Filmmaker Peter Ramsey

The Rise of the Guardians director explains how he became a pioneer in the movie business.

Rise of the Guardians is not only Peter Ramsey's feature directorial debut, but its release also marks the first time a big-budget CG-animated film has been directed by an African American. Ramsey grew up in Los Angeles' Crenshaw neighborhood and attended UCLA for two years. While taking classes in the film department at L.A. City College, he landed a job painting a mural on a film set and parlayed it into a career that began with storyboarding. Through trial and error, he rose through the ranks and worked with top directors on the road to becoming an industry pioneer.


Tavis: Peter Ramsey is a talented filmmaker whose latest project was one of the big Thanksgiving weekend releases this year, “Rise of the Guardians.” The DreamWorks animation project is the first major director role for Peter and the first major animated project directed by an African American.

Here now, a scene from “Rise of the Guardians.”


Tavis: This has been called “The Avengers” for kids, “The Justice League” for kids. You bring all of these, as the trailer just showed, all these characters together. Tell me more about the storyline.

Peter Ramsey: Well, “Rise of the Guardians” is basically based on a concept by the children’s book author and illustrator William Joyce, and really, the story I always tell about Bill is when his daughter was five or six years old she asked him this question, which basically was “Daddy, do Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny know each other?”

Bill, anybody who’s familiar with his books knows how much imagination and creates these worlds and beautiful illustrations, and that question from his daughter kind of got him going. He ended up constructing this whole mythology and whole new origins for all these characters that you kind of hear about them all your life and you think you know them, but if you really think about it, you don’t know too much about the details of who they are and what they do.

Bill decided he was going to try to fill that gap and has written a series of books about their histories that we kind of drew inspiration from to make “Rise of the Guardians.”

Tavis: Okay. I am so fascinated, as I was saying to Anthony Anderson just a moment ago, that I read a bit about your back story and wanted to get a chance to kind of talk to you, because I was fascinated how you ended up being the director of this project, given your back story.

So I’ll start where I know and let you fill in the details here. It’s a fascinating journey for me of how you, again, wound up in this place. Two years at UCLA and you drop out.

Ramsey: Mm-hmm.

Tavis: All right, take it from there.

Ramsey: Okay. (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s what got my attention. The guy dropped out of college –

Ramsey: Yeah, I know.

Tavis: – and now he’s directing a DreamWorks animation project.

Ramsey: Well, there’s, like, a big space between those.

Tavis: Fill it in, fill it in.

Ramsey: Basically, I was studying fine arts. I entered UCLA to study fine arts. I was 17 years old coming out of high school and my whole idea of art was just drawing pictures. I got into the program at UCLA and suddenly they were talking about cubism and conceptual art and all this stuff that was a completely new world to me, and it threw me for a loop.

I realized I was way out of my depth and it kind of knocked me back. In fact, I think I ended up taking more English lit classes than fine art. In retrospect, though, it was a great thing that happened to me, because I realized that wasn’t really my path. What I was really interested in was narrative, storytelling, and doing that visually.

So from then on, I think that’s when I really started to develop an interest in film, and I started working after that. I didn’t –

Tavis: Painting murals.

Ramsey: Yeah. That was one thing that I did. I was really just working at side jobs, like working at bookstores and things like that. A friend who I met several years later who was making inroads into film art direction, got me a job painting a mural on a set, and it was that kind of – it wasn’t until then that I realized you could make a living in the movie business.

I really didn’t know. I’d grown up in – I grew up in South Central L.A. all my life, had been a stone’s throw from Hollywood, but no connections to the business. No real inkling that real people made the stuff that you ended up seeing on the screen, so it just wasn’t on my radar that way.

Not until I started meeting and seeing people who actually were at the fringes of the business, and then there I was myself.

Tavis: How did you get, though, from painting those murals into the business?

Ramsey: Yeah. That experience let me know that I could do it, and then from there, I found out about this other thing called storyboarding.

Now, storyboarding is drawings that you do to kind of plan out how the camera’s going to see the action, how the director wants to stage the scenes, it’s a way of pre-visualizing the movie. It turned out to be a perfect fit for me because I could draw pretty realistically.

Basically all my life I’ve been drawing, and I thought I was going to be a comic book artist. So if you’ve ever seen a storyboard and a comic book, they’re, like, so, so much the same thing, and it was a natural fit. When I found out you could make a living doing that, (laughter) I was like, “Forget this other stuff.”

Tavis: No more murals.

Ramsey: Well, even the mural stuff, which was kind of a one-off, but I had just been doing kind of paycheck-to-paycheck, hand-to-mouth jobs, and I find out about this. It was like doors started opening, though, once I, like, latched onto that.

Somebody introduced me to a guy who’d been, like, doing storyboards, a guy named Maurice Zuberano, who was a storyboarder – he’d done, like, “Gone with the Wind” and stuff like that. He’d show me a few things.

After that, I found out about an agency that repped people for storyboarding and ads, advertising. Did that for a year and they got me a movie. When I got that movie, that was the big step, because now I had experience working on a film, I had a portfolio, and from that, everything else kind of snowballed.

Tavis: Of course you’ve worked on a number of films prior to this one. This is your big directorial debut.

Ramsey: Right.

Tavis: But you’ve worked on other films along the way. How did the DreamWorks thing happen for you? I ask that because I know that there are tons of folk watching tonight who will tomorrow send an application over to DreamWorks, trying to get a job.

It’s like the place in town where people want to – if you want to do animation, you want to be at DreamWorks.

Ramsey: Right.

Tavis: So how did that happen for you?

Ramsey: Yeah, I had been working on live action for several years, and I’d been doing storyboards –

Tavis: Live action on films like what, that we would know?

Ramsey: Oh, “Minority Report,” “Fight Club,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “Backdraft,” John Singleton’s films “Boys in the Hood,” “Poetic Justice,” “Rosewood.”

Tavis: Got it.

Ramsey: Tons and tons of things.

Tavis: Storyboard.

Ramsey: Doing storyboards and also second unit directing. I worked on a movie called “Tank Girl” that I did storyboards for and directed some of the second unit, a bunch of the action scenes and stunts. The guy who produced that, Aron Warner, a couple of years later went over to DreamWorks animation, where he produced the first “Shrek” movie.

So he kind of like unleashed “Shrek” on the world and it became this gigantic sensation, and Aron had actually called me to work on the first “Shrek,” because we had a good rapport as I was working on the other movie.

At the time, I was kind of “Eh, animation, schmanimation, that’s not (unintelligible).” (Laughter) I was a fan of animation, I loved it, but I was like, no, I’m going to be Orson Welles, I’m going to be Coppola, (laughter) and that thing. Funny how life works.

Tavis: “Shrek” blew up.

Ramsey: Yeah, yeah, in a huge way. Several years later he called me again, and by that time I was actually kind of burned out with what I was doing in live action, and he said, “You know what? There’s a great place to work, good people, great atmosphere, they really respect artists, and I think it would be a place maybe you could stretch your wings.”

So I took him up on it and basically it involved learning a new craft, because I went to DreamWorks and basically became a story artist, which is very similar to what I was doing in live action, but just different enough that it was a big adjustment. I just kind of learned the tricks of the trade at DreamWorks.

Tavis: How does one get the phone call, the invitation to direct a major animation project from DreamWorks?

Ramsey: Yeah. Well, yeah, it was a huge day. I had directed a small TV short for them that was based on another feature there, “Monsters vs. Aliens.” I was the head of story on that project. They kind of had me pegged based on my history as a possible director.

So I directed this TV thing for them, it went really well, it went really smooth, it was a success. The “Rise of the Guardians” project had been in the air, so I was done with the TV show and they kind of locked onto me and thought that I’d learned the system at DreamWorks, I had the chops, and yeah, the call came one day.

I wasn’t seriously thinking that I’d actually get it, but it’s a huge deal, man. You get the meeting with Jeffrey Katzenberg and he gives you the vote of confidence. That’s a gigantic thing.

Tavis: So are you pleased with your directorial debut?

Ramsey: Yeah. It’s funny; we actually finished not too long ago. It literally –

Tavis: Down to the wire.

Ramsey: Yeah, it is, as it always is, and it’s a little more than a month. So I still have my little postpartum depression. I’m still like all the things that you let go of that you couldn’t get to where you were. But the work that everybody did on the movie, the animators, the designers, the technicians, the cast, which is spectacular. Alec Baldwin, Isla Fisher, Jude Law, Chris Pine, Hugh Jackman, amazing. I’m very proud of the movie. There’s beautiful, beautiful stuff in it.

Tavis: You’ve got to listen carefully to figure out who Baldwin is.

Ramsey: Yeah, I know, he throws you with the accent.

Tavis: Yeah.

Ramsey: Yeah, he did a great job, his Boris Badinov accent.

Tavis: So I would assume – you tell me if I’m wrong – that you want to do more of this now, this directing thing.

Ramsey: Yeah, I think so. (Laughter) I think so. I got into the business, that was my intention getting in. I was young and scrappy and kind of like – and then like everything else, it takes a little longer than you think, and I started a family and there’s just so much you have to learn about the business.

But yeah, definitely, now that I’m finally here, I’d love to do something else. I’ve fallen in love with animation, the craft of it, and honestly, after going through it this once, I feel like okay, I think I kind of am getting the handle on how to do it. So I’d love to do that again, but I’d also love to get back to my live action roots.

Tavis: Well, I wanted to have you on, because everybody knows about the film. (Laughter) You can’t avoid the publicity on a DreamWorks animation project. So everybody knows about “Rise of the Guardians,” but I wanted them to know the back story, and certainly your involvement. So congratulations.

Ramsey: Thank you.

Tavis: This is the first time on this program, I’m sure it won’t be the last if you keep doing this.

Ramsey: I hope not. That’d be great.

Tavis: So congratulations.

Ramsey: Thank you (unintelligible).

Tavis: “Rise of the Guardians” is out now from DreamWorks, directed by Peter Ramsey. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for tuning in. As always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: November 29, 2012 at 2:32 am