Dean DeBlois is a Canadian film director, film producer, screenwriter, and animator. He is best known for co-writing and co-directing the Oscar-nominated animated films Lilo & Stitch for Walt Disney Animation Studios, the How to Train Your Dragon film trilogy for DreamWorks Animation, and directed the documentary Heima about the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. He discusses the evolution of storytelling and what new levels animation will take that storytelling.
Screen Rant: So it's easy to make a story about friendship and love. However, what sets a the Dragon franchise apart from another family based feature is that you don't shy away from the inherit a loss inherent in lost love. Why did you take that approach?
Dean DeBlois: Well I think so. I think animation is a pretty powerful medium, but it often gets relegated to the kiddie table and I see it as kind of a personal mission to try to imbue it with more texture and more mature themes so that it sort of expands its audience and eventually convinces people that it's not just to be written off that way. So films that matter to me are the ones that touched me. And It's always been that way since I was a kid. I love being moved to tears in a film and to have that sense of wonder and discovery and to have characters feel real and embody traits that I see in myself or see in the people around me. So those are all sort of goals and ambitions from the start.
Screen Rant: So you wrote the first script, um, and, and, and everything, but then you had this ending always in mind with, throughout time. Did that ever change or deviate from the planner? This is always the way you wanted it.
Dean DeBlois: No. And in fact, we didn't have a trilogy or an ending, like a larger ending in mind from the start. Cause Chris Sanders and I jumped on How to Train your Dragon as the third set of directors with only about 15 months before it's release date in theaters. And that was fixed. So we came in and they said, look, our attempts to adapt the story from the books, it's not working. It's a little too small. It's a little too young. We need to broaden the audience. We need more fantasy adventure tropes. So take the spirit of the book and the characters, their names, reinvent what you must, but rebuild it for us. And so we jumped into that with no time to waste. And there was really only that one goal, get to the movie theater with a movie that we can be proud of and hopefully it does well. And in the wake of its success, that's when they talked about, okay, well can we have some ideas for a sequel?
And I said, I'll give you an idea. Let's do it. Let's do a trilogy. Let's do three acts of one story because that opening line of Cressida Cowells first book, as much as we changed about the stories and the books, that opening line of Hiccup reflecting back on his youth and it was a, there are dragons when I was a boy, that gave me kind of an emotional stir when I first read it. And I thought, okay, I get the concept here. This is a tale about a moment in time when these creatures roam this earth and they disappeared. And what does that mean? You know, it's like a nice narrative goal to hit. How do you tell a story about a character whose sole purpose here is to teach inclusion and coexistence only to abandon that idea eventually. And why and what's the growth in it? What's the transformation and how does that become sort of wise and hopeful in empowering our world. And so it's not straightforward. It's a bit tricky, but at the end of the day that was for me the most inspiring and was like, can we get to the moment where Hiccup becomes wise and selfless, but in the process of doing so, he has to let go of his personal dream of holding these characters together for a more enlightened idea of granting his best friend the destiny he deserves.
Screen Rant: For Jay and America, it feels like they're almost saying goodbye to these characters that they've portrayed for such a long amount of time now. Craig is not ready to let go. Craig wants a spinoff. What are the chances.
Dean DeBlois:I'd watch that. Craig is so entertaining. He's so quick witted and so charming that you know anything he says is just a joy. So I love his sense of humor and certainly everything that he's breathed into Gobber in all of its facets is super entertaining to me.
Screen Rant: He told a great story earlier too about Gobber, about how he ad libbed a line and you kept it in, in the second one.I was just curious, why was that decision made for you to keep it in and when did you make that decision?
Dean DeBlois: I think we've made the decision in the recording. Cause I'd written the line. So the situation is that Stoic and Valka are arguing. Having just discovered that one another is alive. They're having an argument and Hiccup and Gobber are kind of standing in the background. And as an aside, he whispers, he says, see, this is why I never got married. Well, this, and one other reason that was the bit that Greg had added and he did it with a little lilt and I was laughing cause they thought that's really funny to think that you know, Gobber might reveal that in that moment I thought it was just really cute and it was kind of go over the heads of most of our young audience. But I think a little revelation for the older members of the audience. So we kept it in. It was kind of charming and added a little dimension to the character.
Screen Rant: I'm glad you did by the way. Can you talk to me about Moon Ray Tech?
Dean DeBlois: Yeah. Moon Ray is, in the animation industry there was a great evolution in the way that we produce final images. The lighting of them. And it was the advent of the ray tracer or sometimes called the path tracer. And what it is is instead of trying to create the illusion of a real credible lighting, realistic lighting, it actually treats light sources like the real world. In other words, it calculates thousands and millions of light rays as they emanate from the source and bounce off of all the surrounding environments and create the lighting effect on your subject. So it's mathematical, it's very sophisticated, but it's also very, very fast. And what it means for us is that we can have the subtlety and artistic precision of final images like working with Roger Deakins for example, and being able to achieve a certain look that previously we would try to mimic with global illumination and it would be very difficult and time consuming, but it allows us to do it super fast. So we were not only iterative, we're really speedy and the net effect is images that we wouldn't have been able to take on before with grand scope and thousands of characters. Something like the hidden world, with all of its complexity would have broken the bank before. There was no way we would've been able to physically deliver those final images in render time alone to make our deadlines. Now we can do it. Now whatever we conceive of, we can actually render, we have the front end tools on the second movie that were very artist friendly and kind of intuitive. It took all the mathematics and sort of the counterintuitive nature of working with pull down menus and grids and graphs. Now with the second movie, we had the stylist and the hand of the artist working on the screen, manipulating a character, like it's stop motion animation. But we still had restrictions on the backend. It was a bottleneck in terms of our ambition. Well that's what Moon Ray has done is sort of blown that open. And so now we have something really speedy and it creates just incredible detail.
Screen Rant: Last year was a banner year for animation. What do you think is the future 'cause Spider-Verse was something incredible? This looks stunning. Obviously you had all the Pixar films. Where's the animation headed in your opinion now?
Dean DeBlois: Oh man, that's a good question because I would have said that we're just continuing to refine incredible imagery, but then here comes Spider-verse and they went almost backward. They took all of these great graphic elements of hand drawn animation and fused them with cutting edge CG technology. So I was blown away by the look of that movie. I thought it was so innovative and it spoke so well to that material, you know, coming out of the comic book world. And so I think anything's possible. That's what's great is I know like here within the studio, if somebody has an image, no matter how outlandish, it can be created now. So it's just a question of how far your imagination is going to go and how far you want to push your own storytelling. I mean, it should always be driven by the story, but I think stylistically I would love to continue to see it expand.
- How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019) release date: Feb 22, 2019