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

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 21, 2012 at 2:52PM

"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.
'Rise of the Guardians' - Sandman
'Rise of the Guardians' - Sandman

World building also became an imaginative adventure under the guidance of production designer Patrick Henenberger, with DreamWorks conjuring distinctive environments for the North Pole, Bunny Empire, the Tooth Palace, and Pitch's Lair. Imagine the saturated palette of a Powell and Pressburger movie. With the North Pole, you've got a fascinating clash of textures in the workshop area with the ice encroaching on the wood; in the Bunny Empire, they pay homage to Miyazaki with the design shape of the stone carvings; and in the Tooth Palace, they hit on the idea of Thai architecture for an exotic place for birdlike creatures and the cataloging of millions of baby teeth.

However, "Guardian's" biggest technical challenge was the creation of Sandy's golden sand, and, by extension, the darker variation used by Pitch. It's one of the most ambitious point render effects they've ever done at DreamWorks. The sand emits light and is made up of wondrous design shapes, filigrees and swirls. Prescott and effects lead Stephen Wood were able to intricately design where and when they wanted animated shapes to occur within a stream. Curiously, by running the stream backward the animators accidentally stumbled upon the best possible reversal effect for Pitch's black sand, which is coarser in its makeup.

For Ramsey, though, it was more of an aesthetic breakthrough, which should definitely receive serious VFX awards consideration by the Visual Effects Society. "They were able to give the sand a very distinct character," Ramsey suggests. "There's the lyrical streaming and as it's forming characters it will make these whimsical, stylized shapes. It does curlicues really well and the way that the strands fold back into each other is a really graceful and elegant separation."

Of course, it's an old trick that goes back to Méliès, and, of all the revisionist takes on these characters, Sandy provided the most room to play in the sandbox. He's a badass Buddha: part Laurel and Hardy and part Harpo Marx. And while Joyce continues to expand the "Guardians" as a book series, Ramsey hopes the movie is successful enough to warrant a franchise. What next? Maybe the Man in the Moon: the mysterious Nick Fury of the "Guardians."

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Animation, Interviews , Features

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.