Tales of 'Rise of the Guardians': Secrets of the Storybook Epic
Executive producer Guillermo del Toro and DreamWorks tapped first-time director Peter Ramsey to bring children's author William Joyce's fantasy to the big screen.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It was a hot August morning in Louisiana nearly a decade ago when Mary Katherine, the young daughter of children's book author-illustrator and animator William Joyce, came shuffling in to see her father, carrying her brother's bloody tooth.
Then she asked a question that would change Joyce's life: "Dad, does the Tooth Fairy know Santa Claus?"
"It was an ambitious question," recalls Joyce. "I hadn't even had my coffee yet."
His answer ("Yes") begat more questions and eventually would lead to DreamWorks Animation's Rise of the Guardians, which hit theaters Nov. 21. An Avengers-like assemblage of characters from myth and fable, the $145 million Rise follows Santa Claus/Nicholas St. North (voiced by Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), Sandman and Jack Frost (Chris Pine) as they team to battle the innocence-snuffing plans of Pitch Black (Jude Law), the lord of nightmares.
Rise had a soft opening ($32.4 million during the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend) and could end up being a rare financial misfire for DWA, but the movie got positive reviews and serves as a tonal departure for the company -- from the jokey, pop culture reference-heavy vibe of the Shrek series, the Madagascar films and Megamind to a darker shade of family entertainment.
It's also handsomely crafted, something that does not go unnoticed during the nominations process.
Rise was directed by Peter Ramsey, who not only made his feature debut after working as a sought-out storyboard artist (on such films as Minority Report, Fight Club and Being John Malkovich) but also became the first African-American director of a studio animated film.
"The idea is that when you are a kid, you believe that these characters are real," says Ramsey of the story's attraction. "There is an in-built emotional connection that pushes buttons for people that they aren't even sure are being pushed. I'm talking adults as well as children."
After that initial conversation with his daughter, Joyce filed the idea away and went back to work, writing and illustrating various books -- two of which became TV series for Disney Channel and PBS (A Day With Wilbur Robinson and Rolie Polie Olie, respectively). He also moved into feature animation, working as a visual developer on Pixar's 1998 hit A Bug's Life and a producer on 2005's Robots.
But the idea nagged at him. He envisioned a 13-book series revolving around these childhood icons that could complement a movie. He pitched it to a few studios and talked about it during story sessions here and there, and those who heard it, loved it. More than one studio made Joyce an offer for movie rights … but wanted him to drop the book aspect. They cared less about the publishing angle and simply wanted to shove it into a feature pipeline. Joyce politely declined -- and it seemed like whenever he resisted, it simply made bidders raise their offers.
Finally, in 2006, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, along with chief creative officer Bill Damaschke, chief marketing officer Anne Globe and producer Christina Steinberg, flew to the author's hometown of Shreveport, La., to make their pitch.
Katzenberg and his group reassured Joyce that DWA wasn't about to take the characters and play them for laughs as in the fairy tale-twisting Shrek movies. More importantly, they wanted him to make his books and work on the movie at the same time.
"They offered less money, but I went with them because they were the only ones that got it," says Joyce.
(Also thrown into the deal was Joyce's 1993 book Santa Calls, which had been in development at Warner Bros. and Fox for years. Ideas from that book, such as the Globe of Good Children, ended up in Rise.)
Joyce, who had never helmed a feature, was paired to co-direct the movie with Ramsey, another directorial rookie -- but when his daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor, Joyce stepped aside and returned home to Louisiana.
Unlike most animation helmers, Ramsey didn't get his start in the field; he came from the world of live action. He was a storyboard artist who had worked with an enviable list of directors including Steven Spielberg, David Fincher and Spike Jonze. But he did have decades of experience telling tales through drawings.
"You start learning to tell stories economically with the camera, connecting ideas on screen with the camera, blocking things so that they are simple but still dynamic," says Ramsey, claiming he learned, explicitly or implicitly, from those directors.
Ramsey began his animation career when he joined DWA as a story artist during the making of 2007's Shrek the Third and rose through the ranks to become head of story on 2009's Monsters vs. Aliens before getting his chance to direct a Monsters vs. Aliens Halloween special for NBC.
With Joyce now serving as an executive producer, Ramsey was going to have to rise to the occasion on his own. Luckily, the company thought he was ready.
As writer David Lindsay-Abaire (who had collaborated with Joyce on Robots and wrote the upcoming Oz: The Great and Powerful) went to work on the script, Ramsey focused on a looming preproduction hurdle: defining the characters and making sure their versions of such icons as Santa Claus and Easter Bunny would play as heroic in every country in the increasingly important global market.
Guillermo del Toro, the acclaimed geek director who consults on DWA's features and served as one of Rise's executive producers, says the filmmakers were not overtly concerned about the traditions of other countries. "Our duty was not to tackle things that existed in every country but make them understandable to whatever country they traveled," says del Toro, pointing out that these characters are global defenders.
Some characters got designed and redesigned as the director and producers tried to figure out their roles in the story. Jack Frost started as a Rip Van Winkle-type adult but got younger during a story meeting so he could serve as the audience's way into the movie's world.
Initially, the Easter Bunny was a meek creature before morphing into the athletic hero figure seen in the movie. And it was Katzenberg who thought to make him Australian and go after Jackman to voice the character based on a line in one of Joyce's books that referred to Bunny being most proud of continent-creating work in Australia.
And, according to Joyce, it was del Toro who had the idea to -- spoiler alert -- seemingly kill off Sandman, the protector of dreams.
"He was full-throttle Guillermo," recalls Joyce of the gregarious filmmaker's pitch during a meeting. "'This movie needs balls. This movie is too nice. We need to kill somebody. We need to kill off the one guy nobody wants to see die. We need to kill Sandman.'"
Joyce remembers that the room was stunned. Like, forever? "No, he f--ing comes back!" roared del Toro. "The audience just thinks he dies!"
When DWA made 2010's Oscar-nominated How to Train Your Dragon, it brought on famed cinematographer and nine-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins as a visual consultant. The company tapped him again for Guardians.
"Most of my input is about developing the look and style of the film -- the look of the lighting from scene to scene and the style of the camera," says Deakins. "I spent time -- as much as I could -- at DreamWorks and working with the people there; then, when I was shooting Skyfall, it was all done remotely."
Deakins notes that the story "cried out" for different environments and looks, with each character almost a product of the world from which they came. North's world was all ice and mountains, while Bunny's was lush green and earthy. Pitch Black, trying to drain all color from life, came from a high-contrast realm of black and white.
As for the look of the characters, head of character animation Gabe Hordos explains that "this movie was about belief. It needed to be a style where you almost forgot that you were watching animation -- a little more realistic. That type of animation is extremely difficult and demanding, especially when you are dealing with humanistic characters.
"Character development was critical -- I think the greatest strength that Peter has as a director is he is able to describe an emotion in a way that an animator can understand in a deeper place," adds Hordos, noting that numerous animators -- as well as Ramsey -- would even act out scenes to help get the performances right. "Peter would speak to the animators like an actor on stage," he says. "In effect, we became 'Method animators.'"
On top of the visual design, the producers and filmmakers wanted to ensure that each Guardian was represented with a unique sonic style. Says Oscar-winning rerecording mixer Andy Nelson: "For Tooth, you heard her wings fluttering. Jack was the sound of the wind. Bunny had his boomerang. North [stomped around] with his big boots." And because Sandman communicates nonverbally, the team created sounds with sand that effectively would serve as his dialogue. (In addition to 7.1, this is the first theatrical release to have been mixed in both Dolby Atmos and Barco Auro 11.1, two immersive sound formats that give mixers more channels and speaker locations to place sound more precisely.)
Everything about Rise of the Guardians -- the designs, the lighting, the sound -- was done with an eye toward making these larger-than-life figures look and feel as believable as possible.
"We wanted to try to evoke the way you feel about them when you are a kid: You don't know everything that they do, but it feels like a lot, and it seems like there's a universe that is out of your reach," says Ramsey. "It led us to design and render things to a level of this heightened, stylized 'pushed' reality."
Joyce's daughter might have been the catalyst for Rise, but tragically she never saw the finished product. While the movie was in production, Mary Katherine took a turn for the worse, and it became clear to Joyce that his then 18-year-old child would not pull through. One of her final wishes was to travel the world, so they did.
It was fall 2011, and the two were in Greece when Joyce's Man in the Moon -- the first in his Guardians of Childhood picture book series -- came out, and copies had arrived at their hotel. At a Greek temple overlooking the Mediterranean, Joyce surprised his daughter with the book and asked if he could read it to her.
The book ends with a Guardians oath, and after Joyce finished, Mary Katherine remarked that anyone who reads the book becomes a de facto Guardian. Joyce smiled.
Once again, she'd given him an idea he'd never have thought of on his own.