Immersed in Movies: Director Ramsey Talks 'Rise of the Guardians' Darkness and VFX Breakthroughs

Features
by Bill Desowitz
November 21, 2012 2:52 PM
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Producer Nancy Bernstein, Peter Ramsey, William Joyce and producer Christina Steinberg

"Rise of the Guardians" marks another turning point for DreamWorks Animation with its sincere embrace of pure enchantment. "The Avengers"-like take on protecting children with Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy, and Jack Frost is as far from "Shrek" as you can get. At the same time, "Guardians" doesn't get as dramatic as "How to Train Your Dragon." So it's definitely a tricky proposition to uphold innocence in this age of post-modern cynicism. But that's always been part of Oscar-winning William Joyce's retro ethos ("The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore"). He takes ther film right to that Wicked Witch of the West place where it's deliciously terrifying yet not too scary for kids to be afraid to look at the screen.

Thus, the "Guardians" is an inspired reinvention of folk tale mythology that taps into the superhero hunger so prevalent today. And for first-time director Peter Ramsey, it was definitely the superhero appeal that brought him to "Guardians," along with the notion that a child's belief in these beloved icons is so strong, so integral, that they can't exist without it. "We streamlined a lot of what Bill Joyce had done [in his books]," Ramsey explains. "He has this beautiful, ornate, retro style drawing from Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, and N.C. Wyeth and for animation you have to pare away all of the details, so, number one, you can render all of the details, and, number two, so you can move them through space elegantly. That was job one but we did the best we could to retain the flavor of his characters."

And that flavor is embodied by the wonder, hope, dreams, memories, and fun depicted by the heroes who battle the Boogeyman--or Pitch, as he's called--who brings nightmares to children. But what would such a story be like without the rite of passage for a reluctant hero? And so Chris Pine's Jack Frost and Jude Law's Pitch are protagonist and antagonist: each longing to be believed by children and to belong to a family.

Coincidentally, their doppelganger relationship is reminiscent of the one between Daniel Craig's James Bond and Javier Bardem's Silva in "Skyfall." In fact, "Guardians" opens with Frost emerging from a frozen lake in a solemn moment of rebirth. It's a beautiful and daring way to open the movie. "We always had faith in the power of the opening and never thought it was too dark," Ramsey offers.

Part of the success of the character animation is the realism of Jack's soft skin. For this, the animators did a bit of reverse engineering by studying rapid-prototyped models made of resin from Legacy similar to the ones engineered by Laika for "ParaNorman." "It was built on the idea of actual, physical models of how high light passes through the layers of skin to create a slight translucency," Ramsey continues. "That was something that had never been done before at DreamWorks but our head of visual effects, David Prescott, brought that technology to the film with those shaders."

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