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‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ Director Receives ‘Trailblazer in Animation’ Award

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Welcome to the final stretch of articles in our Best Animated Feature series!

When Dean Deblois pitched to DreamWorks the idea of doing an epic trilogy with the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, he was looking to take some pretty big creative risks. And so far, these risks seem to be paying off.

As predicted, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has been on a steady winning streak during the awards season (which we’ll have coverage on later) and just this last month (or last year depending on how you look at it), Dean got some serious recognition when he received the Whistler Film Festival’s Trailblazer in Animation Award for his contributions to the world of animation!

The ceremony took place in Canada (where Dean originally hails from) and of course honors that top Canadian talents working in the film industry. Variety (of whom Dean also took part in a Contenders Conversation) reported that a big factor in his receiving the award came from having lead the charge in harnessing new computer technology to enhance animation.

On Technology

For those unaware, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the first DreamWorks film to utilize their new in-house Premo/Torch/Apollo software programs. Through the process of simulation algorithms that spawn anything from hair and fur movement to fat jiggle, the programs finally allowed animators the ease of implementing details that were previously thought difficult or impossible to animate. As once described in a behind-the-scenes video explaining the technology, it finally puts the pen back in the animators’ hand.

“It really comes down to just the limits of our imaginations,” DeBlois says. “Now (animators’ work) goes directly from thought to creation without having to wait for those exhausting renders and counter-intuitive tools.”

As the article explains, many of the films key battle scenes that involve hundreds of dragons wouldn’t be possible without Apollo.

“It allowed the artists to work in a very intuitive way,” says DeBlois. Instead of having to work with spreadsheets and graphs, the artists are able to manipulate images in real-time with a stylus and a tablet, a quicker and more dynamic approach. “They are drawing again and their thoughts are being communicated through their hands — it’s such a pleasant and exciting way to work,” he says. That’s a relief for animators, and it allows for bolder choices and experimentation.

And as always, that’s only the beginning. “I don’t think we’ve seen the limit of it yet,” says DeBlois. “It means that anything is possible.” And of course, How to Train Your Dragon 2 won’t be the last film at DreamWorks to use Apollo, as it’s now become part of the larger toolkit for future films and future animators. “It just becomes an expanding toolbox all the time,” he says.

But for all the impressive technology, Deblois did caution that the artistry and magic of animation comes from the artists and not the tools. “You can’t replace talent with computing power.”

Where to Go After Dragons

Now, let’s shift gears and focus on the man himself. Specifically, what will he do after the Dragons saga is finished.

Speaking to Playback (an online Canadian publication), he touches on this (and several other subjects), noting in particular that his post-Dragons career may depend on how the third installment goes.

“I’ve got lots of ideas in the hopper and I even sold a few of them after Lilo and Stitch, but it’s a tricky world,” he notes. “So much depends on momentum, how hot you are, how new you are, where a project is, how ready it is to go, whether not there are actors who are available to commit to it.”

He even states that he’s completely open to returning to his native Canada to work on either an animated or live-action film there.

“I’m certainly aware of the talent that exists up here,” Deblois said of Canada’s animation industry. “I applaud it and I encourage it and anything I can do to help I will because I would love to come and make a movie here sometime.”

Indie animation is of course a different beast altogether, but Deblois points to the success of films like Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea as an example of making modest budgets work.

“It has a simpler style and it’s a much less expensive film made for under $10 million dollars, but it’s also one of the top early contenders for award nominations” he said. “So that’s competing with movies that have budgets of $160 million or $140 million. I think a strong idea and a great execution, and embracing your limitations, is a great way to go. Usually with a less expensive project you can take more risks.”

He continues this line of thought by saying: “I would take one of those smaller budgets…to make a more personal film,” he says of the recent Canadian efforts. “The pressure to perform with a giant budget and a four-quadrant film is certainly stifling and it’s almost overwhelming.”

As noted before, his next film may not even be animated. He cites his 2007 Sigur Ros documentary Heima as one of his favorite projects.

“That was one of the most personally joyful experiences I’ve ever had,” he said. “The only people I had to please were the band.”

However Dean decides to forge his post-Dragons career, his legacy in animation should be pretty secure should the third film land the mark. And if it does, he’ll leave behind an incredible saga that stands as an example of what animation can truly be capable of.

“There is a timeless quality to animation that if those resources and that talent is translated into something that speaks to an audience of all ages and says something original and true, it’s almost an instant classic.”

What do you think? Are you looking forward to any of Dean’s post-Dragons projects?

Edited by: Morgan Stradling

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