Exclusive Clip & Interview: Rise of the Guardians Director Peter Ramsey
November 20, 2012
With twenty-four feature films under their belt, DreamWorks Animation long ago got over the hump of being a studio where everyone presumes to know exactly what to expect from them. 2010's How to Train Your Dragon played a large part in that transition, being their second movie based on a preexisting children's novel after their hugely-successful Shrek franchise. Those previous forays into childrens' books worked so well that Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to give it another go, picking up the rights to adapt William Joyce's series of novels "The Guardians of Children" into the movie that would become Rise of the Guardians.
To learn more about that process, you can read our interviews with Joyce and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire here, but helming the film and making his feature film directorial debut is Peter Ramsey, whose resumé as a storyboard artist before coming to DreamWorks Animation, is nothing short of astounding. Just to give you a taste, Ramsey was part of the art team of David Fincher's Fight Club, Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away and Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich. ComingSoon.net spoke to him about his transition to animation and the challenges of making the movie last week.
But first, with the movie's release tomorrow, DreamWorks Animation and Paramount have provided ComingSoon.net with an exclusive clip from the movie featuring Jack Frost, voiced by Chris Pine, showing off his powers to a young boy named Jamie and voiced by Dakota Goyo (Real Steel), who will play a large part in the Guardians' latest adventure. You can watch that clip below:
And as promised, here's our interview with director Peter Ramsey.
ComingSoon.net: I was at the Bryant Park presentation so I know a little bit about how this came together, but one thing I don't know is how you got involved. I know you have a background as a storyboard artist, so I'm curious how you transitioned into animation.
Peter Ramsey: Oh, yeah. I had a storyboarding career, hopscotching over a bunch of films and I had also directed some 2nd Unit on a few films. One of the films I boarded and did 2nd unit on was a movie called "Tank Girl" back in the mid-‘90s, and the guy who produced that was a guy named Aron Warner, and Aron subsequently went onto DreamWorks to produce the "Shrek" movies. While he was doing the first one, he called me and said, "Hey, now I'm starting this new thing, it's animation over at DreamWorks" and he tried to get me to come on over, but at that time I was strictly live action and I was like, "Eh, I don't know. I think I'll stick to this." Of course after the "Shrek" films became gigantic and animation had started undergoing this mini-Renaissance, and he called me around the time that the third one came out, several years later. By that time I was kind of burnt out on live action boarding and the other thing about Aron was that he knew me as a director from my 2nd Unit work on "Tank Girl" so he said, "You know, if you're still interested, animation is a fantastic place to do actually pure filmmaking." He was really enthralled with the possibilities, so I thought I'd go over and check it out. I did a little work on the third Shrek film, basically getting my feet wet and learning animation story art vs. live action, and that bug kind of bit me, too, because it's really story intensive, it's immersive, and the studio is actually a great place to work, so from there, kind of under Aron's wing, I started climbing the ladder and I was basically on the director track over there, kind of learning the ropes of the studio and learning how you make a movie there. I became Head of Story on "Monsters vs. Aliens," directed a little TV short based on that feature and coming off of that, "Rise of the Guardians" was kind of in the air. It was in development for a little while with the studio and they were just about to mount a new version, and they had just taken on David Lindsay-Abaire as the new writer and they asked me if I was interested, thought I was ready, so the stars just kind of lined up.
CS: I spoke to Guillermo on Friday and he said he was going through a similar training period as a producer so that he can direct an animated movie there himself. It's funny to see someone who has directed so many movies having to go through a training period.
Ramsey: I know. It's interesting because the place is mainly based on an old school animation production structure. It's almost a little like an assembly line and to learn how those different departments interlock and interweave and how that whole model is also changing with these 3D films, it's pretty interesting and you really have to kind of know it before you get into one of these. I feel like going through the experience of making "Guardians" that I finally feel like, "Okay, I finally know how to work the machine."
CS: One of the recurring themes of my interviews last week was about how animation is becoming more cinematic, and this is a really good example of that, because you have Alexandre Desplat doing the music and Roger Deakins consulting on the cinematography. I was curious how you added to that as a director who comes from a live action background.
Ramsey: It was part of my hope for the movie coming onto it was that we'd be able to give it a little bit of feel… partially coming out of the theme, this idea of belief and saying that these characters are real so let's make really real, not photo-real obviously, and we didn't want to go into the uncanny valley with any of the characters or anything like that, but with a real stab at a kind of storybook realism. You could feel like the world was really your world and had some little grit and some texture and that the characters felt and looked real enough to convey emotion and to really have some weight to them. That was a big part of it for me and I think just in terms of staging and blocking and the composition of the frames and all sorts of things like that, the camera style as well. As much as possible, we tried to make it pretty close to live action and I think the movie's really animated and there's some crazy stuff that goes on, but I think it's a little bit of a hybrid. It's a different look and a different feel.
CS: When you come out of the movie it's really easy to forget that you watched an animated movie about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and I think I mentioned at Bryant Park that it didn't feel like the typical DreamWorks Animation movie. You really feel like Jack Frost is a real person, not a cartoon character, I guess.
Ramsey: Yeah, that was definitely the aim and as part of that, it was once again that whole idea that "Hey, kids actually believe in these guys" and most adults in the audience at one point did, too, so how do you open them up or get them to accept these versions of the characters and we just thought if we just try to make them as real as we good, make their personalities as specific as they could and extend that to the visuals as well. If they're really real and right there in front of you, it will remind you of your uncle or somebody else you know that's tangible, then maybe that's a way to funnel off some of those memories on you.
CS: DreamWorks has always done each of the voices separately, so was that the case here or were you able to get some of the actors together in the studio to interact?
Ramsey: Same thing here and it's purely a function of the actors' schedules. You can imagine with this cast, it's just impossible to get everybody together all at one time consistently, let alone every once in a while. Our production really stretched out over the course of two-and-a-half years, three years, so we got multiple visits per year for each actor, so to get them all together is just impossible unfortunately. I would love to have had a situation where we could have done some of those big ensemble scenes like a big play to see if we could get even more spontaneity and life out of it, but I think it worked out pretty well.
CS: Sure, it really feels like there's chemistry between North and the Easter Bunny, and I can't even imagine how hard it must be to get the actors to react and interact, it has to involve a lot of…
Ramsey: Directin'… yeah, it's getting them in the right emotional context and the right rhythm in the recording booth and then it's year literally the difference of frames in editorial, trying to cut things as close as we could to match the rhythms of an actual conversation.
CS: What about working with Alexandre and Roger Deakins, people who do come from a live action world, getting them to do what they do so well but pulling them into the animated world.
Ramsey: It's a dream. Those guys, they're like my idols, my heroes. I'm just fans of theirs, so when it actually became certain that I would be able to work with them I was just completely blown away. Both of them are very respectful of me as a director and I had a great give and take with both of them and they're both really taken by the project and the way we wanted to approach it, so it was a thing where they really felt the spirit of it. Roger, you think of him as some sort of realist cinematographer, and we were really nervous. He had worked on "Dragon" but that had a really grounded look and we had so many crazy fantasy elements but he really got into all that stuff. He really wanted to have fun and stretch and so did Alexandre. He was a huge surprise in that I knew he had done this whimsical, gentle stuff with the Wes Anderson school and his other stuff is so minimal and beautiful, but he jumped into this with both feet. He's a huge fan of movie scores, of great film composers like John Williams and he really wanted to indulge that side of himself.
CS: That was a nice connection I found between Alexandre and William Joyce is that they both have been big movie fans their entire life. One of the things I discussed with them was the great divide between live action and animation. Do you think we're any closer to people taking animation as seriously as live action? I feel like we're getting there.
Ramsey: I think we're definitely getting there. Our film, it's so much about the world of children but a lot of people wonder, "When are we going to see a real PG-13 or R adult-oriented animation?" and I guess it's probably right at the doorstep. I feel as a medium, these things are being taken as seriously and get as much critical scrutiny as live-action movies already. Pixar, their best films, and the best DreamWorks films, they're really cinematic works, and they're high profile as anything else, if not moreso. I think we're practically there. I think there's a ways to go in getting some of the stuff even more sophisticated and not necessarily making them "adult" quote-unquote, but getting a little more sophisticated, a little more advanced, a little more nuanced. I think if that starts to happen, that will be the real breakthrough.
CS: Well, PG doesn't have to be just for kids, it just means less swears, nudity and violence.
Ramsey: Yeah, exactly. I guess I'm thinking tone, because if you look at things like Miyazaki, even something like "Akira" - that would be a great example of a kind of tone that you could probably achieve and have large scale commercial success. The ironic thing is that these days, you start wondering, "Well, if you're going to do a movie like that, why not just do it live action?" Because you can to that now.
CS: One of the things I like about "Rise of the Guardians" is that it has a done-in-one feel being a story with a beginning, middle and end, but there must be pressure to branch it out into a franchise because these are characters who could get together and do different things. Do you have to cast that stuff aside while making the movie?
Ramsey: Yeah, sort of. You go in and you know that's always the hope. Bill Joyce has written a series of books and there's tons and tons of mythology and backstory to draw from and just the concept of saying that this is a universe where mythological and folklore characters are real, that opens the door for just about anybody to come on in and be in one of these. I had enough fun with the characters in this movie that I'd love to see them in something else, some other situation if we can come up with a good one. It's not something we designed this one with an eye towards necessarily and I definitely did not want it to feel like the pilot episode of a TV show or at the end you're practically setting up the next episode, so I kind of like that it has a bit of an all-in-one feeling and the stakes were high, but I think there's a lot more that you can do.
CS: Since you've already developed the characters, it would probably take less time to make another movie. So are you generally going to stay doing animation now? Is that your plan for the time being?
Ramsey: Well, I'm kind of in love with it right now. I definitely would love - if there's something else that is going to happen with these characters, I'd really want to be involved with that. I had a lot of fun and I love the people I'm working with, that would be great, but yeah, I definitely have the live action itch. That was most of my career and always my intention so at some point, I would love to try my hand at that.
Rise of the Guardians opens nationwide on Wednesday, November 21. You can also read interviews with creator William Joyce and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire here.