This Director Takes Cartoons Seriously

Rise of the Guardians' Peter Ramsey talks about how he stumbled into his dream job.

Director Peter Ramsey; a screenshot from Rise of the Guardians (Paramount Pictures)
Director Peter Ramsey; a screenshot from Rise of the Guardians (Paramount Pictures)

(The Root) — Ever wonder what Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, Sandman and Jack Frost do in their off hours when they’re not spreading joy and merriment? Well, in the beautifully rendered, animated 3-D film Rise of the Guardians, which opens in theaters on Wednesday, all five join forces and become superheroes of sorts in order to keep the Boogeyman from invading the hearts and minds of children everywhere. It’s based on the best-selling book series The Guardians of Childhood, by author and illustrator William Joyce.

This fun and fantastical romp through childhood lore and legend boasts a cast of big-name voiceover talent, including Alec Baldwin, Jude Law and Hugh Jackman. Guardians also marks the directorial film debut of Peter Ramsey, making him the first African American ever to helm a big-budget animated movie. It’s a first, he admits, to which he didn’t give much thought until he shared an article about the movie with his parents.

“It wasn’t until my mom and dad read a little newspaper article about me and saw that line, ‘first African American’,” Ramsey told The Root. “And I looked up, and my dad had a tear in his eye, and I was like, Oh man, I guess this is a big deal.”

Considering Ramsey’s early work as a storyboard artist for major motion pictures — he was an illustrator on A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Adaptation, Fight Club and How the Grinch Stole Christmas — and that he is a self-proclaimed cartoon and comic-book geek, the move to animation would seem a natural progression. Not so, says the Los Angeles native.

“You know, it’s funny. I was totally into live-action [film],” said Ramsey, who also served as a second-unit director on Godzilla, Tank Girl and on the John Singleton films Poetic Justice and Higher Learning. “That was my thing, that’s where my career was, that’s what I was intending on doing.” That is, until he got an offer he couldn’t refuse. Here, Ramsey shares with The Root his enthusiasm for animation, what makes Guardians unique and how he joined the League of Enchanted Adults.

The Root: What were some of your favorite animated films or television shows from childhood?

Peter Ramsey: Oh man, there are so many! One of my earliest memories is of seeing Disney’s Snow White at the drive-in with my mom and dad, in my pajamas. I know the original Pinocchio. I watched all kinds of television [cartoons] from Hanna-Barbera and Looney Tunes to the Japanese type — Gigantor, Speed Racer — and any stop-motion stuff by Ray Harryhausen. I was big into comic books and science fiction. That stuff was my meat and potatoes.

TR: Rise of the Guardians has been described as a departure from the type of animated fare we’ve seen as of late. How so?

PR: It’s part of a trend at DreamWorks that’s actually been going on for the past few years. [Our studio] really became known for the Shrek movies and their irreverent humor. A lot of other studios began to imitate that style and retreading the same territory, with wisecracking characters joking about Twitter and mouthing the latest sayings of the day, like “AWK-ward.”

[Consequently] we started to turn back to a more classic style of storytelling. We wanted to do something that was going to be more timeless and more about the story instead of topical jokes. We also wanted to take the characters seriously and not make them satirical, and take that idea of belief seriously and make our story about that, too.