‘Rise of the Guardians’ Barrier-Breaker: The First African-American to Direct a CG Animation Film

Peter Ramsey talks "Guardians," "Star Wars" and what it means to be the Spike Lee of animation

Peter Ramsey didn't just have the pressure of making his feature directing debut on an $145 million tentpole film, he also had to deal with the expectations that came with being a barrier-breaker.

By sliding behind the camera on DreamWorks Animation’s  “Rise of the Guardians” Ramsey made history as the first African-American to helm a major CG animated film.

“Rise of the Guardians,” a sort of “Avengers” for the fairy-tale set, opened Wednesday.  It tells the story of a group of mythological heroes like Santa Claus (voiced by Alec Baldwin), Jack Frost (Chris Pine) and the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) who team up to prevent the Nightmare King (Jude Law) from plunging children around the world into a state of despair and hopelessness. The film is an adaptation of a popular series of children's books by William Joyce.

Getty ImagesRamsey talked with TheWrap about the responsibility of being a role model, the need to inject a little darkness into children’s entertainment and the possibility of a “Guardians” sequel.

Also read: Why Disney Ceded Its Turkey Day Slot to 'Rise of the Guardians'

What does it mean to be the first African American to direct a CG movie on this scale?
I really wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I’m a pioneer” when I first got the project. It wasn’t until my mom and dad saw an article that mentioned that fact — and I saw that my dad had tears in his eyes — that it really snapped back to me and I realized this is kind of a big deal. That’s the way it is any time some hurdle falls away.

I grew up in South-Central L.A. at a time before there was Spike Lee or John Singleton, so there was really no conception that I could make films. It’s super fulfilling that kids growing up like I did can now have it permanently in mind that it’s a possibility for them.

What films inspired your approach to the film?
I always knew that I wanted to make a fun, action-packed, big, epic fantasy movie rather than a quaint little fairy tale. So I thought of "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter," where there were big ensemble casts. But stylistically I also thought of Michael Powell’s “Black Narcissus.” I really wanted Santa’s world to have the same dreamlike feel with bold, striking visuals.

There are some really dark elements in the film. Were you worried about it becoming too scary?
It's important that we acknowledge the existence of some darkness in the world. Part of the point of the film is to say that these characters are real because kids believe in them, that kids know fear, too. We didn’t want to present a world that was free of the shadow that the Guardians fight, because they are using imagination to combat fear and hopelessness.

What drew you to the material?
For me, it was just hearing about Bill Joyce’s notion that all these characters are real and knew each other and had a common purpose. It seemed like it had this epic fantasy, “Lord of the Rings” potential.

And when I started looking at what Bill had done, I was blown away. The mythologies are so wild and ornate. It’s an entirely new universe, and our movie just scratches the surface. We just started to go down the rabbit hole.

I'm beginning to smell "franchise." Would you want to direct the sequels?
Yeah, I would love to. I’ve fallen in love with the characters. I feel like there's’s plenty of fertile ground for more good stories. There’s more opportunities to push it further. I almost wish I could do the first feature again, to do it more justice.

You are self-taught, no? You came into this industry not as a director, but as a storyboard artist, is that correct?
Yeah, I am. It’s the old thing about how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. I’ve been drawing ever since I was 3. But I wanted to be a comic-book artist, and it was not until quite a bit later that I realized I could work in the movie business.

I stumbled into story boarding through a lucky confluence of things. I realized the work I was doing for comics was similar to helping directors visualize a story. I took maybe a couple of film history classes in college, but I couldn’t afford to make films in film school. I needed to get in on the fringes of the industry to get the on the job training I needed to become a director.

Did you have a favorite Guardian?
If I had to say one,  it would be North [the film’s name for Santa Claus]. It was great to give him a real presence, and casting Alec did a lot to help that. It was slightly unexpected, but it feels so right. I would just love to hang out with that guy and it helps that he reminds me of [executive producer] Guillermo del Toro.