Peter Ramsey talks Rise of the Guardians

This holiday season, Dreamworks is releasing a movie I will now be watching every Christmas. Rise of the Guardians follows Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Sandman, and Jack Frost as they battle against the Boogeyman, known as Pitch, who wants to rid the world of these Guardians and spread fear in children across the globe.

In this film, Santa Claus is known as North, a Russian Cossack with tattoos voiced by Alec Baldwin. Isla Fisher voices the half-human, half-hummingbird Tooth Fairy, Hugh Jackman voices the very Australian Easter Bunny, Chris Pine voices Jack Frost, and Jude Law voices Pitch. These voices and the re-imagination of beloved childhood heroes make this film one you can enjoy watching with your kids, nieces or nephews, or kids you babysit.

Dreamworks has brought us some pretty fun animated features like Shrek, Madagascar, and Despicable Me, and Rise of the Guardians is a great addition to their résumé. Peter Ramsey makes his directorial debut with this film after working as a storyboard artist for several other films including Godzilla, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Shark Tale. He spoke with me about his journey from storyboard artist to director as well as what it was like finding the right voices for this new take on classic characters.

AG: Congratulations on your directorial debut! What has the transition from storyboard artist to director been like?
PR: Oh, thank you. I got to work with a lot of great directors on a lot of great movies, but I always had ambitions to be a director myself. For me, being a story board artist was kind of my film school. So for me, it was always leading up to the moment when I would be able to actually work on a project like this as a director. It was one of those dreams that comes true.

AG: I understand how a live-action film director works, but can you explain to me how you go about directing an animated film like this?
PR: Sure. I usually tell people that it’s very similar to what a live-action director does, but because we build everything in an animated film from the ground up – the backgrounds, the characters, everything – including the performances, the job gets split up into a few different parts. When you’re directing a character animation, first you have to direct the actors who are doing the voice performances. You have to direct them like they were any other actor. It’s just that they’re not on a set, and they don’t have other actors to work with. You have to paint a little more of the picture for them, because it’s just you and them in a recording booth. After you’ve directed the actors’ voices, then you have to direct the animators that are actually going to move the characters and give them expressions, rhythm, and all those sorts of things. I have to work with them as well to get the physical part of the performance done. So it’s the same thing live-action directors do, just split up into different parts.

Director Peter Ramsey

AG: Going back to those character voices, I thought each one of these voices was perfect for the characters.
PR: Oh, thanks so much.
AG: Yeah, it was great. How did you go about picking these voices, and what was it like working with them?
PR: You know, we had spent a lot of time trying to get the personalities of the characters down, and as we were doing that, we started thinking, “What kind of actors kind of match these personas? Who would I believe as each one of these characters?” What we would end up doing is we would make lists, pick our absolute favorites, and we would take pieces of dialogue that they had done in other movies and play them against images of the characters. Sometimes we had animation tests, and we would play some Alec Baldwin dialogue or some Isla Fischer dialogue along with the image to see how they felt. When they felt really right, we knew we were on to something. Luckily, our first choices were pretty much the people we ended up with in the movie, so that was great.

AG: These characters are just so re-imagined. Like, I never would have dreamed the Tooth Fairy was part Hummingbird, that the Easter Bunny was so manly, or that Santa was Russian, and in most Christmas films I’ve seen, Jack Frost is the bad guy. So which of these characters was your favorite to re-create?
PR: Oh, wow. It’s funny, because people always ask me who my favorite is. I think they all just have such great things about them, and I’m proud of the fact that they all have really good moments in the movie. I think Jack’s story, with the emotion of it, we really wanted a character that was going to take the audience through the story and give them somebody to root for and have an emotional connection to. I think his story about not being seen and being isolated and having to be believed in is kind of something everybody can relate to. Any time you get some territory like that to explore in a story, you’re really lucky. So we felt that we had a good character for our Jack Frost to be like, “Hey, wait a minute. You’ve seen him in other places, but this is the real guy, and he’s got a real story.”

AG: These characters are also a little darker and edgier, so how did you get to that point, where you keep the kids interested without scaring them too much?
PR: Right. I don’t know that the characters themselves are any darker or edgier. I think what we did was say, “They have a real mission in the world, and their mission is to fight against fear.” The fear and the darkness that we show is a real thing in kids’ lives. Kids do get afraid. I think they connect with it a little more, or hopefully they will, because we’re not pretending that stuff doesn’t exist. They know every day that there are things they are scared of, and I think for them to know that there’s somebody out there looking out for them and on their side, and it’s not just anyone – it’s Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy – who are helping them is pretty cool.

The Sandman fighting Pitch’s nightmares

AG: Another aspect of the film that I loved were these Guardians’ headquarters. How were these places chosen and designed? They’re so accessible. Not like when I was young. I thought… I don’t even know what I thought, I just knew they weren’t here on Earth.
PR: That was a big thing we wanted to do, was say, “All these guys, they are right here in the world with us, and they do all their work. We just don’t see them, because we’re asleep.” They do everything at night, and they actually live right here on Earth. If you somehow are lucky enough, you can stumble upon where they live. So it was all part of this idea that if we’re saying they are really real, let’s make it as real as we can and say they’re here. That was one of the really fun things about the movie, the design of the North Pole and the Tooth Fairy’s world that we put a lot of work into, and even Pitch’s lair under the ground. We really worked hard to say, “What can we say with each one of these locations about these characters? How can we make it so that, the Tooth Fairy’s palace, only she would live there?” North would never build a place like that for himself, but for the Tooth Fairy flying around with all of her little mini-fairies, that works perfectly for her.  That was kind of the other element of it.

AG: I understand these books are a series, and only five out of 13 have been released, I believe.
PR: I think that’s right.
AG: So are there any plans for a sequel?
PR: (laughs) Well, we’re going to have to see how much people like it! That’s the only reason sequels ever get made, for whether or not people want more. After the movie comes out, if people want more, hopefully we’ll be able to give it to them.

AG: What is your favorite Christmas film, memory, or tradition?
PR: Oh, wow. Let’s see. My favorite Christmas film is probably… Oh, man, that’s a hard one. I really loved, when I was growing up, Miracle on 34th Street, which is also Santa Claus in a really real world. I always loved that movie, and It’s a Wonderful Life. I still love that movie today. I like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I’ll always love that one. Oh, and I have to mention Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s not a movie, but it’s not Christmas without A Charlie Brown Christmas.

AG: Do you have any last words for the readers here in Houston about yourself or about the film? Anything I haven’t touched on?
PR: Just that I’m really proud of [this film.] I had a wonderful time making it. It was my first movie as a director, and I couldn’t have asked for more of a dream experience with the people I’ve gotten to work with. The really amazing thing, to me, about it is that everyone who worked on the movie – and there were hundreds of people – everyone felt like they were working on something special and gave it their all. It really does come straight from the heart. If your readers should know anything, they should know that we really made this movie for them to love and enjoy, and it just comes straight from the heart.

AG: Well, thank you so much for your time, and congratulations on your directorial debut. I loved it; it’s a great film.
PR: Thanks so much. It means a lot to hear that. I really appreciate it.



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