Ben Stops by DreamWorks for an Early Look at 'Rise of the Guardians'
by Ben Pearson
November 8, 2012
On Tuesday, October 30th, I visited the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale, California, for the first time to see an early screening of Rise of the Guardians, the studio's newest film that hits theaters later this month on November 21st. I joined a small group of journalists to get a behind the scenes look at making the film, from some early animation tests to variations on character designs and much more. Below, you'll find my thoughts on the movie with interview snippets from the creative minds behind the project, including director Peter Ramsey and executive producer Guillermo del Toro, plus some cool concept art.
While the trailers tend to paint the film as a somewhat standard superhero origin story of childhood icons, it's actually a much more complicated movie than that. Along with the great action, terrific animation, and whimsical humor, it's also a wonderful study of belief and fear, two major themes that aren't explored as much on film as they used to be. Longtime fans of Guillermo del Toro will be able to feel his influence from the opening moments of the movie, but I was also impressed with the director, Peter Ramsey, and his vision for the story (based on the books of William Joyce). Ramsey been working in the industry for a long time, but this is his feature directorial debut, and he spoke to us a bit about what drew him to the project:
"When I first heard the idea that there was this new take on childhood icons, it immediately sounds like something that could be super cheesy and super exploitative, and all those things that kind of make me go, 'Yeah well, sounds interesting but no thanks.' I started thinking about it though, and looking at what Bill had done and realizing the simplicity of the idea he had, which was basically, 'take one step to the left.' Shift the perspective slightly, and see them from a slightly different angle, and suddenly all these things start leaping out, like these things that they really represent, the potency that their images have in the world, the reason they've lasted so long, and it got me thinking about mythology, the essential things that each character represents, which we've explained in the movie and used to help drive our story - stuff like hope and wonder and memory and dreams - those things, they started to take on a lot more power."
Because Rise of the Guardians is based on William Joyce's children's book series, the author had a lot of influence on not only the film's story, but since he illustrated his novels, he also contributed to the look of the animated characters as well. As Joyce was pitching his idea for a movie, he hadn't even begun writing the books yet, and the studio settled on an interesting arrangement for the story to progress using both forms of media: Joyce would write the books as the movie was being made, but the film would take place 300 years after the events of the books. That way, the two stories would share the same characters and the same spirit, but not step on each others' toes when it came to actual plot points.
I've been at Comic-Con and seen Guillermo del Toro speak before, but until this event, I had never been in close quarters with him as he spoke about one of his projects. His passion comes through even more so over long periods of time than the quick nerd-bursts he gives in Hall H, as he was able to fully delve into the soul of the project without being restricted by a tight schedule (he actually had meetings planned and had to duck out a bit early, but he was very generous with his time and stuck around and made himself available to us for far longer than he committed to).
I was actually able to shake the man's hand as the group of us, around fifteen people, spoke with him about how he came to this project and what he wanted to accomplish with it. He came to DreamWorks to learn an apprenticeship in animation in preparation for directing his own animated feature one day, and the duality of the hero and villain in particular resonated with him as one of the things he appreciated about this:
We shaped the story to show two opposites, but two characters who are very similar. In the great origin stories, be it myth or superhero, the villain and the hero are born essentially at the same time. And if they are not born at the same time, they share the same characteristics. You can see it in Greek mythology, in European mythology, Teutonic mythology, or you can see it in Batman and the Joker...That was one of the things that was important to show. That Jack and Pitch ultimately are disenfranchised, alone, they feel marginalized, but the way they articulate it or the way they choose to go at it, is completely different.
But Jack Frost is actually among the least iconic characters they worked with in this. The big one, Santa Claus (aka Mr. North - seen here), was where the filmmakers really wanted to alter public perception of Santa and give a completely fresh and new spin on this larger-than-life personality. Del Toro explains:
He's not the jolly, soft, rosy-cheeked, "Saturday Evening Post," safe Santa. He's a guy that's obviously been in a couple of brawls. He's a guy that has seen a couple of tattoo sessions. He's a guy that can grab a scimitar, he can grab a sword, and get into it. He has the energy of a Cossack...we wanted to infuse him with the spirit of a hunter and the spirit of a man of the wilderness and everything that also comes from the original mythology.
But it's not just Santa they were working with. This production was a major challenge because they had to create six unique realms, plus a human world, that all had to fit together in one movie and feel like they could co-exist in the same universe. Patrick Hanenberger, the film's production designer, explained how they handled those challenges and kept the 450 people who worked on the movie on the same page:
Each character has their own symbol, their own shape, and their own color. I thought this was a really, really strong identity that we could carry through the entire design, the entire DNA of the movie. If you think of North, he's a big red square. Sandman is this golden round little circle. This made its way into the animation, into the world design with the sets, and so on.
The design team made a chart with each character's essential details on it and passed it around to all of the departments, and along with Joyce's books and the script itself, these images served as a sort of Bible while they were going through production. Nancy Bernstein, one of the film's producers, also told us how each environment they created had to be associated with the thing that each character represents: for Bunny, it's hope; for Sandman, it's dreams, and so on. In order to get through the insane process of creating this many locations and characters in the rather short time they had to develop the project, "quick and dirty" 3D Maya models were made in sync with paintings and artist renderings so Ramsey could have an idea of what the worlds would actually feel like instead of just looking at a painting of what something could look like.
Peter Ramsey also spoke with us about the many different ways the story could have gone, and without giving away any spoilers, he also explained his decision to keep the Guardians at the forefront of the story:
We made a decision very early on that we didn't want the Guardian characters to fade into the woodwork. OK, if you're going to do a movie with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and these icons, that's what people are going to come to see, so you have to make them real characters in their own right. In order to structure our story, we had to give them all unique relationships to Jack Frost. If I'm proud of anything in the movie, I would say the way that the characters work together as an ensemble in the story, the functions they have, that might be the decision that I'm happiest about. Because they all do kind of bounce off Jack in different ways and support him and help to tell his story.
Del Toro talked about how great it was being able to pull all of these disparate characters together in one movie, talking about making them interesting while also highlighting the sense of wonder and innocence that the filmmakers hoped to achieve:
All of the characters should really love what they do, but have forgotten a little piece of why they do it. They are not the post-modern, cynical, 'let me show you how boring it is to be Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny' and how they want to do something else. It really was a wide-eyed joy at being who they are.
He also wanted to stress how important it is for kids to see a movie that actually deals with fear right now, considering all of the fear-mongering and sensationalist stories that are dominating the media landscape, and Ramsey agreed, saying that they really had to fight to keep that darkness in the animated film. He was actually disappointed that they had to cut back on some of the darker material that further explored Pitch's corrosive effect on the children in the movie, but said they simply didn't have enough time to keep that in, so what we see in the finished movie is a condensed version of that sequence.
Gabe Hordos, the film's character designer, is even more passionate than Guillermo del Toro, if you can possibly imagine such a thing. He gave us a presentation about creating the movement of each character in the movie, showing us early tests for how they each would walk, fly, or use their powers with the excitement of a kid at show and tell. The best parts were early tests he created before they knew who would be cast as voice actors, so Hordos gave Santa the voice of Boris the Blade from Guy Ritchie's Snatch (complete with expletives and everything) as he tried to find a personality for the character.
The visual effects supervisor, Dave Prescott, took us through the steps of creating the detailed sand for Sandman and the whispy gallops for Pitch's Nightmares (they're black horses made of fear... or night mares... get it?). He had Legacy Effects create a real, physical silicon model of skin of the characters so they could play with different light sources to test and see what the transparency should look like in different environments. They also employed a digital modelling technique called cellular automaton to Jack's frost, developing a version of the software in house that allowed Jack to touch a surface with his staff and for frost to spread in a very stylized and specific pattern across the entire plane. Hopefully if you're reading all of this and you're still under the impression that animation is easy, or that it doesn't take as much work as live action, this level of intricate detail that these guys put into the research will convince you otherwise.
Overall, it was an excellent trip to a studio that is clearly on the upswing and is truly beginning to place story as the most important element of a project. Other studios could learn a lesson from that way of thinking, and I'm excited to see not only how DreamWorks Animation handles these characters moving forward (hopefully as a new franchise), but also to see what else the studio comes up with del Toro as a creative godfather consulting and executive producing projects until he directs an animated feature of his own. We've featured a few of the concept art pieces above that they showed us. For more on Rise of the Guardians, read my review from the 2012 AFI Fest. Thanks for the invite, DreamWorks! Excited to see this?