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Dean DeBlois Talks the Care and Feeding of Flying Reptiles

The writer-director of DreamWorks Animation’s Oscar-nominated ‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’ reflects on his long and loving journey creating the epic animated trilogy.

At this point, neither the How to Train Your Dragon animated feature film franchise, nor its longtime writer-director Dean DeBlois, needs much of an introduction. The epic adventure series, which debuted in 2010, has been both commercially successful and critically acclaimed, with the first two installments garnering an immense number of Annie Award nominations and wins, as well as being Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe nominees for Best Animated Feature. (How to Train Your Dragon 2 won the Golden Globe in that category in 2015.)

This time is no different: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World has been nominated for an Academy Award and eight Annie Awards, including Best Animated Feature, and has won accolades from the National Board of Review, the Society of Voice Arts & Sciences, and the Hollywood Music in Media Awards, among others. Produced by Brad Lewis and Bonnie Arnold, The Hidden World delivers a heartwarming message about overcoming intolerance wrapped inside a tale about growing up, facing the unknown, and learning to let go. It also answers the burning question of what happened to the dragons that once populated the earth and lived in cooperation with humans.

So, as awards season rounds into the home stretch, and DeBlois faces his third round of Dragon-mania, it seemed like a good time to talk with him about this reptilian saga that’s become such a central part of his life.

AWN: In a presentation that you gave at the VIEW conference in October, you said that in general, you’re not very enthusiastic about sequels because, if you've done a good job, your story is told, and a follow-up can feel like an unnecessary add-on. What about How to Train Your Dragon made you feel that it provided an opportunity to do sequels the way they should be done?

Dean DeBlois: Well, I think it was a combination of three things. One is that I was a Star Wars kid and I loved the expansiveness of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I felt they took characters that I loved, expanded their worlds and increased the adventure, the peril. The characters were kind of maturing and growing up, and it had a big impact on me. And I saw in the Dragon world and its cast of characters the potential to do something similar. The world could be expansive, and we could grow up with the characters. In the time that it takes to make an animated movie, our fan base could be aging with the characters, which wasn't really something that I'd seen done before – where you take a cast of friends and then grow up with them. We would leap five years into the future and find a new organic problem that felt important and universal. So, that was part of it.

Then, I think it's also the conversation that I had with [Dragon books author] Cressida Cowell. Even though the narratives are quite different in the films and the books, I loved the idea that she was taking on this challenge of explaining what happened to dragons and why they aren't here anymore. I thought that was really intriguing, but also kind of gripping and emotional. The opening line of her very first book is, "There were dragons when I was a boy." That suggests they're gone. What happened to them? So, I loved taking on that challenge.

Finally, just being able to explain certain mysteries that were inherent in the first film. What happened to Hiccup’s mother? Is Toothless the last of his kind? If so, why? Just the idea that we might be able to take organic questions that we didn't have time to explain in the first movie, or didn't feel the need to, and make them into important questions in the context of the trilogy. As if we'd gone back in time and planted them there.

AWN: The emotional center of the storytelling in the films is the growth of the characters, their becoming adults and taking on adult responsibilities, even though they're still young. That’s really the best part of the films.

DeBlois: Yeah, it felt organic to me because I was thinking about what problem I could graft onto 15-year-old Hiccup that felt important. He now has his father’s love and admiration, he has the respect of the town, he has the attention of the girl he was secretly pining for, he has an amazing dragon that he could fly around on, and he ended an age-old war. It doesn't feel like a character who could have a problem until something really eventful enters his life. We needed to go to another rite of passage, which just naturally led to a 19-year-old in search of himself, when you've got two domineering parents of contrasting philosophies. A character who's on the run from his destiny at home, only to return to it with a renewed sense of self, was an appealing tale to me.

AWN: There's a large number of characters in the films, and they play pretty central roles. How do you ensure that you give them enough screen time and develop them enough so it feels that they really belong and have a reason for being there?

DeBlois: It's really tough and I don't know that we did, to be honest. I think that a lot of our characters are underserved. If we had a longer movie, if we could make a 120-minute movie instead of a 90-minute movie, we might be able to explore them more. But oftentimes the characters do become support characters. We do our best to give them moments, give them a laugh here and there, or give them a starring turn. But when you have an unwieldy group of characters, it’s really tough because you're always fighting the ticking clock of budget and time.

AWN: Speaking of characters, what makes a good villain and how do you determine how villainous to make your villain?

DeBlois: That is a very good question and I don't know that I have a very good answer. I struggle with villains. I find them boring if they just want power or money. Unless there's a bit of empathy in their desire, it just falls flat for me. Drago was meant to be a really interesting villain in How to Train Your Dragon 2. There was going to be a sea story that followed his survival and how he became marooned on an island that was home to a very aggressive dragon. He had to befriend this thing in order to fly off the island and get back to his armada. It was a very touch-and-go relationship because they were both very headstrong, but in the end, they established a mutual trust, and it changed him. Even with all of his heinous crimes, when he arrived in the third-act battle, he took the side of the dragon riders, fighting his own former cohorts. I liked that idea because it took what was admittedly a one-dimensional character and gave him complexity. But we didn't get to do that because, again, taking the time to do that story properly would have compromised Hiccup’s story. I regret it since I really wanted to do something interesting with that character.

We channeled some of that frustration into the development of Grimmel [in The Hidden World] and making him a villain for the times – an intolerant elitist who’s trying to crush blossoming ideas of peaceful coexistence. But he’s also a character who’s fun to watch onscreen – he has a kind of playful sensibility and likes the sound of his own voice. Enjoys the hunt, enjoys cornering his prey and forcing it to make desperate decisions. He’s a character without empathy, but he has a sense of humor.

AWN: To turn to the production side, did you use any virtual camera work or any tools that helped you visualize how you wanted to shoot this?

DeBlois: Yes, [cinematographer] Gil Zimmerman and his team – the layout team who provided us all the previs and the final layout of the movie – would go down to our mocap stage and pull up rough versions of our sets and don the outfits with the little ping-pong balls and actually work out a lot of their own choreography. So, if it wasn't a flight scene, if it was something that had a physical space where they could really block for action, they would come up with ideas that way. It's always dispensed with when it gets to animation, but the ideas are there and then the animators start from scratch.

AWN: How extensive was the previs? Were you using it more for storytelling or was it used more for camera and layout?

DeBlois: On this film, we started to invite the layout department into the storytelling. In other words, if there was a sequence that depended on visceral, kinetic movement – something that's hard to suggest on drawn storyboards – we would talk out the beats of the script pages with Gil Zimmerman and the assigned previs artists, and they would go off and develop it. If we knew there was going to be flight involved or some kind of complex set, we would either hand the sequence entirely to the previs artists or involve them really early.

I found I really liked this step and how far it has come in recent years, where so much of the finished idea can be represented quite clearly and closely in the previs. It used to be awkward to look at – characters that would slide across floors, and blank expressions, and robotic movements. It’s come such a long way that it’s something you can include in test previews with audiences, because it's full of color and it has lighting… it’s a very exciting new tool to use.

AWN: Like many top animation directors, you're going to be moving over into the live-action world. Have you always wanted to go this route? You've been directing animated films for a long time.

DeBlois: Yeah, after Lilo and Stitch, I took a look at my personal hopper of ideas that I was working on and I would say three-quarters of them were live-action. They felt like live-action films. I decided to go out there and just see if anyone was interested. I sold three of them. It got close with a start date on one of them, but they all kind of went on ice when there were administrative changes both at Disney and Universal. It was an exciting and frustrating period and it just feels like an itch that I didn't scratch. So now I have that opportunity to return to the world of live-action and hopefully get a movie going. I do so with caution because I know that so many things can fall apart very quickly in live-action, whereas in animation we tend to commit to the idea of making the movie, even if you have to change out people in the process.

AWN: Do you feel that your experience in animation gives you specific skills that you can apply in live-action production?

DeBlois: I think my storyboarding background definitely gives me the ability to communicate ideas clearly and visually represent them. Having spent so much time on the story side of things, writing as well, I feel as though I can clearly communicate the story we're telling and engage other people in contributing ideas and making it better. I think in any sort of filmmaking enterprise you need somebody who's going to be the guardian of the story, but still be open to great ideas, and I feel like I've been honing that skill over the years.

AWN: Last question. How does it feel to say goodbye to dragon world – after three really well-done, well-received, expansive, beautifully animated features? You completed the trilogy, you told the story as well as it could be told. What are your thoughts looking back on this huge body of work?

DeBlois: I'm very proud that we were able to reach the goal that we had set for ourselves, that we didn't have to creatively compromise much, and that we did it with largely the same team over the course of a decade. It's bittersweet because not only have we come to love the characters and the world, but we really like working together. We don't know if we're ever going to be arranged as that crew again. People have gone on to different shows, some have left the studio. It was a bit of a gamble to dedicate so much time to a trilogy, especially in the ever-changing landscape of studios. There were five changes in leadership on Dragon 3 alone. With every person that comes in, they have their own sensibility and their own tastes. And so, learning to work with each person and also giving them ownership can be tricky. Luckily, we were able to keep our North Star in sight and deliver the ending that we wanted.

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.