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Animators reach for new heights in Golden Age

The conversation stopped and the phone went dead for five seconds.

Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders were riding in the back seat of a Hollywood limo at the time talking to me about their movie "How to Train Your Dragon." The sudden silence came from the two directors watching, for the first time, a TV ad for their movie that suddenly appeared on the limo's backseat TV screen.

This, of course, is how some directors are treated when they're making the publicity rounds -- especially when they've made an animated 3-D film for the family as compelling and delightful as "How to Train Your Dragon."

They both agree with the contention that, quiet as it's kept, we're living in a Golden Age of Movie Animation.

"There's almost nothing we can't do," says DeBlois, who can be seen in photos via Internet technology to be almost as big and burly and hirsute as the dragon-killing Vikings in his movie.

"But that's true of live-action films as well. In fact, the lines between animation and live action have become so blurred ... There's almost nothing that divides the two now. Look at 'Avatar.' "

"Animation is really coming into its own," agrees his more ascetic-looking partner, Chris Sanders. "The technology becomes more powerful every year. While we were working on this film, Dreamworks was constantly working on new software to give us new tools ... One of the first things that happens when you do one of these things is that the technology guys will sit you down and tell you all the new things they've got available."

At the same time, DeBlois and Sanders wanted their digitally animated adventures to seem real. "And a lot of the feedback we've been getting," says DeBlois, "is that it doesn't feel like a cartoon. It feels like a real movie . . We never went for photo-real, but we did go for reality."

And to that end, they did a rare and remarkable thing: They hired as a consultant the great live-action cinematographer Roger Deakins, known, among other things, for the Coen Brothers' movies, "The Reader," "The Shawshank Redemption" and the visually stunning "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."

Animated films, said DeBlois, "tend to look a little toylike" with everything "lit up everywhere." But that "actually hurts the sense of reality." So Deakins, as visual consultant, gave the film its "rich use of blacks, shadows and very naturalistic textures. These deep, rich blacks have not really been seen before in animation."

At the same time that all that aesthetic attention was being paid to the artistry of the film, the cause of its looniness was being served by having two of the voice actors playing fierce belligerent Vikings have, for thoroughly unexplained reasons, Scottish brogues thicker than plates of haggis.

Gerard Butler was already cast when DeBlois and Sanders came to work on the film. But, said DeBlois, one role remained to be cast. So they hired Scottish comedian and late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson.

"He's charming, funny and has a great sense of humor about things, and he's already a good friend of Gerard Butler," explained DeBlois. So they figured they'd populate their film with "characters who might have a little remnant of whatever land they came from ... (long and very droll pause). That's our story, and we're sticking with it."

The result, in the film, is consistently nuts.

And funny.

Their film fits in with what could easily be seen by those of conservative political persuasion as a constant agenda of modern animated films -- pacifist, pro-tolerance and against discrimination of any sort. It's been a theme of modern animated films from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" on.

"We were just focused on the father/son relationship," says Sanders. "It's interesting to see how all the other themes grew naturally out of of that ... Inherent in the original story is that the ultimate Viking Dad -- the Clint Eastwood of Vikings -- has the Jim Nabors of sons, a guy who's never going to make it as a Viking."

"It was never didactic," says DeBlois. "We didn't set out to do that. But in a sense it does support certain themes of what's going on in the world today. Chris and I are not political people. Ultimately, we want to entertain."

And that, it's almost unanimously agreed, their film does royally.


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