Very few people play with dragons for a living. Consider Chris Sanders one of the lucky.
Sanders directed (along with frequent collaborator Dean DeBlois) DreamWorks' new 3-D animated feature, How to Train Your Dragon, which boasts scores of scaly, fire-breathing critters. He was heavily involved with designing many of them—including the film's real star, Toothless.
Sanders is no stranger to worlds filled with childlike wonder and fantasy, of course. When the future professional animator was attending the California Institute of the Arts, he spent summers working at an amusement park. After he graduated, he hooked up with Disney, diving in to the fantasy-laden realms the Mouse House is so well known for and working on such classic fare as Beauty and the Beast, Mulan and Lilo & Stitch.
In person, Sanders is much as you'd hope: genial, jovial and still enamored with his craft. I had a chance to sit down with him and talk about Vikings, dragons, the art of animation and how Disney once made him loose his lunch.
Paul Asay: For a lot of people, it really sounds like you've been living a dream life: working at an amusement park, working in animation, it sounds like your whole adult life has sort of been …
Chris Sanders: Avoiding growing up?
Asay: Well, yeah, maybe. So what got you keyed in to animation? Was that something you had dreamed of from the very beginning?
Sanders: I always loved animation. And I loved Disney to the point where, when I was finally able to travel to Disney with my family for vacation and we checked in to a motel … you could see the Matterhorn sticking up in the distance and when I saw it I threw up. I was so excited, I couldn't believe it was really going to happen. So, I've always loved animation and I've always loved to draw. And I was always encouraged. My parents always encouraged me to draw, write and to do all these things.
Asay: Right now, it feels like we're in another golden age of animation. There's so much really well-done stuff out there. Why do you think that is? Is it partly because of technology, because there are so many different ways to create an animated films these days? CG and 3-D and stop-motion and all that?
Sanders: It is. It is. It's such a technology-based creature.
Asay: Has it always been?
Sanders: Yeah. It really has. In the case of CG, in particular, it's technology based. As the programs have matured and become more complex and become easier to use, you can get more out of them. And it frees you up to get down to the business of telling the story without you having to worry too much about how it's going to be accomplished. But no matter if it's a live-action film or an animated film, there's always limitations of time and technology and you can't always do everything.
Somebody said this best to me, they said, 'We can do anything, but we can't do everything.' That just made so much sense for me. So you make choices at the beginning of a film about what you need and they'll accommodate it. So, yeah, I think it's the maturing of the technology and the maturing of the crews and the studios that work with it because there has been a gigantic learning curve just how best to tell a story in CG and how to work the camera.
In this particular film one of the things I love to talk about is the lighting. Because we feel (we being Dean, my co-director and I) that CG films run notoriously over-lit and they look cartoonish because of it. It's an artistic choice but with this, we really wanted something special.
There's this scene between Hiccup [the boy who captures the dragon] and his father. Its only lit by two candles and we have a little tiny bit of bounce that lights up the foreground of the faces. But the real triumph of that scene is what's not lit. It's having the confidence to let things slip away into blackness. So you build these sets and you don't light them entirely and that's pretty new actually. So it's one of those things about this film that I truly think has opened up a new avenue.
Asay: That was a nice scene, too. You could feel the tension between the father and the son. And it's so universal to so many families. The son just wants to really please his dad and the dad really wants to embrace his son, but there's just a little bit of a disconnect.
Sanders: There's still that zone, that no-man's-land that still exists between them. And the dad comes in thinking that some bridge has been built [when he thinks Hiccup is turning into a dragon killer, just like him]. I love that scene. That scene was actually written by Dean.
Asay: I think that's the beauty of good writing, when you're able to deal with an issue that everyone knows and understands—but you're able to do it in a way that feels very real, very natural and doesn't beat you over the head. It's interesting to me, too, that in a lot of your movies you deal with characters that seem fearsome at first, but just need a little love and understanding: the Beast, Stitch and now, obviously, Toothless. Is there something about that theme that draws you?
Sanders: Hardly anybody is pure evil or pure good. It's been something, ever since Beauty and the Beast, that I've been fascinated by, because in that story, the bad guy isn't the bad guy.
With Lilo & Stitch, it's funny because there are a lot of things you can talk about in the film, but predominantly the reason why I pitched the film is because I wanted a "villain" to be the hero of the film. I felt like, Why couldn't the villain be the hero? So there's really no villain there. And I like that.
Asay: But How to Train Your Dragon does have a true villain. That mama dragon is pretty awful. …
Sanders: You know, you're right. In that case, we just needed something that was absolutely overwhelming. … [We wanted] the littlest thing in the Vikings' world to defeat the biggest thing in the dragons' world. The movie's about discovering your strengths and appreciating strengths in others. Here's a world where Hiccup grew up being convinced that he was never going to be a great Viking because he's so tiny and scrawny. The one thing that matters in their world is strength, but they have a very narrow interpretation of what strength is. I think the heartwarming thing about this story is that everyone is forced to broaden their view of what strength really is.
Asay: One of the things that really resonated with me about this film—one of the reasons why I probably liked it as much as I did—was that Toothless reminds me of my dog. You had so many delightful moments with that creature. Were you trying to make the dragon feel so pet-like?
Sanders: You know, actually it's true. We came to the film pretty late, and it had been predominantly cast and thoroughly designed. But we knew we had to change one of the dragons. Toothless is a creation of Dean and I. We wanted him to be less reptilian and more mammalian. So that was a very deliberate thing that you picked up on. He's very cat-like. He's very dog-like. He has elements of being a horse sometimes. So, yes, it was deliberate.
Read Plugged In's review of How to Train Your Dragon.