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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 03/26/2010

The 'Riffs Interview: 'TRAIN YOUR DRAGON' directors enter a new dimension

By Michael Cavna

dragon1.jpg Hiccup, dragon trainer. (DreamWorks Animation SKG)

The modern Hollywood animator is accursed with a burden that never bedeviled Walt Disney, Chuck Jones or even the '80s Imagineers who framed each shot of Roger Rabbit. In the era of "Avatar," with the Pandora's box of new technology now flung fully open, the rub for CG-loving filmmakers is this:

Nothing is impossible. There are no creative limits. No cinematic ceiling. Your vision might cost roughly the GNP of Madagascar, but the James Camerons and Jeffrey Katzenbergs know where such money can be got. Suddenly, constraints have been rendered obsolete.

"There's nothing you can't do in terms of creating a performance," says Dean DeBlois, the burly director of "How to Train Your Dragon" (which opens today), hunkering a bit Viking-like on a couch at the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown. "It's only a matter of time, money and imagination."

Some creators might cower before such endless possibility. But the veteran 2-D filmmakers behind DreamWorks's latest 3-D animated spectacle prefer to think of it as "exciting, exhilarating," a white-knuckle creative challenge. Then again, these are men who dream of riding dragons.

" 'Avatar' has bridged the gap so much between what live-action did and what animation traditionally did," continues DeBlois, who wrote and directed "Dragon" with Chris Sanders -- his colleague, too, on the traditionally animated "Lilo & Stitch" and "Mulan." "It exists in the middle. Those lines of animation and photo realism are so blurred."

"How to Train Your Dragon" is based on the youth fantasy novel about a scrawny Viking boy (Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel) who befriends the flying, fearsome Toothless, the sometime-invisible "stealth bomber" of man-clashing dragons. (In the gentler book, the peaceful reptile is merely iguana-size.) DeBlois and Sanders seem to have saddled their magnificent, ebony-scaled creature with not only a boy on his back, but also with the metaphor of their own moviemaking experience. That is to say: The sky's the limit. And they -- like Hiccup -- are experimenting with a whole new technology to take flight.

"We got to play with a whole new bunch of tools, including CG and 3-D," says the 39-year-old goateed DeBlois, who studied classical animation at Toronto's Sheridan College before making his way to Los Angeles. "The amount of depth you can get into, and the sense of reality, is amazing."

"The fun thing is, you're working very hard for people not to notice the 3-D," says the clean-shaven Sanders, who graduated from CalArts in 1984 before working on such hand-drawn 2-D Disney hits as "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast."


dragon4.jpg Dean DeBlois (L) and Chris Sanders with producer Bonnie Arnold. (Reuters)

As they took the helm of "Dragon" -- which also features the voices of Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson and America Ferrera -- achieving "the impossible" seemed not so possible. First, DreamWorks Animation honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg said they had only 14 months to deliver the picture.

"There was no time for experimentation," Sanders says. "Jeffrey said: 'Usually we make these films three times. You have one chance -- and you've got to get it right.' "We collectively made decisions and never looked back. It was suspenseful."

Sanders hasn't looked back, either, since leaving Disney after two decades. Several years ago, Sanders worked on the then-titled "American Dog," but he says the film he envisioned was very different from what Pixar founder/Disney exec John Lasseter wanted. Swiftly, Sanders was off the picture.

The film as released, "Bolt," was "a very different cup of tea tonally," says Sanders, who soon departed the House of Mouse.

"DreamWorks turned out to be the perfect place to go," Sanders says. "There isn't a house style, in the best sense of the word. Each film can take on its own flavor." (DreamWorks Animation's first 3-D film was last year's "Monsters vs. Aliens"; this summer, it will release the fourth "Shrek" film.)

Once aboard their first 3-D film, Sanders and DeBlois were informed - again - what they couldn't do in this format.

"We were told: 'You can't have scenes in the dark and you can't have rapid cuts,' " DeBlois says. "And we couldn't have extreme close-ups. Lines tend to separate and 'ghost' a little bit."

Enter a "Dragon" visual consultant: the legendary Roger Deakins. Sanders, DeBlois and Deakins together screened last year's Oscar-nominated 3-D "Coraline." "You had scenes in the dark. You had close-ups and depth of field," says DeBlois, who pined for such sophisticated lighting. The threesome was sold: The "impossible" was possible.

dragon2.jpg (DreamWorks Animation SKG)

dragon3.jpg (DreamWorks Animation SKG)

"We felt like, 'If we adhere to this doctrine, we'll have our hands tied,' " DeBlois says. "We decided to just make the movie we wanted to make -- to make it as good as we can make it - and to dial into the 3-D when appropriate."

"When appropriate" are the operative words. Both Katzenberg and DreamWorks chief Steven Spielberg complimented "Dragon's" directing duo on their cinematic restraint. "You have to put in visually 'shallow' parts so that when you ramp up the 3-D, the [moviegoing] experience is refreshened," says Sanders, noting the particular importance of 3-D impact in the film's breathtaking flying scenes, some of which have a roller-coaster effect.

Invigorated at midcareer by the evolving technology, Sanders and DeBlois are eager to tackle new challenges - perhaps a stop-motion picture or a live-action film with some animation.

"We were walking around Georgetown last night, talking about these new story ideas," Sanders says. "We always find Georgetown to be inspiring."

By the Potomac, having dreamed their white-knuckle dragon rides over a Norse sea, DeBlois and Sanders are again ready for uncharted waters.


By Michael Cavna  | March 26, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, The Animation  | Tags:  Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, DreamWorks Animation, How to Train Your Dragon, Jeffrey Katzenberg  
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