and asking him to help us light that world and bring it a unique and tangible atmosphere. There is one moment in particular I'd like to talk about, which is the first day of training when the Viking teens arrive at the training ring. It looks like a rainstorm has just passed by because all the surfaces are still slick and wet. To me it adds a third dimension to the world.
What do you think is the impact that How to Train Your Dragon is going to have in other countries outside the US?
Chris Sanders: Dean and I are always thrilled by the idea, once finished, it takes a life of its own. We always hope that audiences around the world will like it as much as we do. It's a very exciting aspect to the jobs that we do, the idea that these stories reach so far and wide.
When two directors work together on one movie then it's almost interesting how they split the work to each other. Did you direct the whole film together or did both of you take a part of the film?
Chris Sanders: We always work together and it begins with the writing. Dean and I conceive the story together but tend to divide the writing between us. Dean and I will write scenes we feel a vibe for but then immediately trade pages. I think we're always working to impress one another. It works very well because Dean is very good at catching weak parts of my story and things I potentially avoided. Its a great process because we strengthen each other. As for the rest of the directing process we always try to do it together, whether it be editorial, effects, layout or animation. Having two directors on a project makes the story better but it also allows us the rare opportunity to take time off now and then. We have a deal that we abide by the others' decisions when one of us takes a week or so off for vacation. But because we've been working together since the beginning, everything always stays consistent and true to the original story.
With both the sequel and upcoming animated series in the works, is there a continuity? Is one intended to follow another?
Chris Sanders: Yes, we want to maintain a consistent world and continuity no matter what new stories are created. We're already creating a way to stay consistent because we know we will be creating more dragon species, more places to go and new adventures.
Dean DeBlois: The sequel picks up where the first film left off, and will build upon Hiccup's coming of age. The story will expand with epic breadth featuring new characters and new places that will be tied into Hiccup's overall journey. The TV series will likely concern itself with the dragon/Viking coexistence that will be further explored and developed in a number of exciting ways.
I've always been fascinated by the Foley Artist process. What was it like to take place in that process at Skywalker Ranch?
Chris Sanders: Good question. The Foley process is a favorite of Dean and I. Anytime we are at Skywalker Ranch we make sure to carve out some time to visit the Foley stage. I can't tell you how incredible it is to visit their realm. Everything from baseball bats, to hockey sticks, tanks of water, parts of cars, football padding is in this room. Boxes and boxes of you name it crowd the shelves. It is a wonderful place because unlike every other part of this process it is just seemingly chaotic. It's the only stage you can visit where you can find water, mud, rocks and plates of steel. It's fun to see what things create the sounds on screen. The sounds of Stoick's armor for instance is created with a little antique sugar bowl and a mismatched lid. A dainty object that onscreen sounds big. When I first arrived I asked whether there were any famous sound effects in the room. At first they said "No" but then I pointed to a piece of steel on the floor. They said "Oh, that's the metal deck in any Star Wars spaceship." And they showed me the specially made boots that they use to run across it. I pointed to a basket. They said it was the creaking palm trees in Cast Away. After awhile they had to confess that pretty much everything in the room was part of a famous film.
Talk about diversity on screen and in the story room on animated films. Do you think there is an opportunity to better explore diversity in the animated medium?
Chris Sanders: Diversity could mean a lot of different things from the artists that create these movies to the stories themselves. In every aspect, the animation realm in general is one of the most diverse industries I've ever worked. We're always looking for fresh artists and fresh ideas.
Some of the visuals in this film are stunning, with levels of detail - shadowing, clarity, reflection, and other elements that add to a sense of realism even within an obviously animated film, how do you see that evolving or growing in the animated film realm?
Dean DeBlois: As we were finishing the film, James Cameron visited us to talk about his experiences making Avatar, and part of the discussion revolved around how the line between animation and live-action is now completely blurred. In our film, we approached the lighting and the cinematography with Roger Deakins as our consultant. It made for an animated film that had a sophistication of lighting and mood that rubbed up against live-action sensibilities. So much so that Steven Spielberg commented on how he forgot that he was watching an animated film. The experience transcended the cartooning lack of credibility often associated with our medium.
How do you feel about adaptation vs. wholesale creation of story?
Chris Sanders: Dean and I have worked on both sorts of stories. Both offer incredible opportunities and challenges. In some ways, existing stories are easier because they have predetermined boundaries, but at the same time you have to create a film that stays true to the original material. So you could also say, that a preexisting story is more difficult in some ways. Original material tends to be more rare and it is exciting because it tends to be more boundless. At the same time, you don't have a clear compass to guide you.
Dean DeBlois: Yes, absolutely, it is a great consolation and an excuse that we use profusely in those sad moments when we have to cut a scene. There's a saying around the studio, when a moment is about to hit the cutting room floor, "it'll look great in the bonus extras!" I collect DVDs for their bonus material, and in many ways they have been my film school, so I appreciate any deleted material and insights in the film-making process and I'd hope that others do too.
Which Dragon-Model was the most complicated object in the production process?
Chris Sanders: The design of Toothless presented unique challenges. He not only needed to fly, breath fire and do all the things the other dragons could do, he had the added burden of more complex acting. In the sequence that takes place in the cove, where Hiccup and Toothless bond, Toothless had to sit straight up, hang in a tree... basically everything a dragon was designed NOT to do, so he had to be specially engineered by our character effects department. So even though he was rigged to do almost everything, we still found some things he couldn't do. In the end, he did them all.
Your next project, The Croods, is about prehistoric people and their cultural evolution. Can you tell a little bit more about it?
Chris Sanders: Our story is about the world's first family. Although we are still in the beginning phase of production and early in the story process, I think the characters are very charming and are going to be great fun to watch. We want to make these cavemen fast, powerful and very capable although not very bright. They are already a charming bunch and great fun to work with.
What made you decide on the final look of the dragon?
Chris Sanders: We wanted Toothless to look different from the other dragons in that he would have a very air-worthy design. Toothless was more sleek and had fewer projections. He also had larger wings for the size of his body than any of the other dragons. His final color was decided because we wanted him to disappear in the night sky. We wanted him to be a ghost in the Viking's world. But we also wanted him to be charming and appealing, especially the sequences when he was with Hiccup, so we added a pair of giant plates to the sides of Toothless' head which act as ears to better transmit his moods.
The big dragon at the end is a unique design, what were the inspirations for that design and how conscious were you to create a 'villain' that was different from other dragon designs?
Chris Sanders: The last dragon was a lot of fun to create because his main function was to terrorize the Vikings. In a way, he had to have a very unappealing design. We worked with Ricardo Delgado in his creation. It should be said that that dragon has an immense amount of detail. The surfacing of that dragon is an incredibly huge task. He really is gigantic... even inside the computer.
How much pressure is there from the studio to adhere to the formulas established by other successful family films?
Dean DeBlois: Chris and I are driven to do the very opposite whenever possible, and we were greatly supported at DreamWorks Animation to mine bold and fresh directions. I think certain story conventions are unavoidable in that they are just the way human beings tell stories, but the study of storytelling forces you to push beyond convention and into a place with truth and consequence. I think our style defines us and we will always try to find something surprising and endearing in the characters in the stories that we write and direct.
Why did you choose to tell a story in which the boy should pay sacrifice?
Chris Sanders: One of the great things about working for this studio is that they supported the bold choice we made at the end of the film. Jeffery, Bill and the DWA creative staff have always encouraged us to make a great movie. It has truly been a wonderful experience working here... The longer Dean and I worked on the movie, the more unrealistic it seemed that Hiccup would emerge from this final battle unscathed. At the same time, after one of our screenings, we got a very important note from Jeffrey Katzenberg who pointed out that we had been fairly bold and innovative throughout the entire story but became too predictable at the end. So Dean and I took that note and decided to go ahead and stay bold with our choices. It was so right for the film because then Hiccup, who was always in a symbiotic relationship with the dragon, because even more like the dragon in the end. Hiccup and Toothless both shared a profound experience and at the end of the film were even more like each other. The studio was very excited and supportive of the idea. It's one of the reasons DWA has been such a wonderful place to work.
Has making films robbed you of the experience of being able to enjoy them and/or to be deeply moved by them in any way? What do movies mean to you beyond career?
Chris Sanders: One of the neat things about making these films is that they tend to refresh themselves throughout the process. We start with the written page, move on to storyboards, then to the layout phase, rough animation, final animation and finally lighting. We constantly see these sequences improve which keeps the film fresh. That said, it is good to try to stay away from some sequences for awhile so you can see them again as fresh. This is actually a very good question. I am always impressed by the editorial team who see the film more than anyone and have the ability to stay fresh as they work on the material.
Dean DeBlois: The more time you spend dissecting and trying to understand stories, the harder it is to remove yourself completely and just enjoy the unfolding of a movie. So, unfortunately, I sit in a darkened movie theater picking apart the structural elements and anticipating what's coming. That's why I love the stories of Charlie Kaufman, whose work consistently defies expectation and keeps the experience exciting.
Can you talk about the 3D element of the movie? Was this always planned as a 3D movie or can you talk about when that entered into the conversation of this movie?
Chris Sanders: The 3D element is authored into the movie. Meaning, it is part of our production process. Every scene is created in 3D from the beginning. It's one of the reasons the 3D integrates so seamlessly into our story. Throughout our process, everybody from story to animation to final camera, are watching out for good 3D opportunities and also any potential problems. We even have artists who are devoted purely to the 3D integration of the film.
In hindsight, is there something in the movie that you really wish you could go back and fix?
Chris Sanders: Good question. Truly, Dean and I are very satisfied with the way the film came out. If there's anything left, we'd say the characters were so rich that we just wanted to tell more stories with them which we now have the opportunity to do with the sequel.
How did the actors working face to face help you with the writing process?
Chris Sanders: The opportunity to record the actors together was truly important in the creation of this film. We were able to put Hiccup and Stoick's voices together and record the key scenes and their emotional arc all in one weekend. It created an incredible continuity with their relationship. Such opportunities are rare in animation, but Dean and I prefer working this way so we strive to do this more and more.
Other than the sequel, are you guys working on any other projects together?
Chris Sanders: Dean and I are always developing new projects together whether it be animation, live-action or publishing.
Dean DeBlois: Yes, in fact Chris and I have a hopper of ideas in development, several of which have already been turned into scripts. Some are live-action, some are animation, and others are hybrids. We work on projects together and separately, which I think is healthy invites a lot of refreshed creativity in the mix.
You mentioned in a past interview that you allowed some of the actors to improvise. Were there any great improvised moments in the recording room that you were able to use in the film?
Chris Sanders: Yes. Gerard Butler in particular was always trying things live. I have to say that his recording sessions were some of the most exciting and delightful because he had such energy and a positive attitude. All the actors in our movie were encouraged to plus-up the material and all of them did. It's interesting to work with an actor over the year or so it takes to record one of these films because the actors become very familiar with their characters. They'll let you know when they feel the dialogue should be shifted or changed because it's not true to their character. It really was a delight to record the voices for this film. In particular, the scene in the mess hall between Gobber and Stoick was actually conceived during a phone call that Dean and I had with Gerard Butler. Gerard was very involved in creating a father that could be a leader of his tribe, but also a concerned father. Gerard helped us navigate a difficult path where he could appear stern, but also concerned for his son's safety. He helped us creative a very believable and likeable Viking.
In which manner did you integrate the 3D effect? Did you use it as a stylistic feature to guide the focus of the audience?
Chris Sanders: We used it to enhance the existing story. 3D is a wonderful tool that allows us to immerse our audience in our story, but it should always be noted that it doesn't lead the process. The story leads, and every other element in the filmmaking process supports that story.
What was the most key piece of advice you were given during the writing and production of your film, from producer Bonnie or another sage presence?
Chris Sanders: Bonnie kept Dean and I focused on the story and shielded us from any other production concerns. She was a key figure in getting this film made, but also keeping the integrity of the movie strong. There are a lot of potential distractions when a movie is on a tight schedule but we were able to focus on the story because of Bonnie's experience and hard work.
Any final thoughts on "How to Train Your Dragon" as we wrap up?
Chris Sanders: First of all, thank you for the terrific questions. They were really were thoughtful. You've covered so many things. I guess the only thing left to say is this really was a special film. Both to make and to watch after it was complete. I think some of the unsung heroes on this project were John Powell who wrote our music and the effects team who added such scale and weight and excitement to our world. Also, Roger Deakins, who brought our lighting to a new, sophisticated level. I truly feel like CG filmmaking grew up a bit on this film. Even though these people and departments are occasionally mentioned, I just don't think we talk about them enough. Now that people have the opportunity to own the DVD and Blu-ray, I would urge people to look and listen to the effects, lighting and music as much as the animation. Dean and I both learned an immense amount during the making of this movie, but the true reward was meeting every artist that TRULY made this movie.
Dean DeBlois: It was such a fantastic experience and we learned so much in such a condensed timeline. We entered into this with just over a year to craft a new story, animate it, light it and send it to theaters. With no time to spare, we were pushed into a steep learning curve but, surrounded by the amazing artists at DreamWorks Animation, it was a great ride and one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had. This was our first experience in directing a CG 3D animated film, so we had a lot to learn. But the studio could not have been more supportive. I commend them for embracing a completely new direction and backing some bold decisions, both in the story telling and the visuals.DeBlois: The cast was amazing as was our collaboration with Roger Deakins, and Randy Thom, two of my filmmaking heroes. I'm thrilled to be carrying this story forward and reuniting the artists and actors that made the first film such a joy.