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)

TR: Those who work in animation seem to belong to an elite League of Enchanted Adults, enjoying an extended childhood and getting paid big bucks for it. How did you gain entrée?

PR: Lots of these guys — Brad Bird and the Pixar guys and most of the guys at DreamWorks — came up through animation, but I kind of stumbled into it. I worked with producer Aron Warner on Tank Girl. Later he ended up producing the Shrek movies, so he called me from DreamWorks and said, “You know what? I’m having a great time doing this. I think you should come check it out, it would be a really good opportunity for you to direct,” which he knew I really wanted to do.

I took him up on his offer and kind of fell in love with the place and the possibilities. And Aron got them excited about me. They were looking for people who could bring a little bit of live-action feel but could also tell a story visually. It positioned me well to rise through the ranks there.

If these big CG films didn’t exist, I don’t think I would be doing anything having to do with animation, simply because I wasn’t trained in animation. I’ve never been an animator. It’s just a lucky fluke for me that the medium has kind of evolved in a way where the skills that someone who’s worked in live action has are now really useful in creating an animated film.

TR: Most people are familiar with a director’s role directing real people in live-action features, but how exactly do you direct for animation?

PR: Directing for animation is multitiered. I direct the actors on the vocal performances. We then take the vocal performances to the animators, whom I direct just as I would an actor giving a physical performance. The same goes for the sound people.

Guardians is almost a hybrid because a lot of it feels more like a live-action film — just the way it’s shot and the way some of the performances are — but at the same time the characters are very animated. There’s a lot of stuff, like the way Jack Frost kind of leaps and bounds around and the expressions of the Easter Bunny and Sand Man that you can only do in animation.

TR: What are some misconceptions that people have about how animated features are made?

PR: People don’t realize how many people it takes to build everything you see on screen. Everything you see has to be created. Then people have to light that. There are dozens and dozens of people who light those sets, so it really is like a big crew of people building everything you see. The only difference in animation is that it extends to the characters, too, because the characters have to be designed and built and lit and all that stuff.

Julia Chance is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based journalist and the author of Sisterfriends: Portraits of Sisterly Love. Follow her on Twitter.

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