The “Rise of the Guardians” is a big-budget animated holiday movie with an improbable cast of characters: Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, a tattooed Russian Santa Claus, an un-cuddly Easter Bunny, and a heretofore unlikely film director.
Peter Ramsey, 49, is the first African-American director of a major animated movie.
“Directing; it just wasn’t something in my mind that, ‘Hey, this is something you can do,’” he said in a recent telephone interview.
The DreamWorks Studios film, released just before Thanksgiving, has a hefty price tag of nearly $150 million because of the computer-generated-image technology used in the animation. It’s showing on more than 3,000 screens in 3D and standard format.
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Based on a series of children’s books by William Joyce, the film is about the perseverance of childhood icons. It depicts how the Guardians, led by rebel Jack Frost, join forces to rally children’s belief in them, as a dark force tries to steal their faith in fantasy. The 3D effect in snow, flying birds, moving ice and a very revved up Santa’s sleigh, with wings, gives the film an added layer of wonder.
“It puts you in the movie just a little bit more,” Ramsey said.
The movie is not yet on its way to blockbuster status, though it has rallied since its less-than-stellar opening at fourth place after Thanksgiving weekend. It ranked second last weekend, according to the website Box Office Mojo, and has so far pulled in nearly $62 million domestically and almost $91 million overseas.
“It’s come out in a crowded field,” said Ramsey. “The word of mouth has been spectacular. It’s more a question of working its way up.”
Which is also the story of Ramsey. Born and raised in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles, a mostly black area of the city, Ramsey started out as someone who liked to draw and thought he’d have a career in comic books.
But after, as he puts it, “stumbling” into storyboarding live action movies – laying out the scene sequences on large boards – and gaining film production experience, he was ready for bigger things. Like animation, his first love.
“I didn’t have any formal education,” said Ramsey, who spent two years at the University of California, Los Angeles, before dropping out. However, he said, “I’d drawn all my life.”
With his even-tempered manner, ability to take control and artistic skill, he rose above the talent heap in Hollywood. DreamWorks hired him in the mid-1990s and he began his climb, which included key roles in the big-budget “Shrek” franchise, until he was asked to anchor the Guardians’ movie. It became a three-year project involving 400 people.
“Like building a battleship,” Ramsey said.
African-American directors have overseen major non-black audience-oriented live-action movies. F. Gary Gray directed “The Italian Job” with Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron; Carl Franklin directed “One True Thing” with William Hurt, Meryl Streep and Renee Zellweger; and Albert and Allen Hughes directed “From Hell” with Johnny Depp.
Ramsey is aware of his own iconic status among young African-Americans, and he takes time to speak to students at schools and events.
“It’s always super-inspiring,” he said. “I want them to know they can do it. You can start with a piece of paper and a pencil. There’s no limit to the kinds of stories they can draw.”
Ramsey put his own mark on the movie’s characters. It was his idea to draw big tattoos on the arms of Santa, known as North and voiced by Alec Baldwin. One arm says “naughty,” the other says “nice.”
In addition to Baldwin, A-list actors provide the voices for the other characters as well: Jude Law as Pitch, the Boogeyman; Hugh Jackman, using his Australian accent as the Down Under-tongued Easter Bunny; Isla Fisher as the Tooth Fairy; and Chris Pine as Jack Frost.
Ramsey draws satisfaction from the fact that children are “taking the characters as seriously as we do.”
But the real significance of the movie, said Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African-American studies at Duke University, is that no can tell that an African-American director is running the show.
“You have a black director of a film that is not marketed as a black film,” said Neal. “He represents this kind of coming of age of the black nerd.”
Neal said there is a pipeline of non-white directors who, with Ramsey’s emergence, will now make their mark.
In October, Ramsey spoke to the Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies program at the historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta after a special preview showing of “Guardians.”
“It was fabulous,” said program co-director Stephane Dunn, a professor of film and African-American cultural studies at the school. “He talked about his journey. There has been a complete absence at the helm for African-Americans where we see them directing.”
The students were inspired, she said, and now see themselves as a director or producer or someone involved in animation.
African-Americans “haven’t had enough representation, even with animated characters,” Dunn said.
Of Ramsey’s mark as the first African-American director of a major animated Hollywood film: “It should shock us,” she said, “that it’s the first time.”