TORONTO — For animated filmmaker Dean DeBlois, the long road to Oscar glory involved the realization early on that he wasn’t all that great at drawing.
As a kid growing up in Aylmer, Que., the comic book fan dreamed of landing a job at Marvel or DC. The idea of moving to Hollywood to write and direct big-budget animated films, and possibly even being nominated for an Oscar — as he is now for his 3-D hit How To Train Your Dragon — was non-existent.
“It didn’t enter my mind, to be honest,” DeBlois says in a recent interview from his Dreamworks office in Glendale, Calif., where he’s writing a second draft of the Dragon sequel.
“Hollywood just didn’t seem like a reality in even my most romanticized thoughts.”
DeBlois’ first jobs included an animation gig for an Ottawa studio, which helped put him through Sheridan College’s animation program in Oakville, Ont., but also marked the beginning of the end of his drawing career.
“I quickly saw that the other animators around me were far better than I was,” admits DeBlois, who co-wrote and co-directed How To Train Your Dragon, 2002’s Lilo & Stitch and was co-head writer on 1998’s Mulan.
“It’s a long process of becoming an apprentice before you get to animate so I moved into doing set design and then eventually doing storyboards, which was much closer to my original goal of being a comic book artist, anyway.”
When he graduated from Sheridan, director Don Bluth hired DeBlois for a big animation project in Dublin. DeBlois spent his nights teaching himself to storyboard by dissecting favourite films.
“I would just stay late in the conference room and stop-frame a lot of these movies,” says DeBlois, whose Sheridan classmates included Bolt co-director Chris Williams.
“And I would break it down and pause right before every cut. I would draw the last frame before the cut and the first frame after the cut, just to kind of understand the choices that were made and how that factored into the pacing, composition and everything.”
Films by movie giants Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Ridley Scott were his favourites.
“Blade Runner was one that I picked apart front-to-back and I just drew so many frames from that, sequences from that film, just trying to understand how the choices of going from a wide to suddenly a really tight abstract shot and back to face and to a hand and really trying to understand how it all came together.”
DeBlois landed at Dreamworks as a story board artist, and worked his way into writing and directing.
These days, he says he’s continually surprised by how well-received his coming-of-age Viking tale has been.
How To Train Your Dragon is loosely based on the Cressida Cowell book series about a gangly teen who befriends an injured dragon, with Montreal’s Jay Baruchel providing the voice for the awkward hero.
Come Oscar night, Dragon will face off against the Pixar juggernaut Toy Story 3 and the quiet French film, The Illusionist, for the title of best animated film.
In speculating on his chances, DeBlois describes the blockbuster Toy Story 3 as a “daunting” rival while noting that his sweeping adventure saga marks a tonal departure from previous Dreamworks fare such as the Shrek series and Megamind.
“It’s not joke-a-minute and it’s not based on anything that’s too contemporary, too pop culture,” he says.
“I think that people see Dragon as a welcome change of direction, or at least a branching out at Dreamworks and so some people want to reward that.”
DeBlois says he already feels like he’s won a prize by getting the green light to write and direct the next Dragon instalment, and possibly a third.
“I have to kind of plan for a third so that this sequel doesn’t feel like just a random adventure with the same five or six characters, as you often see in animation,” says DeBlois, whose Dreamworks colleagues include Canadian Gabe Hordos, who designed the friendly dragon, Toothless.
“For me to be interested and engaged, I told them that I have to think about this in a larger context.”