AICN COMICS Q&@: Russ Sheath talks with HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON and LILO & STITCH director Chris Sanders about his plans for San Diego Comic-Con and his amazing new sketchbook!
@’s by Disney/Dreamworks’ animator/director
A move to Dreamworks Animation followed as Sanders wrote and directed THE CROODS and the critically and fan acclaimed feature HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON. Away from movies Chris has been a staple a comic and animation conventions for a number of years and with a new sketchbook out this week, I spoke to Chris about his career and his plans for SDCC.
RUSS SHEATH (RS): Chris, thanks for talking to AICN. For readers who may not be so familiar with your work, can you tell us a little about your career?
CHRIS SANDERS (CS): The matchbook cover overview of my career would start with me making my own comics and super 8 movies as a kid in Colorado. In my senior year at Arvada High School I didn't like the prospects for local art schools.
As I pondered my future, my grandmother read an article in the Denver Post about a school called Cal Arts that was training students to replace the dwindling ranks of animators at Disney Studios. The one and only school I applied to was Cal Arts, and I was lucky enough to be accepted. In the summer of 1983 I got a phone call from Gary Goldman with an offer to work at Bluth. Now, I had several friends that had quit school to work for Bluth, and I already knew a lot about the working conditions, so I told him I'd think about it after I graduated. He asked me where I was currently working and I told him it was Elitch's Amusement Park in Denver. He assumed it was in some capacity as an Art Director and was surprised when I told him I was making hamburgers and cotton candy. He got a little agitated and asked why I wouldn't at least come out and work at the studio for the summer, and I told him I liked making hamburgers and cotton candy. That call didn't end well. I graduated in 1984, but by then Disney hadn't been hiring for a while. I was approached after the Producers show with an offer of a job at Marvel Productions. I worked for 3 1/2 years in the model department for the MUPPET BABIES show.
When Marvel was acquired by New Line, layoffs began. Days after I was let go, I was amazed to receive a call from GARFIELD’s Jim Davis and invited to come see the facilities of Paws, Inc. They flew me to Muncie, Indiana to tour the facilities, and offer me a job. As a side note, my luggage was lost and didn't arrive in Muncie till I was boarding the plane to return to LA. In one of the most difficult decisions I ever made, I turned down the job while having no prospects back in LA. I worked for a short time at TMS, a company that was in Studio City, and even though I was there for a summer, I still have no idea what they did. That was when my roommate told me that Disney had one single opening in the development department. I worked harder on that portfolio submission than in any other time in my life. It was good enough that I was asked to come in for an interview. I got the job, and found out later that they wanted someone else but I was less expensive.
I was at Disney for 20 years. I was in the story crew for THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER, BEAUTY & THE BEAST, ALADDIN, and THE LION KING. I was head of story on MULAN, and was granted a writing credit by the studio. I had earned the chance to pitch a movie of my own, which is where LILO & STITCH came from. LILO & STITCH is an original story based on a children's book I tried to write seventeen years earlier. The bulk of my time at Disney, even though I was later writing and directing, was spent in story. After LILO & STITCH I began development on AMERICAN DOG, another original story. We weren't in production yet when I was replaced as director, as the studio wanted to take the story in a different direction.
Unsure of whether I would be directing there again any time soon, I made the truly difficult decision to leave the studio in search of another movie. Jeffrey Katzenberg contacted me, and I went to DreamWorks where I began directing THE CROODS. One year into development I was asked to move onto HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, as they were replacing the directors on that feature because they wanted to take the movie in a different direction. It was a curious turn of events, and I agreed. I called Dean DeBlois, who was between things at the time and though we had been told we could only re-do about 2/3 of the movie in the small window of time before release, we ultimately re-write the entire thing, as well as redesigned the lead dragon, Toothless. I was back on CROODS before DRAGON released, and a year or so after that, here I am, working on CROODS 2.
RS: It sounds like the day job keeps you plenty busy. What attending shows like SDCC mean to you?
CS: San Diego Comic Con is the one week every year I can, in a sense, go back in time. For that week I'm surrounded by people who put a premium on comics, and drawing. Drawings are commerce - I can acquire things by trade! For that week I get in touch with the part of me that dreamed of drawing comics when I grew up. The part of me that was using Blackwing pencils and computer paper my father liberated from his office supply room to create my first original characters and stories. In San Diego I can focus on ideas, penciling, and inking. The stuff no computer can do. I can see original comics from my childhood, see how they were drawn. And I have the chance to meet or reconnect with artists who I admire. It's a week of inspiration. I always return home energized.
Animation is a perpetually unfinished business. Storyboards are in flux till the last minute, animation and layout come into focus slowly, scenes lit one by one as the production comes to a close, music and mixing come at the very very end. Your movie really isn't finished till the very last weeks before release. So it becomes desperately important to me to finish something once in a while.
My drawings can be nonsense, as long as I take them from sketch to a finished ink. Girls, animals, monsters, vehicles. Combinations of all four. Drawing is something I need to do a lot of as it doesn't come naturally to me, and I need to keep my hand in, or it can take days do get back up to speed. I have heaps of sketches that, when I have a free evening, I will ink. Once in a while I get one that I think might be worthy of some color. But you can add to that other projects that are slightly more long-term. Things I'm writing and drawing that have their own stories and characters that I finish in stages. This fall will see several of those complete. I also am still writing KISKALOO, and now that some of those other things are closing out, I'll try and start drawing and inking that again. KISKALOO is one of those things I'm strangely proud of every time I finish one.
RS: What can fans expect to find at your booth this year?
CS: It's been a very busy year, and I must credit Jessica Steele for taking the lead in creating our new products this year. I'm fairly obsessed with Hawaiian souvenirs from the '60s and '70s, and this year we have two original resin statues that have the look and feel of the black lava figurines from those eras. I've been fascinated with these cool folders that you can find for sale in Japanese stores, heavy plastic with bright illustrations that cover their surface. Jess located a manufacturer, and we have our very own for sale this year. I've been using them for a while now and they have the ability to both organize things, and make mundane documents fun.
We have T-shirts for the first time in six years, and chose my Koi Girl illustration as the image on the front. It's splashy and rich, screen printed in the Bay Area. We have the very last of the full sets of sketchbook one through six, and this is that last year we'll be able to say that, so if you want a full set get down to San Diego or send a friend. We have three limited-edition 13x19 fine art prints, and six 11x17 prints of some of the most popular illustrations from the books, which have never ever been offered like this before - seeing them reproduced at that size and in such rich color was thrilling, and I've set several aside for myself!
But the thing we're most proud of is the introduction of our very first plush - a stuffed Ogo from the KISKALOO comic. It's the first thing I've drawn that you could own in stuffed form since Stitch. He's already out there, and the first one is flying to Iceland tomorrow morning! We've decided to have a thing where people can submit pictures of their own Ogos wherever they might have gone! The hashtag is #ogoonthego. We hope to eventually see one on a space station or in a submarine. Or the Playboy Mansion - he'd like that.
RS: Where can fans find you at the show this year?
CS: I'm not committed to any panels yet, but you can find me at our booth, #5534, same location as last year. Be warned, that I and a number of people go looking for it in the 5500 aisle. It isn't there. Oddly, it's against the outside wall, the same wall with the entrance doors. If you walk into the convention center it is behind you, if that makes sense.
RS: A huge thanks to Chris for taking part in this piece and be sure to track him down at the show. Check out Chris Sanders work online and on social media;
Chris's website, Chris's webcomic KISKALOO, Chris’ Facebook page, & Instagram!
Follow Russ Sheath's blog Russwords here and @russellsheath on Twitter.
Proofs, co-edits & common sense provided by Sleazy G
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