Sanders is one of the more interesting figures in modern animation. After working his way up as a story artist and designer at Walt Disney Feature Animation on things like “Mulan,” he co-wrote and directed “Lilo & Stitch” for the studio, a kind of under-the-radar project that few higher-ups at the company even knew was being produced. (It was animated entirely at the now defunct Florida animation studio, using such offbeat stylistic flourishes as hand-painted watercolor backgrounds.) The movie was, at the time, one of Disney’s few animated hits and was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. It also spawned a cottage industry of spin-offs and sequels. Sanders was hard at work on his second feature for Disney, a computer-animated road comedy called “American Dog,” when Disney absorbed Pixar, and John Lasseter -- who notoriously hated “Lilo & Stitch” for what he considered its reckless abandon of Pixar’s story-first mandate -- effectively became head of the creative side of the company.
Lasseter promptly fired Sanders (and his “Lilo & Stitch” co-director Dean DeBlois) and handed his beautifully esoteric “American Dog” (whose characters included a giant radioactive rabbit and an eye-patch-wearing cat named Ogo) off to Chris Williams, a Disney writer who turned the project into the far more anonymous “Bolt,” a movie that, while entertaining, certainly lacked the distinctiveness of Sanders’ version. Sanders and DeBlois have been at DreamWorks Animation ever since, co-writing and directing the phenomenally popular “How to Train Your Dragon.”
Chris: You know… It’s a very common thing in Hollywood. Because I had the opposite experience at DreamWorks (and I’ll explain that in one second)… I was working on a movie there called “American Dog” and it had the normal amount of problems, I think, that those movies have. And we were working out those problems. I take fifty percent of the responsibility for that thing. But at the same time I think it wasn’t exactly Pixar’s cup of tea – that sort of story. So they didn’t want to go forward with that particular version of the movie. And as you know they made their version of the movie and the one that they made was the one that they were much more comfortable with.
I think that was when I realized that I wasn’t necessarily going to be able to make the type of movies that I wanted to make there, which is why I decided to move on. So interestingly I came to DreamWorks and suddenly I was on the other side of the coin. I came over to work on “The Croods” but I was asked to take over the directing and writing responsibilities on “How to Train Your Dragon” because they were changing directions on that. I left a project they wanted to change directions with and came over to DreamWorks to work on a project where they wanted to change directions. I must say, I love DreamWorks. I like their openness to different directions. One of the things we’ve found at DreamWorks that’s a strength is that they don’t really have a “house style” per se, and if you’ve seen a lot of DreamWorks movies, you’ve seen that they’re very different from one another. And that’s really neat. Because if you’re working on an existing project or are pitching a new project, you have a great deal of latitude to set the course.
They have proven to be very, very good to you once they’ve decided that, yes, we’re going to go in that direction and actually keeping you on course. That happened on “How to Train Your Dragon” a few times where [DreamWorks Animation head] Jeffrey [Katzenberg] caught us being a little bit timid and he would point that out to us.
Chris: This is when I’ll hand it to Kirk. He knows all the stuff about this…
Kirk: I actually started this with John Cleese in 2004. We had written a film for Disney that was an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book “The Twits.” Aardman and DreamWorks invited us over to take a look at some of their ideas and one of them was this idea about a technologically advanced nomad kind of guy who teams up with some primitive bruiser Luddite. It was kind of a “Midnight Run” angle. They lived in a village and left the village and went on an adventure and when they came back obviously they had come to some bond and understanding.
We developed that and worked on it with Peter [Lord, one of the top Aardman guys and most recently director of last year’s “The Pirates: A Band of Misfits”] and we were very happy with the direction it was going. But I would say it was a very stop-motion film, in terms of scope and the things you can’t do. There are scenes in our film that you just can’t do [with stop-motion]. So when Chris came on, the one thing we looked at was that we liked the basic theme, which was the fear of change, and that there was this guy (in Grug) who has an incredible of sense of fear because he lives in a world that’s very dangerous. But it was kind of intellectual, like talking about change and how change affects our lives, and it worked on an intellectual level but the emotional stuff wasn’t coming through. We wanted to make his relationship with his daughter be front and center. We didn’t want it to be' Grug has this relationship with his daughter that he doesn’t understand, goes off on an adventure, and comes back and understands his daughter.' We wanted them to go on the journey together and be forced to watch her grow and ultimately change himself. That’s why we decided to take that family road trip model. That’s kind of the biggest change.
And then the change, of course, when we’re conceiving a CG film, the visual development is different, the vistas became much more interesting. It had more scope. We were going to make a movie with more scope and that’s the biggest change. It’s a different medium. The theme is there but we tailored the story to the type of film we were making.
Were the creatures always these kind of fantastical designs or was there ever talk of actual dinosaurs and things?
Chris: We definitely wanted to avoid the dinosaur era. Even though we’re playing pretty fast and loose with the details, we wanted to give the impression that this was post-dinosaur land. So we opted to custom build all the creatures because we wanted the audience to be on the same journey as the Croods were on, meaning that, when the Croods encounter animals and go into new environments, they’re not sure if things are good, if things are bad, if things are dangerous – and we play the animals a little bit vaguely when they first encounter them. We give the audience and the Croods just enough time to wonder what’s going to happen next. That’s why everything was custom made.