On November 21, DreamWorks will release “Rise of the Guardians”, its latest animation feature. Based on “The Guardians of Childhood,” a series of children’s books by author and illustrator William Joyce, the Guardians are a no-nonsense Santa Claus, a rebellious Jack Frost, a fearless Tooth Fairy and a tough Easter Bunny, who must band together to protect the children of the world from the wrath of the dark spirit, Pitch. It has an all-star voice cast which includes Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher, Chris Pine, and Jude Law.
Sounds like another garden variety blockbuster, right? But here’s news: it is directed by Peter Ramsey, the first African American director of a big budget CG (computer) animated film. Ramsey, 49, is being heralded by DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg as having an “extraordinary gift for storytelling and creativity”, and the film is already winning awards from international film festivals.
But Ramsey’s path to directing this film has been anything but textbook. He was born and raised in Crenshaw, a predominantly black low to middle income neighborhood in Los Angeles. As a recent article in the Glendale News-Press, found here, notes, as a child he was mesmerized by the animated movies his parents would occasionally take him to see, but he never dreamed of being able to create them. It wasn’t until he was much older that opportunity knocked. “I was in my 20s, working in a bookstore, and I had a friend that got me a job painting a mural on a film set. And that’s where it started,” Ramsey says. “That’s when I realized it was possible. But I am completely self-taught. It was all on-the-job training.”
Ramsey eventually became a storyboard artist and worked on many live-action films including “Fight Club”, “Panic Room,” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula”, before moving into animation at DreamWorks, working on “Shrek the Third” and “Monsters vs. Aliens.” He has been working on “Rise of the Guardians” for three years.
I had the opportunity to see and hear Ramsey on a panel at a conference recently, and was thrilled to hear the inspirational story of his career. Directors of animated films don’t always have the high profile that directors of live action films receive, so it is good to see that Ramsey is getting the attention he deserves. Good to see as well that the significance of Ramsey at the helm of this movie is not lost on DreamWorks. As Katzenberg noted in the Glendale News-Press article: “What is remarkable is that here is a kid that grew up in the inner city of Los Angeles. The notion of some day being an artist/animator and storyteller and director is an incomprehensible idea; and the fact that he has not only succeeded, but succeeded to the extent he has, is his testament to how talented he is.” Ramsey wants others to be inspired by his success as well. “One of my big hopes is to get out there and talk to kids in connection with the movie,” he told the Glendale News-Press, “show them where I started and what they can do.”
So let’s do our part to support Ramsey. Take your sons (and daughters) to see “Rise of the Guardians” when it opens on Thanksgiving weekend, and look for his name in the credits. Talk to them about Ramsey, and how he exemplifies that wherever your starting point may be, being open to opportunity and putting in good hard work can place you squarely on the path to success.