It's hard to tell just from looking at him, but Peter Ramsey, director of the new animated film Rise of the Guardians, is a minority in Hollywood. To get where he is today, he has had to overcome prejudices and unspoken stereotypes about his people: storyboard artists.
Storyboard artists aren't very high on the moviemaking food chain. They draw a screenplay frame by frame, a bit like a comic strip. There is no storyboarding Oscar. One of the animation awards is given for storyboarding; they're called Annies, as if they were given to orphans.
Ramsey, who has never directed a major motion picture before, is also African American. Rise of the Guardians (in theaters now), which reimagines such childhood staples as Santa, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy as a Justice League--style group of superheroes, is the most expensive movie ever made by a black director, at $145 million. Walking around New York City's chapel to childhood, FAO Schwarz, Ramsey, 49, says he never thought about the significance of the price tag until his parents, who still live in the Los Angeles neighborhood he grew up in, mentioned it. "My mom and dad read about it and told me tears came. The magnitude of it hadn't dawned on me."
It certainly dawned on Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, who has been telling anyone who will listen. The studio's most reliable franchises are running out of juice--even neurotic zebras (Madagascar), spry bears (Kung Fu Panda) and grumpy ogres (Shrek) can be squeezed dry--and Guardians is its attempt to launch a new series. The stakes are North Pole high.
There were not a lot of trips to FAO Schwarz or its ilk during Ramsey's childhood. In fact, movies were a rare treat. He grew up in Crenshaw, famous as the gritty setting of Boyz N the Hood, at "the tail end of white flight," he says. His father was a mail carrier, and his mother helped out around his elementary school. A couple of his childhood friends died of gunshot wounds, but "we never felt deprived," he says. "It wasn't until looking back that I noticed what we didn't have."
Ramsey knew nobody who went to college, but he was a bit of a whiz kid--there was a rumor at his school that he had read an entire set of encyclopedias--and he got into UCLA as an art major. "Teachers were talking about Cubist space and Man Ray photograms," he recalls. "It was traumatic. I just wanted to draw better."
He dropped out and started working at an art bookstore, where a co-worker asked him to paint a mural for a low-budget film. That job led to another and another. He was the storyboard artist on David Fincher's Fight Club and Panic Room and on Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula. He switched to animation in 2004 and "has done incredible work for us over the last eight years," says Katzenberg.
"We thought getting into the business in the first place wasn't an option," says Ramsey of his community back in Crenshaw. "We couldn't afford to go to film school. We had no connections to get an internship." Storyboarding, he says, is a great equalizer, because the only price of entry is the ability to put a story in picture form.