Note to would-be directors of animated features: get your composer involved from the start. That was one of the key observations from The Contenders L.A. DreamWorks Animation panel Saturday, that featured filmmaking talent behind and Abominable.
“I try to put get [composer] John [Powell] involved as early as possible, sending him scripts from the earliest drafts,” said Dean DeBlois, director of all three Dragon films including The Hidden World.
“This is our third installment of a trilogy so we have honed a partnership over a 10-year period in which I completely trust John and his instincts and know that he is a great storyteller in his own right,” DeBlois added. “He finds themes that I might not be as aware of as I’m writing on the surface and they play like harmonies to the intention that I try to put on screen.”
Powell underscored the importance of getting a jumpstart on the material.
“The composer often comes on very early on animation,” he stated. “It’s one of the things I like about it. You kind of get to be a filmmaker with everybody else. In fact, I think that’s essential.”
The Dragon franchise has earned $1.7 billion since the first film debuted in 2010. Powell has composed each of the movies’ scores.
“Each film, the main idea was to write each one better than the last and finally write good music,” Powell joked.
Rupert Gregson-Williams composed the music for Abominable, the story of Yi, a girl who discovers a Yeti on her rooftop and undertakes a mission to return him to his home in the Himalayas.
“Rupert was on really early because he needed to write a theme for Yi that she played on the violin,” producer Suzanne Buirgy explained. “The animators, to their credit, wanted to animate that perfectly, so he came on quite early to do that. And he really just knocked it out of the park.”
Powell concurred with that assessment.
“Rupert is very good,” he commented. “It’s very annoying.”
Abominable, a co-production between DreamWorks and Shanghai-based Pearl Studios, has made more than $145 million worldwide and is one of 32 animated features to qualify for Oscar consideration this year, along with How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. Jill Culton directed with Todd Wilderman.
“Jill was the writer-director—first female writer-director on a full-length animated feature from a major studio, so that was quite a coup,” Buirgy noted to applause from the Contenders audience. “And it was her original idea.”
The Hidden World wraps the story of Hiccup, a “ne’er do well” at the start who achieves maturity over the course of the trilogy, and Toothless, the dragon he befriends.
DeBlois addressed one of the key plot developments in the final film.
“I was inspired by the decision of the author’s [Cressida Cowell] decision to explain what happened to dragons and why they aren’t here anymore in her books,” said DeBlois. “Even though the narrative is quite different in the films to the books, that seemed like a very compelling goal. The end would feature the disappearance of the dragons and inevitable separation. That just speaks to a theme I love in films from E.T. to Harold and Maude to Fox and the Hound. It’s just a timeless conceit that you might have two disparate characters coming together for a time and having such a profound impact that even should they separate they will be permanently changed.”