The last time Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders collaborated on a movie, the wheel had been invented. Electricity was in common use. Indoor plumbing was a feature in most American homes.
Movie animation, however, was in the relative Dark Ages.
It was 2002.
That year, DeBlois and Sanders’ animated adventure “Lilo & Stitch,” the story of a Hawaiian girl and her obstreperous alien-fugitive pet, was released to a $146-million run at the box office, several direct-to-video features and a TV show. It was a franchise. But despite its quasi-viral success, “it was traditional animation,” DeBlois said, “one of the last to be done by a major studio. And I think everybody, this time, was a little intimidated by the format of 3-D.”
You wouldn’t know it from the results: “How to Train Your Dragon,” the new, 3-D collaboration by DeBlois and Sanders that opens Friday, marries the timeless qualities of fairy tales and adolescent anxiety to “Avatar”-ish aspirations in scope and spectacle. Whether it endears itself to hard-core animation lovers remains to be seen, but the process was not as tough as, say, training a dragon.
“The technology has advanced in a way that’s made it very intuitive,” DeBlois said. “Animators can translate everything they ever wanted to do on paper through into the computer and can get a level of acting they weren’t able to achieve with the drawn line. It’s been a great education for Chris — and a total joy — because there are so many new things to conquer.”
Much like their hero. Based loosely on the popular book by Cressida Cowell, “How to Train Your Dragon” concerns a civilized young Viking named Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel of “She’s Out of My League”) who has a constitutional aversion to his tribe’s chief obsession — killing dragons. His father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), is the fiercest dragon slayer of all, but the far-less-vast Hiccup, try as he might, can’t get into it. Even among his peers — who have names like Snotlout (Jonah Hill) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) — Hiccup is an outcast, until he meets and tames an injured dragon dubbed Toothless, who possesses characteristics that a lot of audiences will find strangely familiar.
“The animator who took him on had just gotten a cat,” DeBlois said. “He didn’t realize he was a cat person at the time, but he put many of those attributes into his animation of Toothless. And (DreamWorks animation honcho) Jeff Katzenberg and Chris Sanders and I all have dogs, and so a lot of dog attributes made their way into him. There are even a few horse attributes. So there are a lot of familiar pet qualities to him that make him that much cuter.”
Making an ostensible monster cuddly isn’t something you need 3-D to do. Where the technology came in handy, Sanders said, was in making the action spectacular. “A good example would be the flying sequences,” he said. “We have incredible ability to do these flying sequences in a way that would never be available in 2-D animation. It’s one of those things that just shines.
“The interesting thing with 3-D,” he added, “is that you have to exercise restraint with your camera. In traditional animation there are limitations, and it’s very, very costly to move the camera around. But with CG, it’s much easier. So one of the things Dean and I were very careful about was not doing anything with the camera that you couldn’t do in a live-action film — we didn’t want to thread a needle with the camera just because we could.”
Or make their characters too “real” either. In a recent National Public Radio broadcast, the cultural critic Lawrence Weschler cited the work of a Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori, who discovered that if you made a robot up to 95 percent realistic, it’s “fantastic, because a 95 percent lifelike robot is a robot that’s incredibly lifelike,” Weschler said. “A 96 percent lifelike robot is a human being with something wrong.” And makes children cry.
“An example of that might be some of the Robert Zemeckis’ films,” DeBlois said of the director of “Polar Express,” where the problem of too-real characters gave some people the creeps. “And where the camera flies in and out of gutters, cross rooftop tiles and down sewers. It starts to feel a little bit gimmicky and, personally, I feel it pulls you out of the story.”
DeBlois and Sanders, who co-wrote “Mulan” back in 1998, came onto “Dragon” when it already was more than two years under way but mired in a narrative rut. So they changed Cowell’s story about kids who simply train dragons into Vikings who kill dragons. It gave them much more story, and complications and drama — which is ultimately what you want, DeBlois said, not a cartoon where the technology trumps all.
“If you look at the animation on ‘Dragon,”” DeBlois said, “the hair is so believable you stop paying attention to it. And where animated forests used to be the same plant over and over again, this one has such a natural feel that you stop noticing it and start paying attention to the characters, and the story. Which is always the main objective.”
ADVANCES IN ANIMATION
Between “Lilo & Stitch” (2002) and “How to Train Your Dragon,” advances in computer animation have been fast and furious and continue to be — in fact, between the time this is written and read, there probably will be another dozen leaps forward. That technology occasionally has outpaced creativity doesn’t seem to be a question, but the moviegoing public has eaten CG up, and Hollywood is no longer making any big-screen cartoons exclusively in 2-D. So audiences should get used to wearing glasses. The following, while not all classics, shows a progression of sorts in how we got from there to here.
FINDING NEMO (2003) — Produced by Pixar for Walt Disney Studios, this computer-animated favorite won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, became the best-selling DVD of all time and is the highest-grossing G-rated movie.
THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004) — Robert Zemeckis employed the breakthrough “motion-capture” process to achieve a sort of photo-realism in this would-be Christmas classic, but, as David Rooney said in Variety, the result was “Stepford children” and “emotional remoteness.”
FLUSHED AWAY (2006) — DreamWorks and Aardman Animations — the latter renowned for its “Wallace & Gromit” stop-motion comedies — collaborated on what was Aardman’s first experience with computer animation — and a got disappointing reception. Afterward, the two companies parted ways.
THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX (2008) — While hardly the creative or financial success Universal anticipated, this tale of a swashbuckling mouse showed a sublime way with detail (fur and hair, for instance) and it was aesthetically delicate as it was, occasionally, narratively inert.
FLY ME TO THE MOON (2008) — “The first-ever computer-animated film designed, created and produced, from first frame, exclusively for the 3-D experience” wasn’t much of an experience, but may have been a giant leap for moviegoing-kind.