'Dragon' directors are flying in the face of fearsome 3-D technology

Breaking boundaries: For co-directors Dean DeBlois, left, and Chris Sanders (with producer Bonnie Arnold), the sky was the limit for the 3-D animation in "How to Train Your Dragon."
Breaking boundaries: For co-directors Dean DeBlois, left, and Chris Sanders (with producer Bonnie Arnold), the sky was the limit for the 3-D animation in "How to Train Your Dragon." (Copyright 2010 Dreamworks Animation)
By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

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 opened Friday), hunkering a bit Viking-like on a couch at the Ritz 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."

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.

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