Exclusive: Peter Ramsey Directs ‘Rise of the Guardians’

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Exclusive: Peter Ramsey Directs “Rise of the Guardians”
By Max Evry

November 20, 2012

Dreamworks’ new animated epic “Rise of the Guardians” is one of those million-dollar ideas so obvious you wonder why no one has done it yet: a team-up of Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Sandman, and Jack Frost to stop Fear from destroying all the holidays as we know it.

Not only is it a great idea, but it’s executed with grand aplomb by director Peter Ramsey, who adapts a series of books by children’s author William Joyce. A former storyboard artist on blockbusters like “Men in Black” and “Minority Report,” not to mention a second unit director on several John Singleton pictures, we got the chance to sit down with Ramsey 1-on-1 to discuss giving “Guardians” a real-world feel, working with producer Guillermo del Toro, and his enthusiasm for a sequel.

Peter Ramsey is the 1st African-American filmmaker to helm a big-budget animated feature film.

This is a really handsome and downright filmic movie, which you can’t say for a lot of these CGI ventures.

PETER RAMSEY: Thank you, that’s high praise. We were going for that, though it actually turned out more psychedelic than I thought it would. Filmic is something we were definitely going for.

Didn’t you hire the Coen Brothers’ DP Roger Deakins as an advisor?

RAMSEY: Yeah, Roger Deakins was a creative consultant. Worked with us on quite a bit of it, actually. He had to leave to do “Skyfall” part-way through, but yeah, he’s a god, man, and he’s such a nice guy. I just worship him.

What did he bring to the table in terms of melding with your aesthetic?

RAMSEY: It actually was perfect for me because in addition to just being a fan of his, part of the whole aesthetic of the movie was based on the idea that people actually believed in these characters as real beings. So the approach we took was, “Okay, in that case let’s make them feel as real as possible, their textures, the textures of their worlds. Also the textures of the human worlds, the town where a lot of the action takes place. Let’s see some grime on the streets, let’s light it with practical lights, make it feel like a recognizable place that people actually live in and not something out of a Christmas card or something sugary sweet out of a fantasy. Roger’s meat and potatoes is reality, images with some weight and contrast and density that he brought to it.

Obviously there’s some crazy CG shots, but was there a conscious effort to try to shoot it as if there was a real crew there and not some camera that can do impossible loop-dee-loops?

RAMSEY: Yeah, as much as possible for me. My whole grounding was as a live-action storyboard artist for years and years, so for me the way I think about staging these things is a little more how you would do it in a live-action film. Particularly the more intimate moments and the parts with characters interacting, I really wanted to try to give it a little more weight and grounding. Even in some of the fantastic stuff I didn’t want to go up somebody’s nose or get too highfalutin because the mission was to make these guys believable and relatable in a world we can recognize.

There hasn’t been an all-star holiday team-up movie like this, but there have been animated films similarly built around enabling belief in children like “The Polar Express” and “Arthur Christmas.” What differentiates your movie from the rest of that pack?

RAMSEY: Good question! I think the other thing we had, which came from the William Joyce books, was to say these guys are real and take belief seriously, which is the backbone of our story, but it’s also an epic adventure. It really is like a big superhero movie that has this idea of belief as its engine. Giving it the texture and scope and feel and DRIVE of a really big cinematic superhero epic was something we really wanted to see if we can make work. To me when the movie does work I think of something like “Star Wars” where it’s really fast-paced but there’s enough emotional and thematic undercurrents that you are getting more out of it than just a thrill ride.

It definitely had a mythic quality to it. One thing that was nice NOT to see was, to be frank, the typical Dreamworks “wink-wink” adult jokes and pop culture references.

RAMSEY: It’s interesting because a lot of people say that. Right off the bat my first reaction was this shouldn’t be a parody, this shouldn’t be a satire, we want to make something timeless. No Twitter jokes, nothing that’s gonna date it a few years from now.

“Hey guys, check it out! Santa’s on YouTube!”

RAMSEY: Yeah, exactly that kind of thing. The studio as a whole has been kinda subtly turning away from that. “How to Train Your Dragon” was really inspirational for us because that was really a shift. It’s just one of those things where the studio’s like, “Yeah, we hear you, we know. We’re calming down.” The interesting thing to me is the bad rap Dreamworks gets is actually because of the ripple effect of all these other places imitating them and doing it over and over and over. Everybody knows that’s played out, so let’s try something else.

Earnest is the new snarky.

RAMSEY: (laughs) Right, hopefully it will be.

You worked very hands-on with William Joyce to translate his books to the screen, right?

RAMSEY: Yeah, especially in the early going Bill was really around. By the time I came on he’d already been participating in some development work before I came on, but we were bouncing things off him and getting his feedback. He was giving us his blessing on a lot of things which was great. He really loves the finished movie, by the way. We were showing him artwork, script pages, storyboards. He would be at the screenings and give us his notes. We definitely wanted him to be in the loop on a constant basis and know that we were preserving the nugget of what he was doing.

When you have a producer and creative godfather on the project like Guillermo del Toro it’s so cool. What would you say is his biggest creative footprint on the project?

RAMSEY: Ahh yes! He did a lot of things. His biggest footprint was inspiration. It literally was like being guru and cheerleader and shoulder to cry on. He’s firey. Making one of these takes so long, and one thing that shocked me is for all my talk about live-action, this and that, blah blah blah, man, you get stuck in the weeds thinking really animation-y doing these. They take so long and there’s so many opportunities for people to come in and give notes –”Change this! Change that!”- you can develop what we call “sequenceitis” where you get locked into one particular micro piece of the movie, one little sequence, and having that feel like it has to be a complete entity on its own when in reality it’s gotta sit in there and drive the story forward. Guillermo was great in reminding us, “Hey guys, it’s a movie,” and more than that it’s a movie that’s gotta have this kind of thrust and this kind of dynamic to it. He was always there to kind of remind us not to get too lost in the weeds or to get too far away from something that had a real attack to it.

What do you have lined-up next?

RAMSEY: I dunno, more publicity and hopefully some relaxing after that.

Do you have a dream project percolating in the back of your mind?

RAMSEY: It’s funny, I don’t have a dream animation project I have other things that are out there in the ether and partly on paper. But I would love to do another [“Guardians”], I’ve really fallen in love with these characters and the world. Actually going through it, I feel like I could so much better next time. You learn so much and you start learning how much experience would help you with a lot of things in the process.

At the end of the day what’s the best reason for people to go see “Rise of the Guardians”?

RAMSEY: I think the absolute best reason is you’re gonna get your money’s worth with this movie. There’s a TON of things, really cool stuff to see. I think people will be really surprised. For all of us that worked on the movie, and there were hundreds who worked on it, this was one from the heart. There’s a lot of sincerity at the heart of the fun and the action and all the color of it. It came from a good place.

“Rise of the Guardians” opens everywhere Wednesday November 21st.

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