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 and 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. 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 ... 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."
Based loosely on the popular book by Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon concerns a young Viking, Hiccup with an aversion to his tribe's chief obsession: killing dragons. His father, Stoick the Vast, is the fiercest dragon-slayer of all, but Hiccup can't get into it. Even among his peers, Hiccup is an outcast, until he meets and tames an injured dragon dubbed Toothless.
"The animator who took him on had just gotten a cat," DeBlois said. "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."
You don't need 3-D to make an ostensible monster cuddly. Where the technology came in handy, Sanders said, was in the spectacular action. "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 said, "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 (computer- generated), 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, culture critic Lawrence Weschler cited the work of Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who discovered that if you made a robot 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."
"An example of that might be some of Robert Zemeckis' films," DeBlois said of the director of Polar Express, whose 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 in 1998, came onto Dragon when it was more than two years under way but mired in a narrative rut. They changed Cowell's story about kids who simply train dragons and made it about Vikings who kill dragons. It gave them much more story, and complications and drama — which is ultimately what you want, DeBlois said.
"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."