It takes a leap of faith to believe in something you can’t prove. As kids we place so much stock in larger than life characters like Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny and The Tooth Fairy, with our self esteem and perception of the world hanging in the balance. But as we get older that faith is compromised by various realities–jobs, education, responsibility. Dreams of all kinds get deferred. But thanks to people like Director Peter Ramsey, kids of all ages will soon relive what it’s like to believe in the impossible.
Ramsey is a self-taught illustrator from the city of South Central Los Angeles who has risen through the ranks of Hollywood to direct his first feature film about what else? Holding on to these impossible notions. In “Rise Of The Guardians,” an adaption of children’s books by William Joyce, childhood heroes like The Sandman, The Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy and Jack Frost banned together to take on The Bogeyman. The kicker? Santa is a sword wielding Cossack with tattoos, competing with The Easter Bunny, who is an ornery boomerang tossing hare that would probably run over Bugs in an armored Hummer.
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Ramsey has taken his years of experience building the skeletons of films like “Fight Club,” “Cast Away,” and “The Minority Report” to bring “Rise…” to life. TheUrbanDaily caught up with the first-time director to get his thoughts on being African-American in the film business and whether his collection of heroes can hold their own against another popular gang of super powered misfits with attitude.
TheUrbanDaily: Let’s get the obvious question out of the way. Is “Rise of The Guardians” the “The Avengers” for kids?
Peter Ramsey: The idea is the same. You take the greatest childhood heroes–they are basically the first superheroes that you know–and you put them together on one team. It’s the same formula but with our guys, when you’re a kid you really believe in them. They’re real to you. There’s that little extra added charge.
This is your first time directing a full length feature film. What did that feel like?
It was amazing. Being able to work with a huge crew and fantastic actors that’s something any director would kill to have, let alone a first timer. I was lucky that in my storyboarding career I’d gone through a lot of productions several times. Working as a storyboard artist you’re trained to visualize things over and over again so it becomes second nature to be able to see what it will look like before it’s done. So that erased a lot of guess work for a lot of people. We could talk about things and I could just draw a picture and say “Kind of like this” boom. Sketch it out right there. I also didn’t have to wait to see things finished before I could comment on them. A lot of times people who direct these things can’t really make a judgement on something until it’s almost completely finished. For me I was able to put the dots together a little quicker and that helped eliminate guess work. There are a number of skills that I had in storyboarding that trained me to do this.
Was it difficult to adapt William Joyce’s books for the screen?
What we really did is that we took basic concepts from William Joyce, who is still writing a series of books that explain the origins of these characters. but the movie is set hundreds of years after his books. “Rise..” deals with the first time they all come together as a team to work against Pitch, the Bogeyman. So it’s kind of a completely separate story but it’s drawn on the same worlds that he establishes in those individuals books.
How did you get started in storyboarding for movies?
It was in my mid twenties I had…I was interested in film. I grew up in South Central , L.A. Had always drawn and been interested in storytelling and movies, but I had no connections to the movie biz or any knowledge or understanding of who made movies. I might as well had grown up in Albania honestly.
It wasn’t until I was in the early 20s that I had some friends that were getting involved in the really outside fringes of the movie biz and I started to understand that maybe real people were involved in these things. I found out about something called storyboarding, which is a way of visualizing how you’re going to shoot a movie before you ever get close to shooting it. It was perfect for me because I’d drawn all my life and it was good fit. I found a way to get involved in storyboarding and from there a series of doors just opened up for me and I found myself working as a storyboard artist on a lot of big movies.
I did that for maybe ten years and a producer that I had worked with in live action had gone over to Dream Works animation and ended up producing the Shrek movies. He called me and said “Hey come check his out. It’s a great place to work and a new kind of exploding medium.” So I came over and tried it and loved it and it all kind of lead to “Rise Of The Guardians.”
Do you have any formal training as an illustrator?
I am self-taught. It’s been a life long thing. A lot of trial and error and hard work, but I’m basically self taught.
Animation isn’t the typical career path for someone from South Central. What advice do you have for someone wanting to go into film and/or animation?
I would say remember that it’s about the storytelling first and foremost. Read, write and get as much knowledge about both of those things and whatever medium you’re working in. Whether it’s drawing, animating or writing just don’t stop doing it. You can always improve and work on your strengths. Persistence is what got me where I am. If you really love it, keep doing it.
Technology has advanced so much since you got started in film. What tools would you recommend for someone looking to do what you do?
Kids are so lucky because you can make a movie with your iPhone with near hi-def quality. It really does come back to having a good story, good actors and [making] good choices as a director. It’s really just having the passion and energy to learn about it. [That] is probably the key these days because all of the information is out there.
You were recently honored by AAFCA for your achievements. How has being an African-American impacted your career, if at all?
It hasn’t impacted it really for me. I think the biggest issue where it came into play was earlier in life, living where I did and coming out of that circumstance and really not understanding that it was possible for me to do some of these things. Back then I didn’t have the role models but now I think a lot of that has changed. Kids can look at someone like me and see that this dude made a giant animated movie so maybe it’s possible for me too.
But once I got into the business there were no barriers..and I’ll tell you why. When your’e dealing with creative people, they really respond to people who are really trying hard and they see a little bit of talent in you. I can’t tell you how many times I’d get into conversations with people and they’d say “I really like your work, what do you want to do?” and I’d answer and they’d give me somebody’s name or teach me something new. Guys that had been working on Hitchcock films would teach me tricks of the trade. Those barriers really go away if they see somebody sincere and working hard. I always tell people that if you give it your all those doors do open up. You just have to have the persistence and passion to keep doing it, and do it for the right reason. Things will happen.
Have you started working on the next installment yet?
If the audience wants more they will tell us at the box office. That’s the way we have to gauge but hopefully people want to.
If they can do “Taken 3″ they can give this a sequel. If Santa is a sword fighting Cossak I need more of that in my life.
[Laughs] Hopefully we’ll be able to get you what you need.
“Rise Of The Guardians” is in theaters now!
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