Right now, Peter Ramsey won’t allow himself to think much past Thanksgiving Day.
That’s pretty tough to do, considering that his first time at bat directing a Hollywood film, critics and insiders are suggesting he dust off his tuxedo so that he can collect a bunch of trophies at the 2013 award shows. Ramsey is the first African-American to direct a 3D animated film, and his project, Rise of the Guardians, is looking to be a big hit for DreamWorks. And it hasn’t even hit theaters yet.
The film opens November 21, but already the project—a sweet tale about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman and Jack Frost teaming up to defeat the Boogie Man—is getting ridiculous, crazy good love in early screenings. It’s done much in the same vein as the Shrek franchise, and like those films, it’ll appeal to adults as much as it does to children.
EBONY talks with Ramsey about directing, live action vs. animation, and what he hopes to be most thankful for this holiday season.
EBONY: You started out wanting to go into live action films, but you were seduced into animation. How did that process happen for you?
Peter Ramsey: Yeah, it’s funny. While I was working in live action, I worked on a movie called Tank Girl. Crazy movie. I did storyboards on that and I also directed the second unit, so a lot of the stunts and action stuff were the things that we worked on. The producer of that movie was a guy named Aaron Warner, and Aaron went on to producing the Shrek movies at DreamWorks.
He actually called me to come work on the very first one, and I was like, “Oh, animation, smanimation.” Of course, Shrek had become this gigantic phenomenon, this huge thing. And the movies were good and really funny. They were doing a third one, and Aaron called me again.
EBONY: And that was eight years ago. Was it challenging making the shift from the world that you came from to this world of animation? Was the learning curve steep?
Peter Ramsey: You know what? It actually was. And I was shocked, because I had storyboarded dozens of movies at that time, so for me that was like falling off a tree. But storyboarding in animation is very different from storyboarding in live action. You’re drawing what the character’s feeling, their emotions, their acting, and that’s something you don’t really do in live action.
EBONY: You’re a trailblazer, being the first African-American director of a 3D animation feature film. Are you seeing doors opening up?
Peter Ramsey: There’s always more work that needs to be done. I never once had the feeling that there was any thought given to who I was being a limitation, or even a difference, at DreamWorks. If you’ve got the chops, if you can do the job, that really is all that matters.
EBONY: And it is a big deal, because animation, in some ways, is bigger than live action. So being a pioneer for other Black directors has to feel a little surreal, right?
Peter Ramsey: It feels really weird to ever have anybody call you a pioneer. I’ve just been trying to do good work. I’ve been trying to give it my best shot; the one thing that I feel like it does give me is a little bit of a platform. Some people will listen to me now. So I get to talk about arts education a lot more. I get to be some kind of mouthpiece for change there.
EBONY: You grew up in Los Angeles. Were you taking the school bus past the studios eyeballing a career as a kid?
PS: The only thing I ever saw was the movies themselves, because I grew up in South Central, in the Crenshaw area. I had absolutely no connection to the movie industry whatsoever. I didn’t understand that people actually make movies. For me, it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I had any kind of inkling that not only did real people make movies, but that I could be in the industry myself.
EBONY: Early buzz on the film is explosive. How difficult is it for you to maintain focus while you are hearing this buzz?
PS: All that stuff is so unreal to me. It’s fantastic that anybody thinks it, and I sure am grateful, but honestly, we just finished the film a week ago. And I am my own toughest critic. I’m so close to it that all I can see right now are the mistakes. It’s like my postpartum depression. Talk to me in a few months, maybe I’ll be drinking champagne or whatever. But right now I’m still stuck in that mindset, so it’s hard for me to get caught up in any kind of buzz or any kind of anticipation because I’m like, “Oh! I should’ve done better there!”
EBONY: The film comes out right before the holidays. What are you going to be thankful for when you sit down at your Thanksgiving table this year?
PS: Hopefully for some nice, big box-office numbers! What I’m really hoping for is that people embrace what it is that we tried to achieve with the film. Because everybody working on the movie—not just me, but really every single person who worked on the movie—was captivated by this idea of giving these characters their due. It’s almost like we’re thanking them for what they gave us in terms of our childhood and that feeling of magic and letting your imagination make something real. So if other people tap into that as well, if they get the feeling that we all had when we were working on it, to me, that would be the best of all.