This Director Takes Cartoons Seriously

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.

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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