ElasticPop.com sat down for a virtual roundtable with the writing/directing team of Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (Lilo & Stitch) behind this years enormously successful animated film, How To Train Your Dragon, which will be released on Friday October 15 on Blu-ray, DVD, and a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack.
The duo touched on several subjects, including their influences and the process of bringing the story to the screen. What follows is answers to some of the questions asked.
Q – You’ve directed both live action and animation; do you prefer one over the other?
A – 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.
A – 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.
Q – How early in the filmmaking process do you start thinking about the Blu-ray and DVD?
A – 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.
Q – How has the Dragon experience impacted The Croods so far?
A – Chris Sanders: Dragons 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, it’s taught me the nearly limitless abilities of the artists at DreamWorks Animation.
Q – Was there any Norse legend elements that you wish you could’ve kept in the film?
A – Chris Sanders: I guess I would have to say, we are very satisfied with the Norse flavor that 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.
Q – What was the inspiration of the story and the dragon-part of it? It looks very fresh!
A – 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.
Q – The dragon flying sequences are thrilling, how close to concept are the finished sequences?
A – Dean DeBlois: In many ways they exceeded 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.
Q – Did you hear certain accents, or actors, in your head when you were crafting the characters?
A – 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.
A – 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.
Q – Was there any Norse legend elements that you wish you could’ve kept in the film?
A – 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.
Q – Are you confident this will see a 3D Blu-ray release eventually, and are there any concerns that it’s only a 2D release initially?
A – Chris Sanders: How to Train Your Dragon is actually available exclusively on Blu-ray 3D as part of Samsung’s 3D starter kit.
Q – What was the inspiration for creating a dragon character with distinctively cat-like qualities?
A – 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. It’s 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 pet’s 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.
A – 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.
Q – As filmmakers, how involved are you in the process of bringing How To Train Your Dragon to Blu-ray and DVD and in the bonus features that end up on the discs?
A – 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 and I.
A – Dean DeBlois: One bonus feature in particular, the mini documentary that you can see on BD-Live, “Finding the Story,” we were very involved in, as we shot most of the footage that make up the piece.
Q – Now that you have some distance, what are your thoughts on the film (story and animation) and what you accomplished?
A – 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.
Q – The sequel was announced earlier this week. I was curious if you will go off some of the other books in Cresida’s eight-book series for the sequel, or if you’re going in another direction?
A – 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.
Q – 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?
A – 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 disparate characters. Films like “ET” or “The Black Stallion” were a great inspiration to us in writing this story.
Q – Could you tell us the highlight of this DVD?
A – Chris Sanders: The part of the DVD I am most excited about are the deleted scenes. As for the Blu-ray, I am most excited about the BD-Live feature which shows actual footage of the making-of the film. In particular, a video we shot during a story meeting during editorial, where we created a lot of the bonding sequence in the cove between Hiccup and Toothless, scored brilliantly by composer John Powell. That video is particularly interesting to me because when we started shooting it we had no idea what would happen that day, and it truly was a glimpse into the creative process.
Q – We get to see many different dragons during the training do you have a favorite and why?
A – 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, and 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.
Q – In this film, the hero paid sacrifice in the end (lost his leg). It is very unique for family animation, and not like Disney’s films. Why did you at DreamWorks Animation choose to do that?
A – 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.
Q – When did you both first work together?
A – Chris Sanders: Dean and I met while working on “Mulan.” And we have worked together ever since.
A – Dean DeBlois: Chris and I met on the story team during production of Disney’s “Mulan.” We found that we had similar tastes in story and we were driven by the same goals to create fresh, quirky characters and emotionally engaging stories. It led to a fruitful collaboration that yielded “Lilo & Stitch,” this film and many to come.
Q – Who are some of the people that have mentored your sense of story and filmmaking?
A – Chris Sanders: Dean and I try to watch as many films as we can to learn as much as we can from other filmmakers. We also have had the opportunity to work with some brilliant story artists, the likes of Joe Ranft, Ed Gombert and Andrew Stanton. Every movie is a learning experience.
Q – Although at the time you make the film it’s probably disappointing to cut certain scenes or effects, you can save them for DVD and Blu-ray, is that a good consolation to know these elements may not be completely lost?
A – 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.
A – Chris Sanders: Absolutely. So much material is created during the making of one of these films and it’s something that we do say out loud when a sequence is cut, “Well, it will be good for the DVD.”
Q – Dean & Chris, any final thoughts on “How To Train Your Dragon” as we
wrap-up this Virtual Roundtable?
A – 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.
A – 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.