Peter Ramsey interview: Guardians, animation, and sound

The director of Rise Of The Guardians chats to us about animation, del Toro, sound, and his work on films such as Tank Girl and Godzilla...

Peter Ramsey’s CV is an interesting one. Storyboarding for the likes of Spielberg, Ron Howard, David Fincher and Spike Jonze. Second unit work for John Singleton and Roland Emmerich. And now, directing his first feature, Rise Of The Guardians, for DreamWorks Animation.

Here, he tells us about the film, and how his career came to this point…

I think when we as adults approach family movies a lot of the time, we see them purely through adult eyes. With Rise Of The Guardians, you don’t condescend the young, nor do you throw in an out-of-context line to try and give something for the adults. It’s almost narrative or nothing, and I don’t see that so much any more. Was that what you were going for?

It actually was. Everything kind of stemmed from the idea that when I first heard about the project, I was a little sceptical and afraid it was going to be exploitative. That it was going to be one of these ‘let’s stomp on some aspect of childhood so we can get some sardonic laughs’, or some snark out of it. It’s old. To me, that feels stale and expected, and the safe thing to do.

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The interesting thing about this was we were dealing with characters that weren’t just characters from a storybook, they weren’t cartoons, they weren’t videogame characters… when you’re a kid, you believe they’re real. They’re real people to you, and I thought that was fascinating. Just being able to incorporate that kind of emotional connection into a work of fiction. To me, it’s like being able to contribute to a mythology.

Because you go in with effectively familiar characters, on the one hand it means you don’t have to dig quite so hard into backstory. But you also seem to have a lot of fun here in making the familiar unfamiliar?

Yeah. That’s the brilliant thing about the Bill Joyce concept [William Joyce wrote the books, and was co-director on the film for a sizeable part of the production]. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Basically, he’s taken a step to the left and looked at these guys from a slightly different perspective, and it’s got me thinking about them almost against my will for the first time in I don’t know how long. I started realising how much our perception of them is shaped by media. How much of that perception is unexamined, and when you scratch the surface just a little, you realise how archetypal most of the characters are. Santa Claus, like Zeus, Falstaff. Big energy, generosity, wildness… the Easter Bunny. Nature, Pagan… Even the Tooth Fairy with this idea that the teeth hold the memory. They all started seeming like Greek gods to me.

It’s why in the movie we try and ascribe particular values to each one of them, just like a God or deity would have particularly things they represented and brought to the world. That’s what we wanted to do with the guardians.

It’s a dark story you’ve got here, not just in terms of the colour palette. But this is a film that starts with a death.

Or a birth.

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Yeah, I see that. But tonally, again you didn’t pander. My frustration as a parent is that I’m seeing too many films, one or two from DreamWorks to be fair, that knock the rough edges off. That don’t expose emotions like fear. It’s like laughter is okay, but fear isn’t. 

Well, emotion is ultimately the thing that’s most difficult for many people to deal with. Particularly in popular culture. I think one of the curses of popular culture these days is that so much of it is based on denying or shying away from actual emotion or actual empathy. So much is about enforcing a conformity. I do think it’s tricky with this movie and the way people respond to it, because we don’t make that concession. We’re standing behind the idea that these characters are real, and we won’t ever tip the hat that we think that they aren’t. It’s a real emotional connection.

Guillermo del Toro, who’s our executive producer, says that it’s a romantic vision of the world. We wanted to do it with no apologies in a way. It is very interesting how some people, it’s difficult to embrace that or meet it half way. It can easily be seen as a weird naiveté, or I worry that some people will talk themselves into the idea that it’s cynical. I don’t know how it is. 

When we talk animation, the thing that generally isn’t given as much shrift is that it’s not just the visuals that have to be created from scratch, it’s all the sound as well.

Yes, exactly.

You’re got an incredible score on this one, which I gather was only finished a couple of weeks before. Can you talk about how you audibly get this right. You hit really well pitched silences in this a few times, for instance.

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Yeah, we try. The movie is stuffed to bursting, and the pace is clearly relentless. There’s a lot of story we’re trying to tell. In a perfect world, I’d have had a few more minutes. But it really is about choosing your moments to get the quiet. Pacing is essential. It’s one of the big things about making movies watchable. As fast and as overwhelming as the movie is sometimes, it is those quiet moments.

And then the score: Alexandre Desplat. I’ve been a huge fan of his from way before this movie was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, because of the movie Birth. So many people discovered him here. I never thought there was a chance in a million years that I’d get to work with him at all, let alone on a movie like this. But when his name came up, and we were trying to work out who was going to score it, it was Bill Damaschke, the creative head of the studio, who suggested him. My eyes almost popped out of my sockets.

The moment he said it, I said he’d be perfect. The delicacy and the subtlety of what he does, and the uniqueness of his orchestrations and arrangements I thought would be perfect for the movie. It’s a big superhero epic, basically, but I was afraid that was all the music would be: another regurgitated rehash of that same old thing. What Alexandre brings is so much more unique, fine tuned and delicate. He also really embraced the fun of the movie. There are sequences in there that are almost Warner Bros cartoons. Alexandre is a really funny guy, with an impish sense of humour. He loved it, and jumped right into it.

Another quality your film has is glue. I sat through a major animated film not too long ago that felt like action sequences smashing into action sequences, with nothing to hold it together. You talk about the incredible pace of Rise Of The Guardians, and one or two have been quite sniffy about it, but the interesting thing the pace you have is that you build in the glue moments. Which is why I wanted to talk about sound with you.

But also, you come from a storyboard background, and you’ve worked on them for lots of different, major films. Can you talk about the discipline of getting one frame in place, that can make a level of difference?

Over my storyboarding career, I’ve got to work with…

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Pretty much everyone, that I can make out!

I’ve been so lucky. What’s even more amazing to me is that people who are my creative heroes, I’ve got to work with and meet so many of them. It was my film school, basically. My whole training. I’m also just a film nut. Watching films, absorbing them, reading whatever I could get my hands on about film.

Alexandre said something interesting. As we were doing the score, and hear a theme, I’d started whistling it. I grew up in a household with a lot of music. I live and breathe that. Alexandre asked me, ‘do you play an instrument’? And I said yeah, I play some guitar, and he told me – and it was a huge compliment and really interesting – ‘when I’m scoring a film, I can always tell if the director likes and understands music, because of the scenes themselves and the way they’re edited. The flow and the pacing makes it easier for me to score, if the film has a musical feel to it.”

I just though that was interesting: there is an organic kind of feel to it that I guess a lot of comes from music.

I don’t think the film drags.

That’s something I learned from storyboarding. Being economical. 

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One of my earliest dates with my now-wife, we went to see The Shadow.

[Laughs] I’m sorry!

I have to ask: did you do the dagger?

Yes! [does impression of it, leaves us convinced].

Going back even further in your career, though, I’m trying to work out who gave you your break. Was it Stephen Hopkins, or John Singleton?

My first real job storyboarding a movie was on a movie that never got made. It was called The Giant, it was written by a guy called Frank LaLoggia, who back in the 80s did a movie called The Lady In White. And it was a really good movie. It made a lot of money. The way he financed it, it was something to do with the stock market. So he’d made a ton of money on it, and he wanted to do a movie about Michaelangelo carving the statue of David. So he wrote the script, and we spent months and months storyboarding the entire thing, myself, him and Russell Carpenter, who went on to shoot Titanic. We got to go to Italy and all this stuff.

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But that was my first real movie storyboarding job. Before that I’d signed on to this agency doing commercials, because I knew they were going to start repping people for movies. Before that, I was just working bookstore jobs, and I didn’t know anything about the movie business. I didn’t know there was a way I could be in the movie business until I met a couple of people on the fringes of the industry. I was just like the hick from Farmville, even though I’d grown up in LA. This was before Spike Lee and John Singleton pretty much, and the idea that I could work in the business seemed a completely foreign thing.

You did second unit on two John Singleton films – two of his most difficult.

Yeah. John actually gave me my first second unit job on Poetic Justice.

That was a really difficult film for him.

Yeah, it was a tough one. I shot all the stuff of the mail truck going up the California coast, all that stuff.

Then you ended up on Godzilla?

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Yeah. I had done storyboards on Independence Day, and based on that, Roland Emmerich asked me to do some second unit stuff in New York. I thought great, I’ll do that. Because things were picking up. I’d gone into storyboarding with the idea of being a director. That was my goal. I didn’t have enough money to make my own film…

So not an animation director?

No. The whole thing of me ending up in animation was a little bit of a fluke. I was going to be Kurosawa, or Orson Welles. It’s just taking a little longer than I thought [laughs]. I got the job to do storyboards on Tank Girl, so I went for the second unit job on that, and it was a slightly bigger job. It was a big second unit on Tank Girl.

Aron Warner, the guy who produced that movie, went on to produce the Shrek movies for DreamWorks. So a few years later he gave me a call and asked if I was interested in coming and checking out animation. I think I turned it down on Shrek 1, I was yeah, animation, shnanimation. But by the time the third one came around, I was kind of burned out doing boards on live action, and I was ready for a change. I checked out DreamWorks, loved it, it’s a great place to work. And they were really interested in me as a director, because Aron really pitched me to them that way. Because I’d done second unit stuff.

And they’re really keen on getting a little more of a live action feel, because 3D CG features are live action staging and composition. 

People get obsessed with classing animation as a genre in itself.

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Right, and it isn’t.

If I’ve got this right, then, the first project you were heavily involved with at DreamWorks was Monsters Vs Aliens?

Yeah, I guess you could say that. I was story artist on Shrek The Third, and making a transition from live action storyboarding to animation storyboarding: two very different crafts. Then I got kicked upstairs to Head Of Story on Monsters Vs Aliens, where I was the head board artist…

So we have you to thank for the Kubrick touches in that film?

[Laughs] No, actually those were there before. I wish!

From there, after I finished Monsters Vs Aliens, I directed the TV special based on that movie. And it was all designed around learning the way the studio worked, the pipeline, the production structure. Coming off of the short film, I was originally involved with developing the story for Puss In Boots, and I was supposed to go back and do more work on that. But they already had that well in hand. So I was flipping free for just a little bit, and the opportunity for Guardians came up. I was kind of shocked, but they liked what I’d done.

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My eight-year-old tells me I have to ask you the question that everyone asks you, because he wants more.

Good, good! [laughs]

I’ll go a little bit further, though. Are you going to do Guardians 3? Because from where you sit, this is the first film you’ve directed, and this is the crossroads now. You can get locked into Guardians films for ten years…

Theoretically, yeah.

DreamWorks Animation’s business model on this is well known.

Yeah, if the audience wants more, we’re happy to give it to them.

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So this could be yours for a decade, or there must be more projects in your head that you want to do.

Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting. There are two things. I’ve fallen in love with the characters, I really had a great time. That and working with the people I worked with. It’s been an incredible experience. Also, I had underestimated how big a part just experience can play. A lot of it I’ve been learning as I’ve gone on this one. Now I realise the value of having experience, just in terms of being able to be bolder. There was a lot I wanted to do in the movie that I couldn’t for various reasons, but now I think I could have done some of it had I had the confidence and security that experience brings you. I feel that I could do a much better one on a second one if I had the chance.

I’m ultra-proud of the movie, and everything we’ve done. Now we’ve done it though, it’s as if I think I know how to do it now! You never truly know how, but I feel so much more confident, and I’d love to try it again. 

One last question, then. Not many first time directors have Roger Deakins on the end of one phone, and Guillermo del Toro on the other. The great unsaid though is that you’re still the person who has to say no to them if it’s something you don’t like?

Yeah. And that is one of the toughest things about the job, realising that. I’ve spent most of my career as a working stiff. You get really good at second guessing and deferring, and the thing you really have to do is stand up. And it’s hard. There are many times in this capacity that I would think that expert knows better, and sometimes you do it, but sometimes, even with Guillermo and Roger, I would disagree. Guillermo is fantastic about it: he’s a huge force of nature, and sometimes there were things where I’d hold my ground and say I think this isn’t going to work, and he’d say okay, okay. What about this? He wasn’t precious. He was the best kind of collaborator you could ever hope for, and so was Roger.

Peter Ramsey, thank you very much.

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Rise Of The Guardians is out in UK cinemas now.

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