Dec. 7: DreamWorks Animation

Join us for an evening with the creative talent behind DreamWorks Animation “How to Train Your Dragon.” Director / writer Dean DeBlois, producer Bonnie Arnold and development executive Chris Kuser will share their experiences in the development and production of this twice Academy Award(r) nominated 3D animated feature that has grossed approximately $500 million worldwide. The team is currently producing “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” set for release a 2014 release. The panel session will be moderated by Professor Jed Dannenbaum. Seating is very limited, so arrive early.


Bonnie Arnold, Producer

Bonnie Arnold is currently producing How to Train Your Dragon 2, the sequel to the Academy Award®-nominated original film from 2010, of which she also produced. An accomplished filmmaker in nearly every genre, she also a produced the Sony Pictures Classics release The Last Station, which garnered two Oscar® nominations as well as award nominations from the Screen Actors Guild; the Golden Globes; and the Independent Spirit Awards, including a nomination for Best Picture. In addition she produced the 2006 DreamWorks Animation release Over the Hedge, the Disney blockbuster Tarzan and the history-making film Toy Story, which combined have earned more than $1 billion in worldwide box office revenue.

Arnold’s previous production credits include a list of titles, among them the Oscar®-winning epic Western Dances with Wolves and the hit comedy The Addams Family. Arnold’s interest in journalism led to her first entertainment industry assignment as the unit publicist for American Playhouse’s debut production, King of America. Following that, she worked with several independent filmmakers via the American Film Institute and the Atlanta Independent Film and Video Festival. Her work in promoting independent films influenced her decision to pursue a career as a producer. Arnold is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as well as the Producers Guild of America.

Dean DeBlois, Director / Writer

Canadian-born Dean DeBlois is a film director, screenwriter and animator who is equally at home in the worlds of live-action and feature animation filmmaking. Although already an accomplished animator and writer at the time “How to Train Your Dragon” became a worldwide hit, DeBlois is well known for co-writing and co-directing Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Lilo & Stitch.” He later stepped behind the live-action camera to direct the indie critical darling “Heima,” which documents alternative/postrock band Sigur Rós’ series of free, unannounced concerts performed in their home country of Iceland. He also previously served as head of story on the Disney hit “Mulan.”

DeBlois once again collaborated with Chris Sanders (co-writer/co-director of “Lilo & Stitch”), to write and direct the 3D animated fantasy adventure comedy “How to Train Your Dragon” for DreamWorks Animation. He is currently in pre-production on the sequel to “How to Train Your Dragon;” he will write and direct the film. Dean is also set to write, produce and direct the live-action comedy “The Banshee and Finn Magee.” In addition, he has several live-action projects in development at Universal Studios and The Walt Disney Studio, on which he is serving as writer, director and producer.

DeBlois started his career at Hinton Animation Studios and worked as animator on the television series “The Raccoons.” He then joined Don Bluth’s, Sullivan Bluth Studios in Ireland and worked on the animated features “Thumbelina” and “A Troll in Central Park.”

Chris Kuser, Senior Development Executive

Chris Kuser is a Senior Development Executive at DreamWorks Animation. In January 2000 Chris began his career at DWA as an intern in the development department. He was promoted to Executive in January 2001. Movies he helped develop at DWA include: Shark Tale, Flushed Away, Kung Fu Panda, Monsters vs. Aliens, How to Train Your Dragon, Megamind, The Croods, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman. Chris earned an MFA in film producing at the American Film Institute in 2001. Prior to that, he was the Managing Director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, and an Executive Project Manager at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Chris earned an MA in dramatic literature and criticism at Catholic University of America in 1994 and a BA in history at Fordham University in 1990. He is a former member of the acting company at Hedgerow Theater – a super-crunchy theater commune (true story!) – in Rose Valley, PA. Now he, his wife Mary, and their two children, Anna (8) and Teddy (5) live in Studio City.


27 comments on “Dec. 7: DreamWorks Animation

  1. Jay Kim says:

    First of all, even as a lover of PIXAR’s Toy Story franchise and all (well, almost all) of their other films, I just want to say that “How to Train Your Dragon” should have won the Oscar last year for the very same reasons that PIXAR has deservingly been bestowed the honor in years past. As Chris, Bonnie, and Dean explained tonight during the seminar there were countless trials and tribulations the HTTYD team had to overcome in order to create a deep and meaningful story. The team took risks (Hiccup’s leg), made bold decisions (varying dragon scale and adding Astrid), and they came up with a fun, fantastical world but still maintained enough heart (father/son) to tie it to audiences of all ages. For me, HTTYD was a film that stung me with an all-around joy that I had not felt in many years.

    As mentioned during the seminar tonight, I was one of the people who saw HTTYD late after hearing about it word of mouth and thus I was unable to see the movie in stereoscopic. I am now very excited about the sequel and I will make sure to see it in theaters when it premieres. Thanks DreamWorks, keep up the good work!

  2. Einar Baldvin Arnason says:

    Getting us, as students, familiar with the process of creating animated features is as important as it is inspiring and Dreamwork’s presentation was a particularly good one.

    I found it fascinating to hear of their process and how filmmaking is approached within Dreamworks. Seeing the videos of the creative process as well as hearing it explained live was eye-opening and informative I found the points on the adaptation of novels for the screen of particular interest and agreed with most of what they said, too often it seems that adaptations simply go through the motions of bringing the source material to the screen resulting in something that often seems more like a trailer for the novel than a film in its own right. Interpretation, I think, is better than adaptation.

    As a final note, Mr. DeBlois’ brief explanation of his career I found of extreme importance. He mentioned that he started as an animator but moved into writing when he discovered that he was able to improve the writing being passed around the studio. To me this illustrates what is great about the studios, namely that within them, each person is allowed to shine at what is proven, through experience, to be their greatest talent. It serves as an important reminder never to settle for one thing, to constantly evolve your talent, even if this mean making the leap to another profession.

  3. Lisa Chung says:

    Of all the seminars we had lined up for this semester, last night was the one I was looking forward to the most. It had been a REALLY long time that I’ve seen an animation that I can say I loved. So when I finally watched “How to Train your Dragon,” it took me by surprised. I remember when it was released, I had no interest in watching it. I just cast it aside, assuming it was going to be nothing special and if it was on Netflix I’ll give it a look. However, after hearing so many positive reviews, I had to see if it was REALLY that good….and it was.

    Listening to Dean, Bonnie and Chris talk about the process only made me appreciate the movie even more. They only had 14 months to work on it yet they took the time to rebuild a completely different and better story. I am so glad that they did. I am a big believer in a good solid story. Amazing visuals can only keep the audience’s attention for so long but a well-done story and crappy drawings can go a really long way. In the rare case such as “How to Train your Dragon,” where it had superb writing AND visuals, you can leave your audience inspired and in awe for days or even weeks. Most of the clips we watched and what was discussed in lecture was about the story. It just shows the amount of time it takes to craft something really special.

    Thanks DreamWorks Team for sharing all the Behind the Scene goodies☺

  4. Ryan Gillis says:

    Like Lisa and Jay, I was taken by surprise when I watched How to Train Your Dragon. It was a solid movie. They were dealing with a lot of sugary-sweet content that could have easily been saccharine and cringe-worthy, but the movie was sincere.
    Finding out that the directors did a complete revamp of the story 14 months before the movie was released was a shock. Dean was extremely relatable and candid with all his responses. Every panel member was. But I found Dean’s insight to be particularly significant for our department’s interests.
    The behind the scenes footage was awesome to see. I still imagine that there is some strange process I can’t comprehend that goes into making movies at that scale, so the demystification of that process was important to me.
    Great seminar.

  5. Louis Morton says:

    I feel very fortunate to have seen such an in depth behind the scenes look at the creation of a feature. In some ways the story writer’s job seems like every child’s dream, getting to sit around and construct an imaginary world and characters. In other ways it seems incredibly stressful, involving the same aspects as any other job, with meetings and stressful deadlines. The footage that the guests chose to share provided a very insightful look into this process that I had never seen before. Behind the magic of the movie are a group of brilliant people hashing out ideas together. This collaborative nature seems more akin to something that would happen at a design studio that what I think of as the singular vision of the writer/director of live action movies. It’s very inspiring to see people work in such a collaborative way. I especially enjoyed Mr DeBlois’ statement that they wanted this to be remembered as a good movie, not just a good animated movie. With this kept in mind, I can’t wait to see the next great installment in the Dragon series!

  6. Rachel Jaffe says:

    Whether tracing the respective arcs of their converging careers or relating shared studio anecdotes, Dean DeBlois, Bonnie Arnold, and Chris Kuser gave a truly fascinating presentation on how, precisely, they managed to restructure an entire film in a scant fourteen months — without sacrificing any of its cross-demographic narrative wallop (or visual appeal). Showcasing behind-the-scenes clips (which in turn brimmed with character designs, storyline revisions, and endless labyrinths of papered-over redrafts), their co-presentation was so densely crammed with information that — like many of my classmates — I couldn’t help simply marvel at the redoubtable enormity of their collaborative efforts. As someone who’s mired in the bleak depths of her thesis, seeing a studio team tackle a project with seemingly indefatigable enthusiasm can definitely help bolster one’s own quasi-flagging optimism — thank you, Dean, Bonnie, and Chris, for your amazingly enjoyable presentation last night!

  7. Tristan Dyer says:

    Okay, truth time, I haven’t seen “How to Train Your Dragon.” It’s on my list. Especially as someone who enjoys 3D this is a shameful statement to make. Despite this I still very much enjoyed seminar this week, particularly the behind the scenes insight on the story changes. A point that I really admire about the film and DreamWorks was that they said to hell with animation conventions and wrote into the story that a main character suffered a consequence to violence, which I feel is an important lesson for all the kiddies to learn. I also enjoyed the candor of the DreamWorks team share with us the trials and tribulations of reworking major story points when the film was in full on production. Kudos to transparency.

  8. chaoqi zhang says:

    It’s quite a great seminar that we have the talents behind “How to Train Your Dragon” to share the creative process how they made it for the final week.

    DeBlois, Bonnie and Chris are really strong combination for Dreamworks to made this awesome movie which makes the audience addicted into it so much. when the first time I see it in the cinema the inspiring story and amazing character design Impressed me.

    And through them speech and the videos of the creative process, I found the solid story means a lot to a solid animation. And I pretty apreciate the way they adaptate and interpret the story on thier own way for the film,and mostly I enjoyed the their active creative status.

  9. Simo Liu says:

    I really enjoyed the final seminar of this semester. We were so lucky to have the chance to talk with Bonnie Arnold, Dean Deblois and Chris Kuser from DreamWorks. Actually, I haven’t watched “How to Train Your Dragon” before. But I was really appreciated what they said on that day and now I am so exciting and want to see it! I cannot imagine that they only had 14 months to work on it and rebuild a better story. It’s really amazing. The footage that the guests chose to share provided a very insightful look into this process which I had never seen before. And I also admire that they said to hell with animation conventions and wrote into the story that a main character suffered a consequence to violence, which I think is really an important point. Thank you for Dean, Bonnie and Chris who give us a really good presentation on this final seminar.

  10. Linda Jules says:

    It was a great honor to have the Dreamworks team come in to talk to us. I hate to admit it, but I haven’t had a chance to watch How to Train Your Dragon. But after the amazing discussion on the film I am definitely looking forward to seeing it. I was really happy that the first two speakers (sorry, I don’t remember all of their names) went into detail about the process of creating a film based on a book that already exists. I have always wondered if studios simply steal the idea from the original author or if they seek out proper authorization before going forward with the filmmaking. The Dreamworks team made it really clear that they really went to great lengths to ensure the story writer was involved in the early process of adapting the book.

    I especially enjoyed the fact that Dreamworks chose to adapt this particular story for no other reason than the people surrounding the decision to make the film simply loved the book! I think it shows in their excitement and passion over making the film. I am looking forward to seeing this feature soon.

  11. Lanzhu Jian says:

    It is amazing to sit in the same room with the producer and director of How to train your dragon and communicate about the ideal for the creative process. The short speech around 2 hours make me realize how important the story means for a world-wide and well known animation. Most importantly the spirit also inspire people to fight on and to give thoughts about their life, especially young people nowadays. I admire the director, he had an honestly and sincere heart when he is about to tell this story. I often thinking the question “ How to balance the line in animation between too adult or too naïve ?” He give me the answer satisfied my curious, which is, I always just want to tell the story in my heart, of course the other thoughts are very important too, but I’d always listen to my heart.” I know this answer maybe sounds a little cheesy to many people. But I think it is the simple truth for me when I getting too distracted or influence by people around . Stick with your heart and do the story you want to tell.
    Of course from the seminar I also learned there are touching story always about people’s journey. What we have be gone through with and the trouble we ‘ve conquered. What we gained from these journeys and what we have learned. How this things make us and how this things will inspire the other people. Under this central idea, We can tell the love between families, the friendship, the courage to grow or the fear of failure. All these eternal emotions exist in human beings. Fragile and beautiful.
    They also give us lots of hint in making process. Everything changed in character have to he;p with the story telling. Everything have a reason. To me, That also helped me to clear my mind and get closer and more simple to what I want from lots of vague visual temptation.

  12. Joseph Yeh says:

    From today’s great guests I see now why story is King! From the beginning where Chris discusses finding and pitching a story all the way to where Dean begins developing one- great films revolve around the process of creating the perfect story. I find it so interesting to hear about Dean’s concept of the evolving beast. It seems so simple to make a story simple, but I’ve come to find that its definitely not the case. The idea of bringing the father-son story “down to the base” without tripping on the details was eye-opening. How wonderful it is to see artists thinking with like minds aiming for a singular vision!

  13. Miguel Jiron says:

    I loved this kind of seminar where we are privileged to glimpse into the working process of a major animated film. It’s endlessly fascinating to see how an in house studio tackles these stories, constantly trying to make things better and by doing so taking risks. This aspect in particular is what I love about major animation studios; their ability to keep hammering away on story and characters for years (or, say, 14 months!) is a huge asset. I especially liked hearing Dean’s account of moving into writing from animating, saying he could simply write better and improve the material. Like Einar mentioned above, this sense of mobility and teamwork is wonderful in animation studios, and I think a big reason why animation is as exciting as ever. Great seminar!

  14. I have been lucky enough to hear many people from various aspects of the production of “How to Train Your Dragon” speak. The thing I find most interesting about what I have heard them say in the past, is the narrative of the production of the film. It is a wonderful and remarkable film. It doesn’t seem as if it would have such an interesting back story. I am not familiar with the books on which the film is based but I had no idea, until hearing various people discuss it, that they were so dissimilar.

    This seminar specifically had a unique point of view from other occasions I have attended lectures by those involved with the film. This is the first time I have had the opportunity to hear what a development executive had to say about this project. To be honest, this may have been the first time I have had the opportunity to hear a development executive speak in public. Chris’s take on the production was of interest, simply because of the long path from concept to creation the film took.

    I have had the opportunity to hear Chris and Dean speak in past about how they got involved in the production. I appreciate the insight that Dean offered during this seminar and I always find it interesting to build a story with assets that largely have already been built ahead of time. Not that it was any worse because of that, it is just a different approach than is usually taken to large commercial animation. The film did not suffer because of that restriction, quite the opposite. It seemed to let Dean and Chris rebuild the story from the ground up and really focus their time and energy making story decisions.

    Bonnie offered interesting insight as well. I have not heard her speak in the past, but I have heard many producers, few of whom are as credentialed as her though. Again, her insight into the story of the production itself was what I found most exciting. Her wealth of experience and defense of the film seem to be partly, at least, responsible for shaping the film into what it became.

    Overall, it was an enjoyable final seminar. The insight into the production of “How to Train Your Dragon” from people at the top of the team was enlightening and appreciated.

  15. This past seminar was just great. I knew some of the details surrounding the film before hand, including the last minute involvement of Chris Sanders and Dean, but it was a thrill to see how the two of them worked on the story and the and ideas from scratch to really make everything mesh and coalesce into a final product. It was great hearing Chris Kuser talk about how he found and pitch the the story, and how his connections with people made that whole process go a lot smoother. never knew that Dreamworks had deliberately avoided youth protagonists in the past and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it articulated before that it’s been an issue in animated features. I’m looking forward to the next installment in the series and I’m excited to see Dean take the franchise further in the direction that he really wants to. The fact that he feel free to do so hopefully means that the public will get see more things that they haven’t seen before in animation. Hopefully they’ll have something available to screen before I graduate. I would love to participate in anyway.

  16. This was a wonderful seminar!

    It was interesting to see and hear the filmmaker’s speak about the inception of the story for “How to Train Your Dragon.” What I found particularly striking was the way they gave the story a chance to find itself. It was through collective brainstorming, spending time with the characters, and simplifying and amplifying their main message that they were able to get to the heart of it. I found this inspiring as a testament to the filmmaker’s process, and also as an encouraging landmark that speaks to how we (as filmmakers) should be patient with ourselves when we have to be in the creative brainstorming part of our projects. It was exciting to hear about how such a nice piece was created with the story as a process of discovery.

    It was also inspiring to hear about how the team tried to make certain silent moments to convey emotion and meaning rather than portraying these elements through language. As animators, we have an amplified ability to manipulate our environments and characters, so we have opportunities to work as poets who take time to show things through action and visual language rather than words.

    In my notes, I also wrote, “need to be flexible enough to let creativity flow in unbridled.” I’m not sure who owns that quote, but just another wonderful inspiration from that evening.

    Thanks for coming!

  17. Robert Calcagno says:

    How To Train Your Dragon is, in my opinion, Dreamworks’ strongest film to date. It not only has their cinematic sensibilities at its fullest, the best visuals, the most interesting character designs, and outstanding musical score, but the effectiveness of the father/son relationship and the friendship of Toothless and Hiccup. So it was great hearing how the natural state of the story depicted the emotional pace and range of the visuals and the cinematography.

    What was confirmed by the guests was that the project was approached very differently from past Dreamworks films: very cinematically grounded, emotion dictating story and story dictating emotion, the fleshed-out supporting characters and a thought-out method to who these characters were. The idea of dragons-as-pests and how that’s shown through story, plot, AND character design shows a team that understood exactly what it was trying to go for.

    It’s almost a shame that the marketing is what made it open to average numbers. It tried to advertise itself like any other dragon-centric live-action film rather than a film that was just as effective in what WASN’T said as much as what WAS said.

    Two of the my favorite scenes were ones where hardly any dialogue was spoken: the one where Hiccup and Toothless draw one another and the test drive sequence where the two almost fall to their death before relying on their own ambition and heart to save their lives. No dialogue, no snappy remarks; just a raw, sweet-natured, genuine moment of emotion.

  18. Javier Barboza says:

    I wish I saw How to train your Dragon, everyone always recommends it, but now that the ending got spoiled…. I’m still going to watch the film of course. I was shocked to when I heard the Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders jump into the film half way thought the film, very tough. But there past work reflects so strong and the dynamic they both have for the behind the scenes footage shows their dedication to story and the medium of animation

  19. Cecilia De Jesus says:

    It was such a great opportunity to hear three of the great minds behind How to Train Your Dragon. How to Train Your Dragon is an amazing movie with wonderful heart and humor that draws the admiration of many. So getting to see and hear behind-the-scenes stories of how it was developed was a real honor.

    It was very interesting to hear about the process that went into creating the film. From the absolute beginning in the development department to discussing the difficult decision about how to end the movie, it was a fascinating discussion. I thought it was really pleasant to see how these creators hashed out ideas and bounced them off one another. The collaboration by everyone involved was really refreshing. I know Dreamworks was recently voted one the best places to work and one of the main reasons stated was that everyone had a voice and their opinion and creativity was treated with attention and respect. This was greatly demonstrated by what we viewed.

    Thanks to everyone involved in this wonderful seminar! Hope to see more seminars like this in the future!

  20. Meng Chia Chung says:

    it was such a great seminar to have DreamWork people here in USC to talk us. I wish I saw How to train your Dragon before. Because it seems really interesting just saw part of movie in the class. I like the end of the story. When the boy wakes up he find out he just lose one leg, and his friend “dragon” was right next to him helping him to stand up. when they get out the door they can see many kids and dragon have a great time together because of him. Although I hate to know the end before I watch the movie; however, I think it is a great ending. It is not 100% happy ending, but it gives us lots of message to think about it. I will go watch this movie for sure.

  21. Di Gu says:

    In China, Kongfu Panda, probably, is the most popular Dream Work’s film. But for me, I prefer “How to train the dragon.” This film’s different part is that in some ways the Hollywood’s animation seems like just for child’s dream. The process and ending always seem similar. The footage that the Dream Work chose to share provided a very fresh look into this process that I had never seen before. Especially the ending, not just a complete happy ending, the boy lost one leg. The group want to transfer an idea to audiences, which is even though sometimes you lost something, but it’s worthy, because you will get more. Don’t scare sacrificing.

  22. For our final seminar, the DADA animation department invited some of the creative talent from one of DreamWorks Animation best films, How to Train Your Dragon. The presentation included Dean DeBlois, Bonnie Arnold and Chris Kuser, who each shared their involvement in the production. Professor Jed Dannenbaum moderated the event, playing behind the scenes footage touching on the different creative meetings which determined the story and design of the film.

  23. Dan Wilson says:

    I like that the DreamWorks presentation focused so much on story development. It’s fun to hear about animation from animators and art people, but story is so crucial to features. When everyone seemed to be looking to Pixar for the best feature animation, in the early days of CG films, the focus was on the medium. Studios wanted to do CG because that’s the look that would bring in audiences. How to Train Your Dragon makes a strong case for actually requiring the medium to tell its story. When story is treated as our guests have treated it, it makes CG worthwhile rather than a gimmick full of half-hearted sequels.

  24. Andrew Malek says:

    The DreamWorks’ presentation on the making of “How To Train Your Dragon,” was really fascinating. Its a great opportunity to see how a film is made from the very beginning to the end, particularly a very successful one. It was interesting to see how focused the main plot had to be in order for the movie to work. I also appreciated how this film had a more serious tone than a lot of other DreamWorks productions, what with the main character losing a limb at the end. Another interesting fact was Roger Deakins’ influence and how the film a had traditional approach to cinematography, which I think is great.
    How To Train your Dragon is an example of a film where everything seems to be done right and it was privilege to see what those things are.

  25. Yang Liu says:

    This is an amazing talk by dreamworks. I was very inspired by the process of making “how to train your dragon”. Especially I learned a lot about producing a film in hollywood. The interesting about this film is that the original idea comes from a children book, but the depth of this film does not seem so simple. I enjoyed the story when i was in the theatre seeing this film, and I was very moved by the relationship between the son and father. And surprisingly, Jeffrey Katzenberg is the guy who insists with the idea. recently dreamworks has been producing some very high quality animations with very serious attitude and meanings, and I think the direction they are going is really worthy. i m impressed by how much information they shared with us and I would like to see the sequals.

  26. Larry Lai says:

    The story of the movie is the key to attract the audience’s attention. Form Dreamwork’s discussion about developing story, I think there should be a motif that can go through the whole story. The writer uses this motif as a guideline to link every event in the story, thus making the plot reasonable. During story brainstorming, we also have to take the character design or the personality into consideration. Story is essential to the movie, for it can decide whether the movie is box-office or not.

  27. Eric Tortora Pato says:

    I thought that last weeks seminar was a great send off. and one of the best panels we’ve had in a while. It’s particularly unique to get such a panel, with some of the key players from optioning, dev, and production all lined up in what was quite literally a nice clean row. I really enjoyed Dean’s answer to my chicken and the egg question of which came first in the well woven pattern of the mechanically minded Hiccup, the jet like and physically augmented Toothless, the general mechanical nature of the Vikings, and Hiccup’s own replacement limb. Also, it reminded me of the important precedent for maimed but upbeat children in children’s animation, which is something I’ve got to keep in mind as I get hot towards my thesis which stars a girl who, by the end of the film, has only one (prosthetic) arm. It’s a tough sell, I’ll tell you that.

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