Rise of The Guardians is a step forward for Dreamworks Animation in the way How to Train Your Dragon was. Both films tossed away the company’s signature pop culture references, gag-driven narratives, and all their other much-criticized characteristics. Guardians and Dragon have both created their own universes, and in an unexpected way.
Rise of the Guardians director Peter Ramsey – who did storyboards for a few of our favorite movies – takes the world, the stakes, and all the famed holiday characters seriously. There is no place for self-referential jokes in this universe, which is what surprised Ramsey the most.
We spoke to the director himself a few weeks ago, who discussed how story boarding is the best film school around, how he took a live-action approach to the film, and the joy world-building:
The movie takes its mythology seriously. From day one, did you not want a post-modern, ironic take?
Yeah, definitely. When I first heard about the idea I assumed the intention was we’d see Santa with a cell phone or the Easter Bunny on Twitter. When I saw what [author] William Joyce was doing – which is showing you a slightly shocking version of these characters – then, I thought, it was brilliant.
When you’re a kid and you believe in these characters you form an emotional bond with them, because they’re real forces in your life. When you think about the particular things they represent they become, like, these Greek gods and mythical figures. The combination of those things made it the engine of the movie.
Considering your background as a world builder as a storyboard artist, I’m sure you were taken by what Santa represents and his speech about “wonder.”
Oh, yeah. He’s not a just a guy who gives you toys. There’s a reason why he does it, and that informs everything about the character. With the idea of his purpose, we decided to blow him up into this big, crazy character who can do anything, where nothing is impossible for him. He is a wild man who’s dedicated to making you see the wonder, the craziness, and the brilliance of the world. Just that one nugget of the idea was huge.
Based on the films you’ve worked on and this project, have you always been drawn to world-building?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve always been a big comic book fan, like, with the Marvel comics universe. Growing up I was a huge fan of the Star Wars films, and those are big movies about world building. For specific directors, I’d say, Ridley Scott. With very film he touches the details and the logic of design are about creating these realities that immerse you and express the characters. All of those things for me – in one way, shape, or form – consciously or subconsciously were brought to this movie.
You can see your storyboard background in the film, with certain very specific shots. Beyond the visual component, did any element from your storyboarding days have an impact on the film?
Definitely. Basically, it was learning the craft of visual storytelling, with what you draw into a frame, where do you get people to look, and how do you design a scene for a flow and rhythm. I tell people that’s the greatest film school anyone could hope for. I mean, I had the best teachers.
Did your storyboards for animation differ? Do you think less about the limitations of live-action?
You know what? Not really. It’s interesting, because nowadays you can do almost anything you want in live-action. The two are becoming so close to each other. The thing we specifically wanted to do with Guardians was give it some live-action grounding, which sometimes meant restricting what we were going to shoot. Yeah, the camera can whiz all the way over there in a half-second, but why not make it look like it’s on a crane? Maybe that’s going to feel more naturalistic. It’ll feel like it’s really happening. Sometimes you want to take advantage of that for specific moments you want to do another way, but a lot of times you just want to shoot something very naturalistic. Like some of the scenes in the bedroom with Jack and Jamie, I don’t think there’s anything in those scenes you couldn’t have shot live-action, because it’s just an intimate moment between two characters.
So you restricted yourself from being self-indulgent?
Yeah, there was a lot of self-indulgent stuff in there! [Laughs] The end result was always the reality of the moment.
What were those self-indulgent moments that you just wanted to let loose with?
[Laughs] Ah, let’s see…I think the scene where the Sandman battles the nightmares is big action. When Jack is down in Pitch’s layer and there’s all the shadow play, I love that stuff. I have to say, what I was really looking forward to on the movie is where all the Guardians are interacting, giving a very bouncy back-and-forth. I really love it when you see Jack going up to the North Pole, and you get pieces of all the characters.
That shadow play sequence is a good example of not pandering towards kids, that it’s okay if they get a little scared. Do you just trust that kids can handle those types of scenes?
I think it’s partially that. It is the idea that, “You know what kids? These characters are real. You believe in them, and we do too.” We wanted to tell the story from that perspective, which means you also have to say, “Yeah, you’re scared of things. There is fear in the world.” The whole point of the movie is that fear is real, but there’s forces on the other side that are going to protect you from that fear. For the Guardians to make any sense, you have to have a real representation of that darkness and fear. If otherwise, they don’t really have any stature as heroes and characters.
Where is that line, though, where you can take the darker aspects too far?
It’s funny, because early on the buzz for the movie was that it’s going to be dark version of Santa and the Easter Bunny! That stuff is always, like, “Come on, why do you guys have to pick on Santa and these guys?” If you want to be dark and edgy, go watch a Scorsese movie. Go see something that’s actually dark and edgy. Why twist it into that? There is darkness in the movie, but, like I said, thematically, it’s important for the characters.
We didn’t want to make a satire, parody, or be edgy for the momentary sake. I thought that would’ve been another way of laughing at the characters, like, “Oh, look, they’re badasses now! That’s so cool!” It’s a movie for kids to go see and enjoy. The thing is, a lot of the same guys who think that way believed in Santa and those characters as kids. I think there’s enough of that stuff in the movie where a wide range of people can enjoy it.
I know you have to go soon, but, I have to say, you worked on one of my favorite movies which I think is really underrated: Spielberg’s A.I.
Oh, yeah? You know, I didn’t work on this particular sequence for that movie, but when the mother leaves the boy in the woods…God, that is horrifying.
[Laughs] It’s a tough scene. Critics always say that movie has a happy ending, but it’s very dark.
Yeah. I’ve heard a lot of people crap on the whole notion he prays for 25,000 years, but I thought that was a great idea. He can do it, since he’s a robot! [Laughs]
[Laughs] That and Minority Report are really well-realized worlds. When you did storyboards for those pictures and similar movies, how often would you pay attention to the background details?
You’re kind of limited, both time wise and in terms of the shots, in where the attention can be. It’s really whatever is relevant for the shot at hand, and that’s what you have to communicate. If there are background elements that can really help you there, you work with them.
Are there any little Easter eggs people should definitely keep an eye out for in Guardians?
Oh, yeah, there’s plenty. In the scenes where there are lots of characters at one time, instead of just looking at where the focus is or who’s speaking, take a look around at how the other characters are reacting. I think there’s brilliant, brilliant moments of animation where it’s simply characters reacting to the other characters, and the Tooth Fairy definitely has a lot of those.
Rise of the Guardians opens in theaters on November 21st.