Peter Ramsey’s not soft.
You might think so, if you checked out his latest film Rise of the Guardians (and considering it grossed $32.6 million in the first five days, you just may have been dragged out to see it after polishing off the last of the turkey). It’s a DreamWorks animated film, done in the vein of the Shrek series, and it pits Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman and Jack Frost against the Boogeyman. But Santa (voiced by Alec Baldwin) is a tattoo rocking badass. And the Easter Bunny (voiced by Hugh Jackman) is not to be trifled with.
And Ramsey? Well, he grew up in South Central L.A. – right off of Crenshaw – and after years of toiling in the film business, gets to poke his chest out and wear the crown of being the first African American to direct a 3D animated film. And not just any film – a film that will likely get an Oscar and/or Golden Globes nod in the next few months.
But Ramsey, a quiet guy, isn’t dusting off his tuxedo, just yet. He knows how well reviewed his film is and that Hollywood insiders are placing their bets for him to go all the way. Plus, Ramsey didn’t grow up with dreams of being an animation taskmaster. He wanted to direct live action films. And it looked as if that’s where his career was heading.
One of his early films was a 1995 film starring Lori Petty called Tank Girl.
“Crazy movie,” Ramsey chuckled, when I ask him about it. “I did story boards on that and I also directed the second unit, so a lot of the stunts and a lot of action stuff were the things that we worked on.”
The producer of that film was a guy who left to go work on the Shrek films at DreamWorks. He loved working with Ramsey so much that he called him to come work on the first one. Ramsey passed to work with Steven Spielberg instead; he was deep in to live-action and was determined to work his way up to directing his first big budget film.
Turns out, life had other plans for him. And Ramsey is no fool. He saw how huge Shrek went on to become. Animation films aren’t really made for kids, anymore. It’s a big boys world and the money to be made in 3D cartoons usurps anything that live action can do.
That’s just the way of the world now. Not even factoring in aftermarket effects like toys and fast food chain partnerships – they’re just easier to market, and the money stacks are almost too high to count.
As far as the diversity is concerned, Ramsey says there’s still a ways to go. Black guys working in animation are about as common as, well, black guys working in live action. But there’s progress there, and Ramsey gets shy thinking about how significant his pathway-clearing move has been.
“Don’t let it be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he cautions. “Don’t let the perception that there’s not that many of us in those spheres keep you from being one of them, because, honestly, if you just kind of go for it and your work is solid, those doors, they open.”
Especially if you’re good. Or from South Central.