'Rise of the Guardians' director a self-taught success

Director Peter Ramsey is sitting in his office on the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale and recalling a vivid childhood memory. “I remember being in my pajamas in the back of my parents' car at an Inglewood drive-in watching Disney's “Snow White” and being mesmerized,” he says. “We didn't get to go to movies a lot when I was a kid, so when we did, it was such an emotional overwhelming experience. That's where I really got that reverence for movies.”

For an African American inner-city kid from Crenshaw, the dream of making it big in Hollywood seemed almost as fantastical as the movies he watched. “This was way before there even was Spike Lee or John Singleton on the scene,” he says. “It wasn't a case of the doors being open. You just didn't even think those doors existed.”

But today Ramsey, 49, who has worked at DreamWorks for more than eight years, is taking on his first major directing role for one of the company's most ambitious projects, the upcoming CG animated feature, “Rise of the Guardians.” Set for release on Nov. 21, it will mark the first time a big-budget CG animated film is being directed by an African American.

Based on “The Guardians of Childhood,” a series of children's books by celebrated author and illustrator WIlliam Joyce, the film will introduce movie fans to the “the guardians” — a no-nonsense Santa Claus, a rebellious Jack Frost, an intrepid Tooth Fairy and a tough, rambunctious Easter Bunny, who must band together to protect the children of the world when threatened by the dark spirit, Pitch. It has an all-star voice cast including Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher and Jude Law.

“We have been working with Peter for almost a decade, and we have continued to be impressed with his extraordinary gift for storytelling and creativity,” says Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO, DreamWorks Animation.

Without any formal training, Ramsey really built his movie career from the ground up.

“I was in my 20s, working in a bookstore, and I had a friend that got me a job painting a mural on a film set. And that's where it started,” Ramsey says. “That's when I realized it was possible. But I am completely self-taught. It was all on-the-job training.”

Ramsey eventually made his mark as a storyboard artist and went onto work on many live-action films like David Fincher's “Fight Club” and “Panic Room,” and Francis Ford Coppola's “Dracula” adaptation, before moving into animation at DreamWorks, working on “Shrek the Third” and “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

“This definitely feels like home,” laughs Ramsey. “The Glendale campus is a great and collaborative place to work. There is a lot of continuity here with people who have worked here for years. There is a lot of respect for your craft. They know what it takes to make great movies, but at the same time we also have a great time doing it.”

“What is remarkable is that here is a kid that grew up in the inner city of Los Angeles,” says Katzenberg. “The notion of some day being an artist/animator and storyteller and director is an incomprehensible idea; and the fact that he has not only succeeded, but succeeded to the extent he has, is his testament to how talented he is.”

Ramsey has been working on “Guardians” for nearly three years. “It's a story about childhood and wonder, but it's also this grand fantasy epic. It's like a superhero movie, but they get their powers from being believed in, and then what happens if that is threatened,” says Ramsey. “I think it will surprise people how big the scope of the action and the settings are. If you took the elements of ‘Star Wars' and ‘Lord of the Rings' and mashed them together, that is the tone of the movie.”

Adds Katzenberg: “I think it's among the [most] creative and most original movies that have been made here at DreamWorks.”

Ramsey hopes his success will be an inspiration to others. “One of my big hopes is to get out there and talk to kids in connection with the movie,” he says, “show them where I started and what they can do.”

KATHERINE TULICH writes about film and pop culture for Marquee. She can be reached at tulichk@aol.com.

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