TWENTY LONG YEARS AGO, “Boyz N the Hood” broke down a barrier, as filmmaker John Singleton became the first black director to receive an Academy Award nomination. But the film, set in South Central L.A., was a turning point for another young man, too, one who grew up on those very streets. “Boyz N the Hood” helped Peter Ramsey, a budding artist who would work on Singleton’s first four films, realize what was possible in Hollywood.
Come next year’s nominations, Ramsey certainly has a shot at making his own Oscars mark, if his new film “Rise of the Guardians” were to receive a nod. No major CG-animated feature film to be nominated has ever had a black director in the chair. Then again, that’s because, according to DreamWorks, no big-studio CG-animated film has ever had a black director, period.
Simply by making “Guardians,” Ramsey has a director’s chair at history’s table.
That breakthrough has prompted recent headlines declaring Ramsey “the Obama of animation.” The director humbly laughs off the moniker. But Ramsey — who like Obama was born several years before the landmark Civil Rights Act was signed — does take seriously the symbolism that such words come freighted with.
“When I talk to kids, especially, is when I really feel like it means something” to embody a breakthrough, Ramsey tells Comic Riffs on Thursday, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “They can look at me, and I can say [when in South Central] that I grew up six blocks from here — and I had less than you did. They can look at me and know they] can do it. ... ‘
“When you look at Obama,” Ramsey continues, “any kid anywhere in this country is able to think they could be president. That notion that you can’t is swept away forever. It affects the psyche of kids. ... Being the ‘first’ at something really has an impact.”
Ramsey emphasizes, too, the significance that “Rise of the Guardians” -- in which fantastical icons from childhood join forces powered by belief -- strikes universal themes. “Anybody can see it and enjoy it,” he says. “Any person of color can say: ‘We’re not limited by what kind of stories we can tell.’ “
One of those universal themes is the power that can sprout from someone’s placing faith in you -- that another’s belief can help you become something of substance. (”We’ve got a lot of metaphors in the film,” Ramsey notes.)
It was someone else’s belief in Ramsey, in fact, that led him to leap from live-action films (including “Fight Club,” “Poetic Justice,” “Minority Report” and “A.I.”) -- on which he’d honed skills as a storyboard artist and a second-unit director -- to the deeply different world of animation.
“Aron Warner thought I’d really enjoy working in animation,” Ramsey says of the “Shrek” franchise producer, with whom he worked on 1995’s “Tank Girl” (adapted from the Brit cult comic).
By the third Shrek film (2007), Ramsey took Warner up on his suggestion.
“I was pretty burned-out on the live-action work,” recalls Ramsey, whose resume includes “Backdraft” and “Independence Day.” “I was looking for a change.”
He reported to Shrek’s creative home -- DreamWorks Animation -- and “was blown away by what a vibrant place it was in terms of creativity. It’s all centered around the artists ... And they treat you really well!”
Something just felt right to Ramsey, who says he had drawn from a young age -- “I started at 3 or 4 and just never stopped” -- but as a kid couldn’t even conceive of working in Hollywood.
“I thought I would be a comic-book artist someday,” he says, but it wasn’t until his early 20s, when he learned about the craft of storyboarding, did he begin to sense that he could genuinely pursue this business. Within several years, as his career began to gather momentum, he was working with filmmaking greats like Ron Howard and Francis Ford Coppola. “I was working with my heroes, and my dreams started to come true.”
But it wasn’t till arriving at DreamWorks, in 2004, that he fully began to realize how well animation complemented his gifts of visual design and storytelling. And a mere five years later, he was offered his shot at history.
And “Rise of the Guardians” was no quick shot, but rather a three-year immersion -- “somebody told me it’s like a 700-day shoot,” he says -- backed by a production budget reportedly north of $140-million. (The film, which opened during the Thanksgiving holiday frame, has grossed $48-million globally going into its second weekend.)
The rollicking “Rise of the Guardians,” inspired by the popular William Joyce series of books, features the characters Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine), North (a ‘Russian Santa Claus’ voiced by Alec Baldwin), Tooth (Isla Fisher’s tooth fairy) and the Easter bunny (Hugh Jackman) -- as well as the near-silent Sandman -- combining their powers in “Avengers”-like fashion against the villainous Pitch (Jude Law).
“We had a relatively long casting process ... ,” Ramsey says. “We wanted great actors who have great personalities that can stand up to the characters and that can really be the characters.” The director also cites the voice work of rising young star Dakota Goyo.
“My job,” Ramsey says, “is making sure they know exactly where their emotionally true lines are in the scene ... so we’re able to cut it together to get an even flow.”
Creating this sometimes-breakneck roller-coaster of an adventure tale involved many detours that working in animation over years can allow. “The economics of telling this epic story forced us to choose us to make ‘Sophie’s choices’ over and over and over again,” Ramsey tells Comic Riffs.
Each successive animated film from top studios seems to feature unique technological leaps, to boot -- be it how to render Merida’s hair in Pixar’s recent “Brave,” for instance, or new lighting effects in Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph.” For “Rise of the Guardians,” Ramsey cites advances in rendering the translucence of skin.
“David Prescott brought that to the project based on the way light actually moves through skin,” the director says.
Ramsey also underscores the benefits of having the great Roger Deakins aboard as a cinematography consultant. “You can see his influence in the environment and the expert eye of realism -- this really real physical world that we place the characters in,” Ramsey says.
Having literally put the finishing postproduction touches on the film just last month, Ramsey only now is coming up for air, surveying audience reactions especially to the scenes with the deepest emotional beats -- “in one key scene, you can hear a pin drop.” But one audience’s reaction was most rewarding of all.
“When my parents saw that I was called ‘the Obama of animation,’ they teared up,” Ramsey says. “That made me proud.”