The holiday season means parties, shopping and movies. This year brings a new animated feature, Rise of the Guardians, based on William Joyce's series of children's picture books and novels, The Guardians of Childhood. The story follows Santa Claus (voiced by Oscar nominee Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) and the silent Sandman as they unite to fight off the boogeyman, Pitch (Oscar nominee Jude Law). They also get a big hand from Jack Frost (Chris Pine).
Peter Ramsey directed the film. His long Hollywood resume includes work on Shrek and Shark Tale, but Rise of the Guardians makes him the first African-American director of a big-budget computer-generated (CG) animation film.
"It wasn't until my mom and dad read a newspaper article that mentioned that fact — like a few months before we finished — that I understood how much it meant to them. And then it brought it back to me. I stepped away from the work and thought about how I would've felt if I could've seen me making this movie back when I was a kid," he tells Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More.
Ramsey has been on the creative teams of several live-action movies featuring heavy CG effects, such as Independence Day, Men in Black and Minority Report. He says doing animation is a lot like doing live action, but things are broken up into different phases.
For a CG film, he explains, you're not standing on one set with everything lit and actors dressed in costumes.
"It's not all in one place — you end up doing it element by element," he says. "And you know, when it comes to the performances in an animated film, you know, I'm in the recording booth coaching the actors, and giving them their motivations, and putting them in the right head space — all that stuff that you would do in any live-action project. It's just that there's another step, which is me going to the animators and working with them to create the nuances of the physical performance."
The director also explains that actors generally record their parts separately, given the challenge of scheduling everyone together. But in some ways, doing animation can be more intimate than live action, he adds. Actors aren't worrying about makeup, wardrobes or entourages — they're just workshopping lines with the director. What's unique is they have to live more in their imaginations.
And the characters in the film certainly defy imagination. For example, Ramsey describes Santa Claus as a wild man — a Hell's Angel with a heart of gold, a changed warrior who was once destructive but now inspires wonder.
Ramsey says author William Joyce came up with the idea to recast such icons into characters in an adventure saga.
"Rather than stick purely to making, you know, kind of the soft and fluffy and gauzy kind of view of them, what we really wanted to do was kind of take a step to the side, and present them in a totally new way that might be a little shocking to people," Ramsey says.
The film may also help shape the way some kids envision these characters. Ramsey says he took that responsibility seriously.
"The point of it sort of was to wake people up in a way, and say, 'This is a version of these characters for now.' This is a radical new look, but when you watch the movie, you see that by the end, every single character has fulfilled everything you've ever known about those characters when you were a kid. You know, the Easter Bunny still is gentle and loving and delivers Easter eggs in spring and, you know, other wonderful cuddly things. The Tooth Fairy still, you know, leaves a coin under your pillow. She takes your tooth, and there's kind of — in our story — a little more meaning to what the tooth really means. We were really conscious not to betray or to trample on the meaning of these characters."
Rise of the Guardians raises a key question: What is your center? In other words, what are you all about? And what are you meant to do in the world? That's something Jack Frost has to figure out. He anchors the story, and is frustrated by kids not believing in him.
When asked if he's identified his own center, the director says it's an ongoing process, and that imagination has been key to his life story in many ways: "Thinking up things in my head, whether they're images or stories or ambitions, you know — ambitions or hopes that you apply work to, and you apply mental energy to, and you bring them into reality. And I try to pass that on to my kids. And I think that's very near my center, I would say."
When it comes to being a person of color in Hollywood today, Ramsey says what's important is not only the kinds of stories told about you, but the kind of stories you get to tell.
"If you make something that people want to see and that they connect to on a deep level, then that's something that anyone should be able to do, and there shouldn't be any more discussion. You know, more than anything else, I would think that that's what me being here is all about," he says.