"Rise of the Guardians" marks another turning point for DreamWorks Animation with its sincere embrace of pure enchantment. "The Avengers"-like take on protecting children with Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy, and Jack Frost is as far from "Shrek" as you can get. At the same time, "Guardians" doesn't get as dramatic as "How to Train Your Dragon." So it's definitely a tricky proposition to uphold innocence in this age of post-modern cynicism. But that's always been part of Oscar-winning William Joyce's retro ethos ("The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore"). He takes ther film right to that Wicked Witch of the West place where it's deliciously terrifying yet not too scary for kids to be afraid to look at the screen.
Thus, the "Guardians" is an inspired reinvention of folk tale mythology that taps into the superhero hunger so prevalent today. And for first-time director Peter Ramsey, it was definitely the superhero appeal that brought him to "Guardians," along with the notion that a child's belief in these beloved icons is so strong, so integral, that they can't exist without it. "We streamlined a lot of what Bill Joyce had done [in his books]," Ramsey explains. "He has this beautiful, ornate, retro style drawing from Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, and N.C. Wyeth and for animation you have to pare away all of the details, so, number one, you can render all of the details, and, number two, so you can move them through space elegantly. That was job one but we did the best we could to retain the flavor of his characters."
And that flavor is embodied by the wonder, hope, dreams, memories, and fun depicted by the heroes who battle the Boogeyman–or Pitch, as he's called–who brings nightmares to children. But what would such a story be like without the rite of passage for a reluctant hero? And so Chris Pine's Jack Frost and Jude Law's Pitch are protagonist and antagonist: each longing to be believed by children and to belong to a family.
Coincidentally, their doppelganger relationship is reminiscent of the one between Daniel Craig's James Bond and Javier Bardem's Silva in "Skyfall." In fact, "Guardians" opens with Frost emerging from a frozen lake in a solemn moment of rebirth. It's a beautiful and daring way to open the movie. "We always had faith in the power of the opening and never thought it was too dark," Ramsey offers.
Part of the success of the character animation is the realism of Jack's soft skin. For this, the animators did a bit of reverse engineering by studying rapid-prototyped models made of resin from Legacy similar to the ones engineered by Laika for "ParaNorman." "It was built on the idea of actual, physical models of how high light passes through the layers of skin to create a slight translucency," Ramsey continues. "That was something that had never been done before at DreamWorks but our head of visual effects, David Prescott, brought that technology to the film with those shaders."
World building also became an imaginative adventure under the guidance of production designer Patrick Henenberger, with DreamWorks conjuring distinctive environments for the North Pole, Bunny Empire, the Tooth Palace, and Pitch's Lair. Imagine the saturated palette of a Powell and Pressburger movie. With the North Pole, you've got a fascinating clash of textures in the workshop area with the ice encroaching on the wood; in the Bunny Empire, they pay homage to Miyazaki with the design shape of the stone carvings; and in the Tooth Palace, they hit on the idea of Thai architecture for an exotic place for birdlike creatures and the cataloging of millions of baby teeth.
However, "Guardian's" biggest technical challenge was the creation of Sandy's golden sand, and, by extension, the darker variation used by Pitch. It's one of the most ambitious point render effects they've ever done at DreamWorks. The sand emits light and is made up of wondrous design shapes, filigrees and swirls. Prescott and effects lead Stephen Wood were able to intricately design where and when they wanted animated shapes to occur within a stream. Curiously, by running the stream backward the animators accidentally stumbled upon the best possible reversal effect for Pitch's black sand, which is coarser in its makeup.
For Ramsey, though, it was more of an aesthetic breakthrough, which should definitely receive serious VFX awards consideration by the Visual Effects Society. "They were able to give the sand a very distinct character," Ramsey suggests. "There's the lyrical streaming and as it's forming characters it will make these whimsical, stylized shapes. It does curlicues really well and the way that the strands fold back into each other is a really graceful and elegant separation."
Of course, it's an old trick that goes back to Méliès, and, of all the revisionist takes on these characters, Sandy provided the most room to play in the sandbox. He's a badass Buddha: part Laurel and Hardy and part Harpo Marx. And while Joyce continues to expand the "Guardians" as a book series, Ramsey hopes the movie is successful enough to warrant a franchise. What next? Maybe the Man in the Moon: the mysterious Nick Fury of the "Guardians."