Before an animated character comes to life on screen, it first must be designed and sculpted by creature designers. There are now college programs allowing students to specialize in Creature & Character Design. Canadian-born Dean DeBlois discusses what goes into creating each character for his Oscar-nominated films like Disney’s Lilo & Stitch (2002) and DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon trilogy (2010, 2014, 2019).

Mediaplanet: What is the best part about your job?

Dean DeBlois: I get to tell stories for a living and be a part of a team of artists who deliver those stories worldwide. I work with some of the most talented people on the planet. Collectively, we aim to thrill, move, and inspire audiences everywhere. The movies I loved as a kid made me want to make movies as an adult. So the best part of my job is getting to continue that cycle, hopefully inspiring younger generations of filmmakers to come.

MP: Can you explain the process that goes into creating a creature?

DD: We begin by sketching all sorts of creatures, letting our imaginations run wild. Then we narrow down the features and design elements that we like most, compiling them into one creature that best serves its purpose in the story. Next, we sculpt the creature using modeling software like ZBrush. We then surface the creature — giving it texture, surface detail, and colour. The three-dimensional model is then able to move along to the rigging stage, giving it bones, articulated joints, muscle, and fat that will move in rhythm with the animation. Once all of these steps are complete, the creature is ready to animate.

MP: What skills and attributes are required to be a successful creature designer and concept artist?

DD: A keen sense of observation is perhaps the most important skill for any animator. The subtleties of movement, the nuances of expression, and the physicality of emotional responses make up the stuff of great animation. Being able to draw well is fantastic, but not always necessary, depending on the medium. More important is the ability to breathe believable life into an inanimate object. That comes from years of studying people, animals, and the world in movement around them.