“How to Train Your Dragon” director Dean DeBlois grew up wanting to be a comic-book artist. After meandering his way through fine-arts classes at Sheridan College for a year, however, he managed to get into the school’s summer animation program, where he found his calling.
“Animation had everything I love about comic books — you design your world and your characters, tell your story — but it was brought to life and could reach a worldwide audience in a way that I didn’t think comic books could,” says DeBlois, who is being honored by Variety as a Billion Dollar Director.
As that first summer came to a close, he submitted his portfolio to Hinton Animation Studios, where he started out as an “inbetweener” on the hand-drawn TV series “Raccoons,” later transitioning into the layout department for Hinton’s first feature, “The Nutcracker Prince.”
“It was terrible, but it allowed me to work nine months of the year, pay off my tuition, and go back to school the following summer,” says DeBlois, who applied for and was accepted to go work for former Disney legend Don Bluth in Ireland after his third summer at Sheridan.
DeBlois blushes at many of the early credits on his résumé, including the three features — “Thumbelina,” “A Troll in Central Park,” and “The Pebble and the Penguin” — he did for Bluth.
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“He was this incredible draftsman, where he could sit down at a fresh sheet of paper and without searching for the drawing, draw exactly what his mind was projecting onto the page,” DeBlois says. “It was very impressive to watch. His weakness was story.”
And that was the big lesson of his time with Bluth: “No matter how many late nights or weekends a very talented team might put into it, if the people at the top are irresponsible when it comes to story, then it just negates all that effort,” he says. “If you’ve experienced the disappointment of spending years on something only to be embarrassed to admit you worked on it, that makes you want to course-correct.” Adds DeBlois, “I feel that pressure for everybody who works on the ‘Dragon’ films. We’ve been largely the same team for a decade.”
After four years in Ireland, DeBlois was hired by Disney to work as a layout artist on “Mulan.” Through a lucky break, he was offered a chance to join the story team, where he met future collaborator Chris Sanders. When “Mulan” wrapped, Sanders’ contract gave him a period to develop a project to direct, during which he focused on an idea about a misfit creature stranded in a forest, enlisting DeBlois to help flesh out what ultimately became “Lilo & Stitch.”
Since Sanders and DeBlois were seen as artists, not writers, Disney planned to hire professionals to pen the script. “By the time they really started paying attention to us, we were so far down the road with this kind of quirky and singular voice, bringing someone else in would upset the tone that they’d come to like about it,” DeBlois says.
According to Sanders, “Dean has a very original and strong voice,” and their time together on “Mulan” had shown that their sense of tone and sensibility overlapped in complementary ways.
“Dean is great at dialogue, but senses when to have the characters stay silent and let music and acting take the spotlight,” he says.
Working on “Mulan” had been incredibly difficult on the crew, marked by long hours, separation from loved ones, people getting sick. When the Disney execs told them the studio would make “Lilo & Stitch” as a B movie in their Orlando satellite studio, DeBlois recalls, “We sat down with the entire crew and said, ‘We have less time and less money to make this movie, but we’re going to do it in such a way that everybody gets to go home at night and have weekends.’”
To make that possible, the co-directors made creative choices and minimized details they decided the film could do without. “We couldn’t afford shadows, for instance, so most of ‘Lilo & Stitch’ has characters standing in shadows so they’re not casting shadows, that kind of thing,” DeBlois explains. “We embraced the watercolor look of it all and let it feel like an illustration come to life.”
Following “Lilo & Stitch,” DeBlois turned his attention to live-action filmmaking, landing a two-picture deal at Disney. A project called “The Banshee and Finn McGee” had been assigned a start date and budget when a change of presidency at the studio killed it. “It was my first crash course in live action where a project may be a go one day and a disaster the next,” DeBlois says.
Nearly the same thing happened with a script called “Sightings” at Universal, which got held up in an executive shuffle when Sanders — who was now at DreamWorks Animation — asked him to help rescue “How to Train Your Dragon.”
“There was a lot to be done in a short time, and I could instantly see that this project could use his structural eye,” Sanders says. “There were also multiple young adult characters to develop, and I knew Dean had been writing some stories with just those sorts of characters. And, of course, I love his drawings. His boards can sell a moment brilliantly, and I knew that there was a lot of drawing to be done.”
Looking forward, DeBlois says, “I do still have a strong desire to try something in live action.”
With a billion-dollar franchise under his belt, maybe now’s the time.