Visit to Dreamworks Animation: ‘Rise of the Guardians’
The talented folks behind the dazzling 3D film have a real passion for the movies
Walking into the DreamWorks Animation studios in Glendale, California, you almost feel as if you’re entering one of the colorful films for which the studio is famous. The attractive buildings are laid out like a homey small town, everything seems freshly scrubbed, and the multitudes of employees wandering around seem unusually friendly. What accounts for such good cheer? Could it be the delicious free breakfasts and lunches the studio provides every day? The clever non-hierarchical way the buildings are set up so that people from all departments run into each other often and get to know each other’s faces? Spending a day at DreamWorks with some other journalists to talk to the creative folks behind “Rise of the Guardians” was so much fun, I practically had to be forced off the premises by security!
DreamWorks Animation has released a total of 24 features to date. As of this month, the films (including the Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda franchises) have earned a combined total of $10 billion worldwide (yes, that’s billion with a b!)—perhaps one reason why everyone at the studio seems to be in such a good mood? Next week, the studio will release its 25th feature—and one of its most ambitious. “Rise of the Guardians” is based on the work of author/illustrator William Joyce. It presents some very familiar figures—Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, and Jack Frost—in an entirely new and unexpected light.
The film is directed by Peter Ramsey with a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. In the story, Jack Frost (Chris Pine) is a carefree boy who has no responsibilities in the world. But this changes when the evil Pitch (Jude Law), begins his plan to engulf the world in darkness. The Guardians, North/Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and the Sandman try to convince Jack to join their group to stop Pitch and to save the children of the world.
Before heading to a screening of the stunningly beautiful film, we wandered from building to building talking to members of the team who have been working on it for the past four years. First up was director Peter Ramsey and producer Christina Steinberg who explained the genesis of the project. “Bill Joyce first met with us here at the end of 2007,” Steinberg explained. “He came with this incredible bible of drawings that he’d been working on over the last 20 years based on these characters. He had very detailed mythologies about all of them which were inspired by his daughter who, when she was five, came to him and asked 'Do Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny know each other?' Bill said, 'Yes, of course they do!' and started inventing these beautiful stories for her about how they all worked together.”
Joyce then began working on the Guardians of Childhood books, essentially providing all of the origin stories for these characters. The decision was made right at the beginning that the books and movie, while featuring the same characters, would not overlap—the events in “Rise of the Guardians” take place hundreds of years after the events depicted in the book series.
Director Peter Ramsey started his career as a storyboard artist for live action films, from “Independence Day” and “Men in Black” to “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Cast Away.” When he came to DreamWorks he worked on the Shrek films and then jumped at the chance to get involved with this film. But first Ramsey had to let go of a few reservations. “When I heard the idea that there was this new take on these childhood icons, it sounded like something that could be super cheesy,” Ramsey told us. “But then I started thinking about it. I looked at what Bill had done and the simplicity of his idea which was basically to take one step to the left and see these characters from a slightly different angle. Suddenly all these things started leaping out—the potency that their images have in the world, why they’ve lasted for so long. It got me thinking about the mythology and the things that each character represents such as hope, wonder, memory, and dreams. Those ideas started to get me really excited.”
Ramsey and Steinberg said that working with David Lindsay-Abaire, they talked about how to make each of these familiar characters into a kind of superhero. They spent a long time watching other movies that had the kind of feel they were looking for. Movies such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “E.T.” as well as the Harry Potter and Star Wars series. “These were movies that were fast-moving and had a lot of scope and scale,” Ramsey said, “but that had the ideas under the hood that could drive an emotional story.”
We then got a chance to talk to master storyteller Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labrynth,” “The Hobbit”) who is the executive producer of “Rise of the Guardians” and was involved in all aspects of production. Del Toro said he was instantly captivated by the story, that his two daughters were huge fans of Joyce’s books, and that he felt strongly that this was going to be a beautiful, powerful movie. Still, he had some of his own ideas and locked himself up with Ramsey and others to try to nail down the specifics of the story. “We had several really long breakfasts—one of which lasted more than ten hours! But I was really impressed by the clarity of vision Peter had.”
Gradually, the nuances of the tale emerged. “We shaped the story to show two opposites,” del Toro explained, “but also two characters who were 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 share the same characteristics. If the circumstances were not what they are, they could be friends. That was one of the things that was important to show, that Jack Frost and Pitch ultimately are both disenfranchised and alone—they feel marginalized but the way they articulate it and the way they choose to go at it is completely different.”
Del Toro explained how they developed each character, based on Joyce’s original vision. “North (the Santa Claus character), for example, is undomesticated,” he said. “He’s not the jolly, soft, rosy-cheeked ‘Saturday Evening Post’ safe Santa. This is a guy that has obviously been in a couple of brawls; this is a guy who has seen a couple of tattoo sessions; a guy that can grab a scimitar and sword and get into it—he has the energy of a Cossack! Being that the roots of North are not what the American myth is, we wanted to infuse him with the spirit of a hunter, and the spirit of a man of the wilderness.”
Del Toro explained that they didn’t want anything in this story to seem like a parody of these iconic figures. “All of the characters really love what they do, but they have forgotten a little piece of why they do it. But 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’—they really have a wide-eyed joy at being who they are.”
As the team continued to build the vision for this film, del Toro’s role was clear. “Every time I was involved in anything, be it critiquing or giving an opinion of design or story or a certain sequence, my only duty was to be completely brutal, completely honest, and as creative as I could be.”
We met production designer Patrick Hanenberger and producer Nancy Bernstein who talked to us about how they worked on the initial art concepts for the characters. “Our great challenge in this movie,” Bernstein said, “was that every character is just extraordinary and what they stand for is extraordinary! They could easily each have their own movie! Patrick’s challenge was to find a way to reign in these designs as well as let the movie breathe and fly—allow it to be magical but find a common language so that all of these characters, all these various environments, and all of the outer characters lived in the same movie.”
Hanenberger showed us the original concept sketches for the characters. They had to find a way to depict six unique characters and six unique worlds plus the human world. It was a daunting task that required a lot of cooperation from every department at DreamWorks—over 450 people ended up working on the film! Patrick also worked closely with author Bill Joyce on the early designs. He explained that they ultimately developed a unique color and shape identity for each character. North was a big red square, Sandman was a golden round circle, and so on. This color and shape identity was used in various ways throughout the film.
Gabe Hordos, the head of character animation, took us through his team’s process of character development. “We started brainstorming these characters as if they were actors,” Hordos said, “instead of characters in an animated movie. How can we make these characters original? How can we make them somehow something you’ve never seen before even though you’ve seen hundreds of versions of each of them?”
Hordos then showed us some fascinating early animated tests of the character of Jack Frost. He focused on the fact that Jack was about 300 years old—and how that would affect his abilities. At first he’d be very excited about it, maybe the next year he’s start getting a little bored, and by the third year perhaps a bit angry. After another 297 years he’d probably be okay with everything, really skilled, but not trying too hard. So in the tests they tried having Jack doing these incredible moves he’s capable of, but with his hands in his pockets, a little blasé after doing these things for so long.
As they worked on the other characters, some of the voices were cast and some were not, but they hadn’t started recording. Hordos showed us animation tests where they grabbed lines from other films that they thought had the right feel for their purposes. Seeing Santa Claus spouting some of the lines from the Guy Ritchie’s gritty crime movie “Snatch” was so hilarious I wish it could be included in the DVD extras—but let’s just say the language was not something usually associated with a film by DreamWorks Animation!
Finally, visual effects supervisor Dave Prescott and head of effects Yancy Lindquist showed us how they developed some of the film’s sensational 3D effects. They broke new ground in the depiction of authentic-looking skin on CG characters and Prescott explained how they created the Sandman’s glittering sand that stretched the envelope of what has been possible in animation.
After watching more impressive tests, we walked across the street to the studio theater and donned our 3D glasses to watch the gorgeous production. The film made me laugh, it made me cry (I admit it!), and while I’ve never been a huge 3D fan, made me feel like I was really part of the action. A snowstorm at the end of the story seemed so real I couldn’t believe it when I found myself trying to catch snowflakes in my hand! What am I, ten? Well, to be honest, I did feel like a kid again!
“Rise of the Guardians” opens everywhere on November 21, 2012.