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.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I have some thoughts about holiday shopping. That's my Can I Just Tell You essay and it's in just a few minutes.
But, first, it's the holiday season and along with shopping, that means holiday movies. Today, we're talking about a new film that brings together some of our favorite childhood icons, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Sandman and the Tooth Fairy are all together working to fight off the Boogie Man and they're reaching out to Jack Frost for help. Here's a clip where Jack Frost first meets the Tooth Fairy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RISE OF THE GUARDIANS")
ISLA FISHER: (as Tooth) Hello, Jack. I've heard a lot about you and your teeth.
CHRIS PINE: (as Jack Frost) My what?
FISHER: (as Tooth) Open up. Are they really as white as they say? Yes. Oh, they really do sparkle like freshly fallen snow.
MARTIN: Once again, that was Jack Frost played by actor Chris Pine meeting the Tooth Fairy voiced by Isla Fisher. The film is called "Rise of the Guardians." It's in theaters now. It's directed by Peter Ramsey. He has a long resume in Hollywood that includes work on animated films, such as "Shrek" and "Shark Tale," but directing "Rise of the Guardians" makes Ramsey a trailblazer in another respect. He has become the first African-American director of a big budget CG - or computer-generated - animation film and he is with us now.
Welcome and congratulations on everything.
PETER RAMSEY: Hey, thanks so much, Michel.
MARTIN: I mentioned that you are the first African-American director of a big budget computer-generated film and that is a big deal to a lot of people. There's been a lot of, you know, blog traffic, you know, and articles, you know, hailing this accomplishment, but I do have to ask if that means something to you.
RAMSEY: It definitely does. When I first got the job, I thought about that for a moment, but it was really only a moment. You know, I quickly got wrapped up in just doing the job. 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 have felt if I could have seen me making this movie back when I was a kid. You know what I mean?
MARTIN: How did you get bitten by the movie bug?
RAMSEY: You know, when I was growing up. I grew up in Los Angeles and South Central and, you know, we didn't go to movies too often, but when we did, it was almost like a religious experience for me. I mean, you know, the curtains opening up and the lights in the theater going down and the huge screen. It was one of those things. It almost didn't matter what you saw. It was - I was a movie fan from really early and I think it was the emotion and the scale and the scope of these things that really bit me and I don't know. I think, without knowing it, I started kind of teaching myself how to tell stories visually from my earliest days, you know, just drawing pictures in my mom's magazines when I was a kid and that led me to develop my drawing skills.
MARTIN: Now, you've been part of the creative team for a number of films, live action movies that included computer-generated effects, including "Independence Day," "Men in Black" and "Minority Report." I think that people have an image, whether it's right or wrong, about what directors do on live action films, talking to actors and yelling, cut, which sounds like fun. But what about this experience? What's your primary role in a computer-generated film?
RAMSEY: I tell people it's really a lot like doing live action. It's just that things are broken up into different phases because, you know, in one of these CG films, you're creating everything from the ground up, so you're not standing on one set at any given time with everything lit and everybody dressed and it's not all in one place. You end up doing it element by element.
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, you know, 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.
MARTIN: Are the actors together when they're doing scenes together or do they do their scenes separately?
RAMSEY: Generally, it's separate and, you know, basically, the caliber of actors we have, like - you know, we've got Hugh Jackman, Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin. You know, it's hard to get these guys together anyplace, let alone together for three hours to record sequences. So, really, we end up doing them - recording them one at a time and it's my job to kind of make sure that all their performances mesh together into one scene.
MARTIN: It actually seems, in some ways, more intimate than directing a live action film.
RAMSEY: I think there are some ways that it can be because it really is - you know, they're not worrying about being made up or they're not worrying about wardrobe or, you know, a big entourage hanging around. It's just two people kind of workshopping lines and they get to do it over and over, so there's, you know, not the same kind of pressure that way, but there is the new pressure of them having to live quite a bit more in their imaginations, you know, because they're not on a set and they're not in costume. So it's - and they're just looking at me across from them instead of, you know, the real Isla Fisher official or some gorgeous starlet or something like that.
MARTIN: Well, what was that like? As I mentioned, you do have a deep background. I mean this is your first, you know, where you are the director of record, the big guy. But you are again, working with these heavyweights, like Alec Baldwin and so forth. Was that...
MARTIN: Forgive me for asking, you know, I have to ask, was it ever intimidating?
RAMSEY: Yeah. Sure. The idea of it was much more intimidating than the reality of it. I can't remember any moments that were like real deer in the headlights moments, like, you know, where they're looking at me and going like, you really don't know what you're doing, do you, Peter? That never happened, thank God. And I think...
MARTIN: That was a pretty good Alec Baldwin, by the way.
RAMSEY: Oh, I could tell you stories. He's incred...
MARTIN: Do. Do. Lets. Yeah.
RAMSEY: I have to say, he is one of the funniest, I mean literally every, you know, everybody knows that he's funny. You don't know how funny until you're just sitting across from, you know, across a desk from him and he's just telling you about his day. The guy is the most amazing mimic you've ever heard. I mean, Woody Allen, Robert De Niro. I mean he does them all. And he's got, you know, he's got, but he's full of energy, so he's always checking his schedule and he's doing 10,000 things at once. I've got this benefit over here that I got to do. Oh, hold on. I got this. Wait a minute, I got. So it's the energy that he brings is incredible. And he knows his voice like a fine musical instrument. I'd ask for, I'd, yeah, Alec, you know, can we try one more? And this time maybe just a touch more urgency and then, I-I, I think I - yeah, I think, I'm pretty sure I already gave you that. Yeah. Why don't you take a listen because I, I think I already gave you that. And I'd the kind of - OK. Yeah. You know what? Yeah. Like let's move on. Let's move on.
MARTIN: That was funny.
RAMSEY: And the next...
MARTIN: Yeah. Go ahead. Mm-hmm.
RAMSEY: And the next day we'd come back and I'd listen to it and sure enough, he had nailed it, 'cause he knows his voice that well.
MARTIN: Well, the funny thing about his Santa Claus is that he, Santa Claus is a pretty tough guy. And just to give a little back-story, the film was based on the book series "The Guardians of Childhood" by William Joyce. And I actually have a clip of him talking about Santa Claus.
ALEC BALDWIN: I felt like Santa Claus had been greatly diminished. I mean he's just become this sort of roly-poly, fuddy-duddy old dude and I mean sorry, you can't get toys to every kid on the planet if you're going to be kind of a doof.
MARTIN: So in your version Santa is a kind of a - how would you describe him?
RAMSEY: He's a wild man. And one of the phrases we use, he's kind of a Hells Angel with a heart of gold. There are no limits for him. He can conquer anything, and yet, he's got this generosity and this impish spirit, and this kindness and this, you know, this wisdom that you see in the movie the different sides of him. The back-story of North is that he was a warrior who got to a certain point and changed his ways completely but, of course, was still had that fire inside. He just transferred it to helping children instead of being destructive.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and we are talking about the new animated film "Rise of the Guardians" with director Peter Ramsey.
I want to talk a little bit more about Jack Frost, played by Chris Pine, as we said. He's sort of the, I don't know, the center of gravity of the film.
MARTIN: He's also the pariah, and his issue here is that kids don't really believe in him...
MARTIN: ...which is frustrating for him. And I want to play a short clip from the film where this comes up. It's during a conflict - and there are a number of them - between Jack and the Easter Bunny. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RISE OF THE GUARDIANS")
HUGH JACKMAN: (as Easter Bunny) What's this clown know about bringing joy to children anyway?
PINE: (as Jack Frost) You ever hear of a snow day? I know it's no hard-boiled egg, but kids like what I do.
JACKMAN: (as Easter Bunny) But none of them believe in you, do they?
FISHER: (as Tooth Fairy) Bunny, enough.
PINE: (as Jack Frost) No. The kangaroo is right.
JACKMAN: (as Easter Bunny) The - the what?
MARTIN: That's pretty funny and just a lot more testosterone in this get-together of all these, the Easter Bunny and Santa than...
RAMSEY: Yeah. It's not Beatrix Potter.
MARTIN: No. Then one might have expected, which is what - and one of the reasons that was kind of funny to me is, often we think of kid films as being kind of nicey-nice and these characters, they're kind of macho. And I wonder if that's something that you as a male director brought to this. I'm just wildly speculating. I'm just asking.
MARTIN: What do you think?
RAMSEY: I'm sure I contributed to it. But honestly, again, I have to go back to the source. And it was Bill Joyce who had the notion of recasting these icons as 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. But by looking at them at little bit of a new perspective, the things that they had always represented kind of leapt out at me. I started seeing what they could really represent and what they really bring to the world and why they've endured for all these years. They have some basic qualities that kind of get lost when you just look at them as little plushy toys. To me that was the genius kind of Bill's idea.
MARTIN: This is going to be the impression that a lot of kids have of these characters from now on.
MARTIN: And I just wondered if - did that feel like a big responsibility at any point. How do you think about that?
RAMSEY: It was something we take very seriously. I mean the point of it sort of was to - 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 and is into spring and, you know, 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.
MARTIN: You know, there's a big question that comes up in the film which is, you know, what are you all about? And this is something that Jack has to figure out.
MARTIN: I mean this is one of the reasons that this is part of his journey in the film was figuring out what's he all about and what he's meant to do. Do you...
RAMSEY: What's his center?
MARTIN: What's his center? Do you mind if I ask you that question? Have you figured it out?
RAMSEY: I think it's an ongoing process for me. I think a lot of it is up there on the screen, this idea that your imagination can create magic that can become real in the world. I mean in a lot of ways that's been the story of my life, you know. 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.
MARTIN: I think most people want to be known for what they do, as opposed to what they are.
MARTIN: But there's been this ongoing discussion in the last couple of years about whether minorities have as much as a place in Hollywood, whether they can break as much ground, whether they can have as complete a vision as they would like to have, as other groups have had. I just have to ask and wonder if you feel your success with this film creates any new space? Does it add a chapter to that story?
RAMSEY: Yeah. I hope so. I mean for my part, one of the most important aspects about being a person of color working in Hollywood today is, you know, not only what kind of stories are told about you, but the kind of stories you get to tell. And I hope that this is successful and that it would show that it is a movie that anyone can love, anyone can embrace. It's universal and we can all tell those kinds of stories. You know, so there shouldn't be any barriers to being behind the camera or in the boardroom or anything else like that, you know, if the proof is in the pudding.
You know, 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. So, you know, more than anything else, I would think that that's what me being here is all about.
MARTIN: Peter Ramsey is the director of the new animated feature film "Rise of the Guardians." It's in theaters now, and he was kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver City, California.
Peter Ramsey, congratulations. Happy Holidays to you and thank you so much for joining us.
RAMSEY: Thank you, Michel. It's been a real pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.