Before joining DreamWorks Animation in 2004, Ramsey amassed an impressive resume as a storyboard artist and illustrator for live action films, including Minority Report, Cast Away, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Men in Black, and Backdraft. He was also second unit director on films such as Godzilla, Higher Learning, and Poetic Justice. Ramsey spoke about the impact of Guardians on adults as well as children, the importance of nailing Jack Frost’s character, how he got his start in animation, and what’s next for him and the Guardians.
Congratulations on the home video release of Rise of the Guardians.
Thank you very much.
The film does a tremendous job of stressing the importance of children to believe in the Guardians. Do you feel it gives adults a chance to relive that childhood feeling of believing as well?
If all the people who’ve spoken to me after tons and tons of screenings is any indication, then yeah, I think so. I can’t tell you how many people have come up and said, “You brought me back to my childhood,” “You made me feel like a kid again,” and variations on that idea. I knew going in to this project that dealing with and embracing these characters might have that effect, but I was kind of surprised by how much it actually did.
In a way, the film really focuses on one character’s rise to the level of Guardian: that of Jack Frost. Was his journey always the focus of the film, even in the early development stages?
It took a while from the time Bill [Joyce, author of the Guardians of Childhood books] first brought us the project to get to that point. When I came on, I felt pretty strongly that we needed one character to track through this incredible fantasy world. You need to have an emotionally relatable idea that you can hold on to in the midst of Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, and all that stuff. If you have one character you can experience it with, who can be the audience’s eyes…that’s really important. Pretty early on, we all felt we should do that through Jack.
Jack is introduced to many aspects of the Guardians’ world at the same time as the audience. Do you see him as a sort of surrogate for the viewer?
Oh, yeah. Very much so. In the beginning of the film, it’s pretty clear he’s not up to the level of these legendary figures. He’s just a normal kid who wants to go out and have fun. He doesn’t want a lot of responsibilities, yet he has questions about his place in the world. All of that makes him a pretty good audience surrogate.
The film also does a great job of establishing a truly challenging villain in Pitch. He really embodies the classic animated villain: He's scary, sinister, condescending, resentful, smart, and even a bit of a sociopath when trying to convince Jack to join him.
Yeah, exactly. In the way that the Guardians each have centers that are positive things, Pitch’s center is fear. We modeled that fear after what kids fear in the real world, how they react to it, and what fear does in terms of limiting or preventing you from living a full, rich life. Kids deal with fear every day of their lives. They know it’s real, they know it exists, and they look for ways to deal with it. To not take the “fear” part of the story as seriously as the “wonder and hope” part felt like a cop-out. A story like this is only as good as its villain. If [the Guardians] don’t have something real to push against, their stature is going to be diminished as well. So we dealt with the theme that while there’s fear in the world, there are also forces out there that are going to help you deal with it if you open up to them.
With Pitch and Jack Frost, they’re literally the black and white of the situation – the dark and light sides of the same personality.
Yes, that was another important point for me. We have Jack Frost, who has these powers and can do amazing things, but he doesn’t have a context or a real picture of who he is. He’s ultimately shown that he has a choice: You come into the world, you have things to offer, but it’s up to you which path you’re going to take. So we dramatized that between Jack and Pitch to demonstrate that, once upon a time, had Pitch done things differently, he could have accomplished what Jack does. We tried to keep the story clear yet entertaining, but there’s a lot of stuff working underneath in the same way that the old fairy tales do.
You started out working on live action films, then moved to animation with Shark Tale in 2004. What prompted that transition?
Actually, the film [where I started in animation] was Shrek the Third. I only worked a little bit on Shark Tale, maybe a week, while I worked on Shrek the Third for about a year. What happened was, in my live-action days, I worked with a producer named Aron Warner on a movie called Tank Girl. He went on to produce the Shrek films. Several years [after Tank Girl], he called me and asked if I’d be interested in animation. He said I should check out [DreamWorks], that they could use a guy with live-action experience. So I checked it out, I liked what I saw, and I starting learning the craft of animation. It was the beginning of the journey that got me in the director’s seat for Guardians.
Rise of the Guardians was your first time directing a feature film for a major animation studio. So, no pressure, right?
[laughs] Yeah, right [sarcastically].
Prior to directing, you worked on dozens of films as a storyboard artist and illustrator. How far were you able to immerse yourself in the storyboarding for Rise of the Guardians while still dedicating yourself to the responsibilities as director?
Not as much as I would have liked, but I had a pretty good dose of it early on when we first began digging into the story. It was a very small story team. I did some of the initial storyboarding just to get the ideas rolling and the feel of the film. For the first four or five months, it was just me and Hamish Grieve, who’s head of the story department [at DreamWorks Animation]. But later on, there were spots where I would come back in, board something myself, and take it to the layout team and the animators. I definitely jumped in wherever I could.
My family watched Rise of the Guardians together for the first time last week, We all enjoyed it immensely, then my nine-year-old son ran off with it and immediately watched it two more times.
Oh, wow. That’s great! That’s so cool.
So when I asked him if he’d like to ask you a question, he instantly blurted out, “Will there be a sequel?”
[laughs] We all want one. We’ll have to wait and see what the moon says.
In the meantime, what’s next for you?
I’m trying to figure that out. I’ve got a couple of projects I’m thinking about, but it’s all in the very early stages. We only finished Guardians at the end of October, then it was three straight months of press, publicity, and awards season. It’s only been within the past month that I’ve been able to actually stop working on it. I’m talking to a bunch of different people. Nothing firm or definite yet, but that’s kind of nice.
Thanks for taking time to speak with me today.
Thank you. I’m so happy your son enjoyed the film. Tell him from me.