PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.
DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon” series is easily the best animated franchise this side of “Toy Story.” With each installment, director Dean DeBlois has heightened the stakes and broadened the mythos with verve. DeBlois grew up a “‘Star Wars’ kid,” so concepts of amplifying the adventure from tale to tale really speak to him. This culmination, “ ,” is a graceful note to go out on, but as complete as the story ultimately is, it didn’t begin as a trilogy.
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“We were tasked with just delivering a movie that would work and we weren’t thinking in terms of the future,” DeBlois says of the first installment from nine years ago. “It wasn’t until it went out into theaters that the discussion of a sequel began, and I pitched back the idea of doing three acts for one story. That would give us a purpose for each of the sequels and in a way [we would] try to map Hiccup’s coming of age from viking runt nuisance to wise, selfless viking chief by the end of it all.”
An unusual element of these sequels is the advancing of the clock between each release. Usually you might expect a new film to pick up right where the last one left off, but by having his characters grow four or five years from movie to movie, DeBlois and his team have crafted an epic that has allowed its audience to grow right alongside them.
“If you take a look at the first film, [Hiccup has] achieved everything he wanted,” DeBlois says. “He has his father’s love. He has the town’s respect. He has the mutual admiration of Astrid. He has an amazing, cool dragon. And he’s ended an age-old war between vikings and dragons. This is a character without a problem. So the idea of starting a next film and having it feel that it has some sort of worth and purpose and a universal theme at its core meant that we had to visit Hiccup at a different point in his life where he was encountering a crossroads that would speak to a worldwide audience.”
On a craft level, the films are gorgeous. Much of that is owed to DeBlois and DreamWorks’ decision to bring Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins into the fold. Deakins had put on a brief workshop at Pixar when the animation studio was working on “WALL-E,” and his efforts really show, particularly in the first section of that film. DeBlois had hoped for that kind of thing with the “Dragon” series, but Deakins ultimately decided he wanted to be a bigger part of the project.
DeBlois breaks down what it is about the process that Deakins could really help inform:
“In hand-drawn [animation], before you produce the actual shots, there’s a stage called workbook,” he says. “It combines the background with the character and a rendering that kind of tells you what the light and shadow is, so we’re very comfortable with what the final composition will be before we actually animate and commit all our resources. In CG animation, we quickly realized that the department that actually chooses camera angles and camera movement and composition and even lens choices is months away from the department that lights the shots. In other words, we’re committing to compositions without knowing about where the light and shadow was going to fall, and that seemed really strange to me because everything I’ve ever read about cinematography is light and shadow, that’s the primary concern, especially in composition.”
Deakins’ involvement was therefore invaluable, having a talent of his caliber there from the beginning as a through-line between these drastically divided departments, consulting on shots at every step.
For more, including DeBlois’ thoughts on the current trend of adapting animated classics to live-action money-makers (he was head of story on Disney’s “Mulan,” for instance), listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link below.
|Dean DeBlois photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety