Exactly one week before the North American release of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World hit theatres, 160 lucky Sheridan animation students were treated to an experience of a lifetime. The trilogy’s writer and director, Dean DeBlois – who happens to be a 1990 graduate of Sheridan animation – screened his finale to the enthusiastic audience before patiently answering their thoughtful questions and signing an endless stream of autographs on his way out of the theatre.
While we can’t give away any secrets of the plot, what we can share is the advice that this two-time Oscar nominee so generously gave to those wishing to follow in his footsteps one day. Succeeding in the industry demands persistence and passion. It requires deliberate choices and a careful balancing of tensions. And while no one is immune to occasional self-doubt or even the odd dose of self-loathing, there’s never been a better time to take the industry by storm.
The Difficult Task of Writing
In a quest for some tips and affirmation – and perhaps some commiseration – many questions arose about the process of writing.
DeBlois said that he often writes alone and admits it can be a struggle fraught with disappointment, procrastination, and the pressure of needing to turn in a draft.
“Story is a strange beast,” he said. “The moment you think you have it figured out is probably your downfall.” In the case of his current film, he said it required a solid four or five drafts before the studio decided to believe in the script, including a few pretty significant changes as he was trying to figure out “the compass bearing” of the story.
“Story is a strange beast. The moment you think you have it figured out is probably your downfall.” – Dean DeBlois
He cautioned that there isn’t one book or one seminar that anyone can take to answer all of their questions, but each one of these touchpoints “might unlock something and be some kind of epiphany that furthers your storytelling.” He also suggested that you should rely on those who you trust to react to your work, and continue to hone it until you can put what you love about the story up on the screen.
Tenacity Pays Off
DeBlois recounted the tale of how he and his collaborator Chris Saunders ended up becoming established, credited, veteran screenwriters, before their days at DreamWorks.
The pair were at Disney, working on Lilo and Stitch, a feature film that flew a bit under the radar, as it was being developed in Florida not Burbank. “I just kept moving closer and closer to where story decisions were made,” he said. They started by writing within the story sequences they were assigned. “I was really just describing in words what I recorded,” he said. Reacting to the sub-par writing that was being handed to them, the pair began to write their own version of the screenplay. “The next thing you know, we were storyboarding it and putting some of those sequences into production.” By the time the studio realized that the movie was getting made based on their script, it was too late to bring in a professional screenwriter, which had been the original plan.
Being Decisive and Deliberate
In making the first film, DreamWorks Animation co-founder and CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg told the duo that he wanted a father and son story, a big David and Goliath ending and a Harry Potter tone. Aside from that, the pair had the freedom to keep what they wished from Cressida Cowell’s story that the film was based upon.
“Dragons were a little tired as a movie concept,” said DeBlois. “The story needed to be refreshed in some way.” He drew inspiration from the work of Japanese animator, screenwriter and manga artist Hayao Miyazaki. DeBlois pitched Saunders on the idea of creating a dragon that was broken, coupling “this graceful organic shape with early mechanics that were quite DaVinci like,” to form a symbiotic relationship with a boy who had to ride on the dragon in order for it to fly. Unlike the books in which the boys who were coming of age dominated the dragons they were raising to command them to do tricks, the film’s hero Hiccup gets Toothless to perform what no other dragon can do through kindness.
In joining the film project, the team was also told that the film had a fixed release date a mere 14 months away. “Our only focus was deciding how do we use what was already designed in terms of the sets and characters to tell a story that would work and that would be a success.”
Hindsight shows they made the right choices, with the film still being one of the studios’ most critically-acclaimed features. Chris Saunders then moved back to working on The Croods and Katzenberg asked DeBlois to come up with an idea for a sequel.
“I said I’m allergic to sequels … they don’t have purpose and they don’t have integrity if they aren’t furthering anything necessary.” Instead, DeBlois suggested a trilogy, or “three acts of one story … each one following a universal rite of passage by advancing the plot and meeting the characters later in their lives.”
Passion and Excellence
DeBlois reminded the audience that animation is not just their vocation, it’s also their passion. “Sink everything you’ve got into it. The worst kind of approach is just to treat it like a day job. Your work has to speak for itself. Make it your life.” In reflecting back on his early days in industry he said there were a lot of people who would put in the basic minimum and spend a lot of time chatting in the corridors instead of spending time at their desks generating work that would get them noticed. “None of them are still in the industry now that I know of.”
“Don’t let yourself be put into a box because it’s very stifling creatively. Push yourself to try different artistic things and keep up with the times so if you’ve specialized in something that somehow gets made redundant, you’ve still got options.” – Dean DeBlois
He also encouraged the students to find their personal sources of inspiration. “Music fuels my creativity, whether I’m drawing or writing … I find it almost meditative.” DeBlois characterized one of his earliest mentors – Joe Grant at Disney – as an exemplary artist, who did pottery, sculpted, was a photographer and drew in watercolour every day. “Don’t let yourself be put into a box because it’s very stifling creatively. Push yourself to try different artistic things and keep up with the times so if you’ve specialized in something that somehow gets made redundant, you’ve still got options.”
Balancing the Tensions
A few questions arose about the trade-off between having the artistic freedom that comes with working on an independent film to the allure of directing a big budget feature where you might not have full control.
“When you’re spending other people’s money and you don’t control the franchise, you have to see it for the gift that it is. It’s a rare opportunity to put something up there for a worldwide audience … and there’s no better thing than to have studio executives and a company in all of its branches supporting you and believing in what you’ve done and feeling invested themselves.”
Earning the trust required to get to that point can’t happen if you’re too territorial. “It’s about maintaining your prism, arguing strongly for those things you think are important but being open enough to realize that your instinct, or what you really wanted, is maybe not the best thing for the story. You have to be able to adjust.”
He also suggested that half the job of directing a movie this large is protecting it from the changing tides. “Something that was funny the first time is not funny the fortieth or fiftieth time you’ve seen it. The same situation starts to elicit a null effect for people who have been around it too long. That’s the danger of animation. It takes so long to make these movies. You have this response to want to change things to freshen it up, but part of your job as director is to say no and remind people how they felt the first time they heard the pitch or saw the storyboards. That’s what you’re protecting.”
He added that the best thing you can do as a director is to really trust the people you have as the heads of the departments. “I look at the editor, the head of layout, the production designer, the head of animation, and our head of lighting as being co-directors on the movie. These are the people I trust implicitly. Their taste is amazing. They know what I’m going for from a story standpoint. It allows them work with their teams and creatively flex their muscles, and it allows me to focus on story.”
Of course you can’t talk about animation and the feature length films of today without discussing technology.
“In 2010, when I was working on the first film, the technology was a wonder to me because I came from hand-drawn animation. It allowed me to do details I had never been able to do before. It was amazing to me, really dazzling, what you could do with camera movements and it just got better every year.”
Looking back, DeBlois says it’s easier to see the limitations. “We struggled on the first movie to get hair to look proper. We had to avoid interaction with water because it was an amorphous form colliding with a solid form, which caused all sorts of problems.” Despite the challenges, there was a conscious decision for the film to feel real and life like – to be rendered with an incredible naturalistic sense, a palpable sense of peril, and a kinetic sense of reality.
DeBlois noted that the big change on How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World was the use of a Ray Tracer, which allows animators to trace the path of light as pixels in an image plane and simulate how light interacts with the virtual objects it ultimately hits. “It made a huge difference in the visual fidelity. You can see every detail. It let us take on massive environments with very complex and subtle lighting. We were also able to build those environments, whereas previously, we’d have to fill them with paintings.”
“We’re actually at the point now where you can put anything you want on the screen. You are only limited by your imagination which is a great place to be.” – Dean DeBlois
In thinking through their future artistic choices, DeBlois urged the students to consider whether a realistic or more graphic look is what their project needs, depending on the story that they are telling. “I like that the artistic choice is back in our laps. We’re actually at the point now where you can put anything you want on the screen. You are only limited by your imagination which is a great place to be.”
Knowing how quickly technology advances, he joked that in ten years from now, when we’ll look back at the last film in the trilogy, we might all be saying, ‘Eww … that was very 2018, wasn’t it?”
The Unexpected Benefits
A number of students thanked DeBlois for his contribution to animation and filmmaking, commenting on how much they adore this franchise, with one even saying it inspired her to want to be part of the profession.
DeBlois spoke of the warmth that he’s derived from learning his films are more than just light entertainment for some. In sharing personal stories of people he’s met from Argentina to Chicago, he noted “There are a lot of lonely people out there who are struggling with their place in the world. Telling them a story about misfits changing their world has resonated and that’s really cool.” Over the years, he’s also hosted Wish Kids at DreamWorks who want to meet the “Dragon people” and find out how the story ends.
Despite all his success, he says, “My heroes are still out there making movies – Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, James Cameron. I look at them and think ‘am I ever going to get there?’ And while there’s never a “super celebrity moment where you feel like ‘wow, I’ve finally made it’”, over the past five years, it has dawned on him that “the movies I’m a part of have inspired another generation of artists to enter the animation world and decide that this is what they want to do with their lives.”
DeBlois told the students how much he loved his time at Sheridan and that it’s such a good thing to hear from people who went through the same program and are now working in industry.
“You are the people that will replace my generation, just as my generation is starting to replace our heroes as they start to retire. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Stay focused. Be a well-rounded filmmaker and take the medium where you want to push it. Surround yourself by the people who you see are talented in your peer group. One day, you’ll be working in industry and you’ll look back with warmth about your time spent here and maybe you’ll come back to do a talk and show your work. It’s a great cycle to be part of.”
“You are the people that will replace my generation, just as my generation is starting to replace our heroes as they start to retire…One day, you’ll be working in industry and you’ll look back with warmth about your time spent here.” – Dean DeBlois
Pictured at top of page: Sheridan students pose with director Dean DeBlois (third from right).
Written by: Christine Szustaczek, Chief Communications Officer at Sheridan.