An adolescent Viking who bonds with a dangerous dragon? Sounds a little like Lilo & Stitch. Well, it's no coincidence because How to Train Your Dragon (opening today from DreamWorks Animation and released by Paramount Pictures) reunites Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. They even get excited when you bring up the comparison.
"One of the things that Dean and I both learned from the last few movies is that we always want more real estate where music and acting can do the writing for us," Sanders suggests. "And one of the things we're happiest about with this film is that we found several places where we could step back and let [that happen]."
"We looked at various movies with a similar vibe and found them to be lacking in originality and depth," DeBlois adds, "particularly dragon movies of late, so we went back to an original source of inspiration for us, which was The Black Stallion, and that was such a pure bond that was created between that boy and that wild horse on the beach, and there's that incredible cinematography by Caleb Deschanel. We wanted to be efficient with our storytelling and create pockets within the movie where it can be a little timeless, and let it breathe and open up and not feel rushed along by the pace and let it specifically be wordless and let the music carry us through. So it was a mission to protect that space tooth and nail and get it down to its essence because we weren't working with that much time."
Indeed, the pair was very rushed, with only a year to jumpstart a film that was already in production but deemed too kid-friendly and precious. In an ironic twist, considering what happened to Sanders at Disney with American Dog turning into Bolt, Sanders put The Croods on hold at the studio to attend to Dragon, based on the popular Scottish-tinged children's book by Cressida Cowell. Sanders immediately recruited his former partner.
"The original task was to energize the story but we ended up doing a big rewrite -- it just sort of happened," Sanders recounts. "And the more story engineering we did, the more we realized we couldn't hold on to the pieces that had been put into production. So we did keep all of the character designs and a lot of the set designs and modified things and created a few new characters. The father/son story [between Stoick, voiced by Gerard Butler, and Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel] was the starting point for us: everything else blossomed from there."
Thus, Dragon became more of an action/adventure with greater jeopardy and emotional depth between Hiccup and Toothless, the mysterious dragon that he inadvertently captures and befriends.
"We really wanted to make sure that the stakes keep rising," explains Simon Otto, the head of story who's been at DreamWorks since Prince of Egypt and most recently worked on Kung Fu Panda, which, he says, was a breakthrough for the studio in terms of embracing more daring stories.
"When Hiccup decides to approach Toothless, that becomes the key to the story," Otto adds. "Our total sympathy is with Hiccup and it determines how the third act will play out. That's Chris and Dean's core idea: how Hiccup repairs Toothless and they create this strong bond."
Otto, who worked on the film for three-and-a-half years, says one of his goals was to differentiate each dragon. "We came up with a salad bowl concept for the dragons: it was like that game you played as a kid where you can exchange different body parts, and so Toothless was a mixture of a salamander and a black panther and a bird of prey. The change in director gave us the time to study birds and bats and salamanders and create a library of movements. For the Deadly Nadder, it was a combination of a T-Rex, ostrich and a parrot."
Toothless even fulfills the desire of the audience to recognize their own pets. "For example, 'The Forbidden Friendship,' which is that Black Stallion-like sequence where they first meet," Otto says. "The way Toothless comes down off the rock and wiggles his ears, blinks with eyes and the muzzle movements are all ideas that we see in our cats and dogs.
"Dragons haven't been done in CG-animated movies, so we wanted to be colorful and play with the individual design. The visual language of the movie is based on really strong, caricatured shapes but with very realistic textures and lighting.
"We were able to animate much bigger data with simplified geometry and path tools that allowed us to see where the dragons fly in 3-D space. These little things helped us with the problems that we faced on this film."
Given the time constraints, Sanders and DeBlois wanted to shorten the lag time between layout and lighting and also wanted a more naturalistic look, so they hired cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men), who was previously a visual consultant on WALL•E. However, instead of conducting a couple of seminars, Deakins requested to stay on throughout the production. "From that point on, he worked with both layout and lighting and had an influence on every choice from lenses to camera movement to lighting shots in his naturalistic style," DeBlois explains. "So every frame of our film has a little Roger Deakins kiss upon it."
In fact, Sanders is so comfortable with CG animation that he has no intention of returning to hand-drawn. "We were the beneficiaries on this movie of some gigantic advances in beards and fur and water. A lot of surfaces were brilliantly rendered. There was extra pressure to learn this process because it was something we very much wanted to learn. I think, in particular, Dean and I were interested in moving the camera and changing the lenses. At the same time we were careful to limit what we did with it even during the flying sequences. We wanted the film to appear as though it had been really shot.
The biggest shift for us, even for the studio, was the moment Stoick pays a surprise visit to Hiccup while he's working in his little workshop and they have that misunderstanding. It's lit by just a couple of candles and so much of the frame is cast into shadow. And previously at DreamWorks Animation, and also, I think, for animation in general, the feeling is that if you're creating all these props, you want to see them. As a result, animated films are notoriously over lit and Roger's approach is to actually take away lights. So we ended up with just a couple of local light sources and deep rich shadows on screen. We were all a little nervous in showing this to Jeffrey Katzenberg and the studio brass, but they completely welcomed it because they hadn't seen it before and knowing that Roger was involved, they completely embraced this consistent richness."
"He brought in a lot of photographic reference and was very keen to capture that northern latitude light where the sun is very low and tends to be overcast. There's a nice variety in the training sequences as well. We had three different training sequences with their own lighting set ups. The first one is very wet as though a rainstorm has just passed by, which is nice because it doesn't really match the vibe of what's going on. Sometimes you wait for sadness to have rainfall and we wanted to play against that."
And what was it like working in 3-D for the first time?
"One of the first things we did was see a screening of Coraline with Roger Deakins," Sanders offers. "There were some amazing things they did with that in 3-D and they weren't limited by shots that were overly dark or by shots that had to have a deep focus or by quick pacing. And what we realized is that 3-D is a very accommodating thing: For example, at the end of freefall, when Hiccup gets back up on the dragon and has to shoot through all those sea stacks, there's some very fast cutting there. And you just flatten out those moments for 3-D so you don't get assaulted. So 3-D enhanced what we wanted to do story wise. It's so engineered into the pipeline that everybody's thinking about it and doing two things at once."
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.