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Animfx 2014: Dean DeBlois does it again

Last at Animfx in 2010, presenting in the wake of the successful release of How To Train Your Dragon, Dean DeBlois returned to Wellington following the extremely successful sequel, and shared more wisdom.

Dean DeBlois

Dean DeBlois

This time around DeBlois keynote closed out the presentations on the conference day, ahead of the pitches presentations from this year’s crop of PIPI graduates, the Pukeko Pictures-sponsored drinks and the PikPok-sponsored party.

With most of the P words already taken, DeBlois added one more to the mix: Process. He spoke on the writing and development process, both in general terms and with specific references to clips of How To Train Your Dragon 2. The clips focused on what had been lost or changed along the way, some being animatics, all underpinned with DeBlois’ commentary explaining the reason some elements had stayed and some hadn’t.

As he admitted, there were things he’d fought for which had been lost from the completed film. Outside of a studio environment some of those might have been retained. Such is the price of having someone else hold the purse strings although DeBlois most direct acknowledgement of the challenges within such a system was about the marketing department’s choices around the trailer for Dragon 2, which contained spoilers of key plot and character developments. Opening weekend numbers in the US reflected the potential audience’s lack of curiosity following the trailers.

DeBlois acknowledged his own lack of agreement with the choices made around the trailer, saying “The only thing you can hope is that people come and haven’t seen the trailer.”

Diplomatically, he also made plain that he in no way believed the marketing department was trying to sabotage the film. As he reminded, their job was to draw an audience to it.

But all that was digression, a sideshow to the focus of DeBlois’ presentation about story and how to make it work. In his 2010 presentation, DeBlois spoke about stripping back (having arrived on How To Train Your Dragon as a replacement). While he started the sequel with a blank canvas, reduction and distillation remained key elements of his approach.

Asked by DreamWorks to create a sequel, DeBlois pitched back a plan to create a trilogy. The plan was accepted, with Dragon 3 presently slated for a 2017 take off.

Part of the reason DeBlois didn’t want to simply bolt on a sequel was because the original (based on Cressida Cowell’s books) had been conceived as a standalone and, importantly, the hero (Hiccup) had resolved the set of problems facing him.

DeBlois suggested there was a need for growth and expansion to develop the franchise. Naturally, part of that growth centres around serving the audience. Four years on from the original film, much of the original audience has grown to an age where it would no longer find Hiccup an aspirational character. Bumping up his age to 20 in Dragon 2 helped retain that aspect of his character.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2: all grown up

To create the story, even with a familiar set of characters, DeBlois went back to basics. What was Hiccup’s problem, his desire, who or what could assist him to overcome the former and achieve the latter.

Whittling away, DeBlois sought the core essence of the story, quoting one of his former tutors: if it reads as a postage stamp, it’ll read as a billboard.

DeBlois also spoke about the importance of music in storytelling, reuniting with composer John Powell (How To Train Your Dragon and a boatload of other titles, animated and live action). “Music can do so much of the emotional heavy lifting.”

One of the key story elements of Dragon 2 (spoiler alert) was the introduction of Hiccup’s mother into the narrative. Absent, assumed long dead, in the original story, she arrived in part two as an ambivalent force – which was one of the challenges DeBlois struggled with.

“Mothers,” he claimed, “are very sensitive about how mothers are portrayed… And they buy the tickets.”

So, Hiccup’s mother’s character underwent some considerable tweaking after early test screenings. The changes made, to the mother and other elements, paid dividends. Dragon 2 has taken over US$600 million worldwide to become the year’s highest-earning animated title.

DeBlois is now in development with Dragon 3, although he was careful not to reveal any spoilers about that at Animfx.

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