OSCARS: Animating 'Rise Of The Guardians'

Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor.

As a child, William Joyce wanted more answers about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and other mythical figures than his parents were able to give him. “I know where Superman came from — from planet Krypton! — so what about this guy, the Easter Bunny?” says Joyce. The typical parental response to queries about how Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy did what they do was, “They just do,” which Joyce found dissatisfying, even years later when he became a father. “I wanted to come up with something better for my kids,” says Joyce. “And it really galvanized when my daughter asked me one hot August day — after her little brother lost his tooth — ‘Do the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus know each other?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ ”

Joyce, a celebrated illustrator, children’s book author, and filmmaker, began filling in those blanks, creating detailed backstories and a shared universe robust enough to fill a Guardians of Childhood book series. His imaginative work ultimately provided the foundation for DreamWorks Animation’s latest contender in this year’s Oscars race, the 3D animated Rise of the Guardians.

It is a project Joyce calls his magnum opus. He directed a Man In The Moon short film as proof of concept, but found himself turning down offers from the likes of Pixar before hearing exactly what he wanted from DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg. “Jeffrey was the only guy from any of the studios who was willing to take on the bigger picture I wanted, which was books and a movie,” says Joyce. “Everybody else just wanted to do a movie, and they didn’t want me to do these books, and that was a deal-breaker for me.”

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Joyce’s feature animation credits include concept art for the original Toy Story. He was production designer and producer on Blue Sky Studios’ Robots, and saw Disney adapt one of his books into the animated feature film Meet the Robinsons. For Rise of the Guardians, he came on as co-director but had to step back into an executive producer role when his teenage daughter, Mary Katherine, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. (She died at age 18 in 2010, and Guardians is dedicated to her memory.)

Stepping up to the director’s role was Peter Ramsey, an animation veteran who had just come off directing DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens Halloween TV special. He joined playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote the screenplay, production designer Patrick Marc Hanenberger, and producers Christina Steinberg and Nancy Bernstein in developing the project, with input from director Guillermo del Toro.

“A lot of my thinking dovetailed well with what David Lindsay-Abaire was doing, which is not doing a satirical take but actually meeting it head-on and making the core story about the belief in the characters and this new vision of what the characters actually represent and mean,” Ramsey explains.

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Del Toro was particularly helpful in restructuring the story, which incorporated an idea Katzenberg pitched to Joyce in their first meeting on the project: to introduce a new Guardian. That crystalized the story around Jack Frost and made children’s belief in these characters the central theme of the story. Key to Joyce’s take on the characters was the need to treat them seriously and make them cool in a way that decades of bland holiday TV specials could not.

“We knew that we didn’t want to go the postmodern, wink-wink route,” says del Toro. “What we aspired to was to make them feel alive, to make them really have a personality, and that they would have a personality where you as a kid have an option of saying they were cool without sounding childish.”

Most of the characters took their cues from Joyce’s ideas, such as North, a.k.a. Santa Claus, being a swashbuckling Cossack complete with Russian accent and tattoos. The Easter Bunny changed the most, with Joyce adopting the movie’s boomerang-wielding outback warrior for his books over his original idea. “The Easter Bunny that Bill originally had was something a bit more Beatrix Potter-y and a bit more ‘fussy professor,’ ” Ramsey says. “We just couldn’t pull him off that way, so we decided to keep him a little more in line with our superhero idea.”

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Joyce, who launched Moonbot Studios in his native Shreveport, La. and wrote and codirected the Oscar-winning short The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, says he was very comfortable with the studio’s approach. “I really felt like the studio and Peter wanted to tell the story that I wanted to tell,” says Joyce. “Then it was easy to stand back.”

Chris PineKatzenberg was essential in getting the studio’s first choices for casting: Alec Baldwin as North, Jude Law as the villain Pitch, Isla Fisher as Tooth, Hugh Jackman as E. Aster Bunnymund, and Chris Pine as Jack Frost. Voice work was new to Pine, who says the one day he worked directly with Baldwin was surprisingly counterproductive. “I had all of my actorly hopes that it would help ground the experience, but it really didn’t help,” says Pine. “It actually worked out better, I found, after three years of doing it, to just go section by section by myself and play with the lines and with volume.”

The animators developed different styles of movement for each of the characters. Steinberg says teams were assigned to each character, but by the end of production those styles were so well defined it was second nature for animators to work on any or all of the characters.

“We started calling it ‘method animation’ because we were trying to get as much naturalism into the performances as we could,” Ramsey says.

The look of the film borrowed heavily from Joyce’s illustrations. “Most animated movies drink from the fountain of pop art,” says del Toro. “We wanted to go for a more painterly look and a look that felt like it was based on a production design more in tune with illustrated books of the past, rich and lush and embroidered and detailed.”

Joyce, whose next animated project is the feature Epic, due out next year from Blue Sky Studios, is more than pleased with Guardians and has high hopes for a sequel. “There’s two things that aren’t the way I wanted them to be: I wanted Bunny to have a cape, and I wanted the Tooth Fairy to be a little bustier. But other than that, it’s what I hoped.”

  1. I’ve now seen the film three times, and the tremendous amount of work that went into it is abundantly clear. It was worth it too: this is the closest to a perfect animated film I’ve seen all year. It’s been a great year for animation with a lot of top work from American and foreign studios, but even in a crowded Oscar field, Rise of the Guardians really stands out. I hope voters and moviegoers will give it a chance and actually see the film; the fact that it tries to be different from the herd in style and story, and freely abandons irony for the sake of true sincerity of innocent belief, are noble distinctions that I think will make this film live on for a long time to come.

  2. The reason it’s failing to attract an audience in large numbers is summed up perfectly with their idiotic version of Santa Claus as a swashbuckling Cossack complete with Russian accent and tattoos. That is an epic fail that should have been obvious from day one. He isn’t a recognizable Santa Claus. He’s a totally different character that nobody can identify with except for people in Russia.

    They also screwed up the Sandman horribly. He’s an ugly weird short fat creature in this and he should really be a tall shadowy willowy mysterious man. The Easter Bunny is ridiculous and the only good character is Jack Frost. They would have been better off just making a Jack Frost movie he’s the only character who looks heroic and appealing.

    1. Making Santa Russian made no sense whatsoever, as none of the ancient lore that lead to the modern concept of Santa Claus comes from anywhere near Russia. The closest they get is Moscow considers Saint Nicholas to be a patron saint. Nicholas himself, however, was a Greek Christian from Anatolia, which is now Turkey. The Dutch, Germans, Scandinavians, British, and finally Americans all contributed to the lore, but not the Russians. So why then, in God’s name, does Santa look like a Russian mafioso?
      It wasn’t just a nonsensical creative choice, it was downright offensive, and it’s not being received well by the average movie goer, hence the abysmal box office.

      1. I agree. I’m no traditionalist, and I can’t speak for other moviegoers, but for me personally the look and sound of the characters was a big turn off. Russian Santa with tattoos? Just looks stupid to me. Australian Easter bunny with a boomerang? Huh? And the character design on this is awful, in my opinion. Even if the story’s good, I’m unwilling to see this picture because I have no desire to stare at these ugly characters for 90 minutes.

    2. Basically i think it is what attracted a lot of audience by the way they gave Santa a whole new transformation! It’s a good move to alter what children had thought of the vision they as see as Santa and it will move them to catch this flick because the santa here is different from what they had come to know.
      ANd excuse me, Sandy is not ugly! It’s main viewers are children, that is why it is an animated film moron, so precisely, they made the sandman look like that as to give color and add depth to the animation of their film. And i think Bunny is okay too. The way they altered all these characters made it look interesting to the public!!
      And i completely agree with you that Jack Frost looks decent enough but it wouldn’t have been a “Rise Of The Guardians” movie if there weren’t any of these guardians, don’t you think>?
      Hey if you dislike the way the characters had been made, why ever watch this flick anyway? And you whine too much, are you the animator dude??

  3. I’m very happy that the film is getting the praise it deserves for its truly gorgeous animation and style…though its box office results baffle and infuriate me, and the possibility of a sequel remains terribly slim, I will still cross my fingers for it. This is surely a movie that deserves it. It has more story to tell in my opinion, and so much potential. But if that doesn’t happen I can still appreciate it alone. And if it does end up with an Oscar for something, hell at least Rise of the Guardians will go out with a well-deserved bang.

    1. Baffles you? Really? Despite practically every criticism of the movie clearly pointing out that the scary/creepy Santa Claus and the other horribly designed characters are major turn offs? Hmmm.

      Even the filmmakers get it, since, after the bad first weekend box office, they COMPLETELY switched their marketing campaign to EXCLUDE the creepy Santa Claus and other ugly characters. This strategy may work to get an extra million or so in box office, but word of mouth will expose the horribly drawn/designed characters that will likely do for Christmas what Jaws did for swimming in the north Atlantic.

      1. I really don’t get how you could say these characters are horribly-designed and ugly!! Are you an animator? An artist? Coz, hey, if you think yourself above these professionals and insult “their” designs when you’re just a random viewer, dude, you’re in the wrong side of the table.
        I mean, I personally think the designs were done just right, enough to attract potential sum of viewers and the way they transformed all these characters made it more appealing to the public.
        NO hard feelings dude, I love this flick and it helped my eleven year old sister battle out Sickle-cell because she was so happy at seeing santa and the tooth fairy. So yeah, maybe it sucked for you, but most of us appreciates this film!!

  4. I really wanted to like this film. Really, really wanted to. But truth is, it’s no How to Train Your Dragon. Disappointing, could have been so much better. Agree with anonymous that Jack Frost is the only interesting character in the film.

  5. I LOVED IT!!! I don’t care where Santa or bunny come from, the movie was awesome and I give it a10/10…Its a movie not a documentary!!! It was perfect, flawless and had allot of action:)

    1. I totally agree with you.The movie Rise of the Guardians is perfect.I don’t know why people have to insult it and pick at it and not just enjoy the movie. I really wanted to see it… like really bad, and when I did I loved it.I can’t wait till its on dvd.I love all the characters!The director, actors, and writers all did an amazing job!

  6. I finally went to see the movie due to the discussions I have been reading on this website. Initially, I had rejected the whole movie based on what I saw in two trailers and a poster. I’m glad I went to see it. The movie was surprising and amusing. What I found flawed in the movie was that it tried to take itself way to seriously. From this article, I now see what the intention was for these characters, but what is portrayed in the trailers and throughout the whole film is not in line with the spirit of these characters. I understand the need to make these characters cool and relevant, but the idea that they can only be cool if they conform to superheroes archetype diminishes the traditional view of what we truly love about these characters. One of my favorite movies is how to train your dragon. Up front, the film was light hearted and warm for kids but there was seriousness to it that older audiences like myself enjoyed. This film had a village of viking warriors living under constant and dragons. Although there are no bad guys or good guys, there was a struggle and that is the whole point. It was full of different themes and I nearly cried at the end when I thought his dragon actually died to save him. Of course being a kids animation, the studio went the safe route and kept his best friend alive. Guardians was the opposite of this. It tried to have a serious theme, a credible threat, a bad guy, but it came out silly. It just didn’t have enough heart.

  7. I don’t mind the character design, or the russian santa, what really bothers me is Jack Frost looking about 14 but having the incredibly adult voice of Chris Pine. I haven’t seen the movie (not out in australia yet) but that vocal miscasting is really insane to me. Who would give new Kirk a voice acting gig when he’s still an unproven talent?

    1. This. I could ignore his speaking voice but every time he laughed I was taken out of the scene completely.

      Russian Santa was fun. I loved him, the elves and the yetis a lot.

  8. I enjoyed it, although it went against its own “rules” too many times. Once you establish a rule, i.e. Jack Frost isn’t believed in so he can’t be seen by children and they got right through him, don’t then show him picking up a little kid.

    However, I’m utterly shocked that one of the two things Joyce found wrong with the film is that the Tooth Fairy wasn’t busty enough? That sounds a bit perverted especially coming from a children’s writer who I admire a lot…

    1. Edit – Should be:

      I enjoyed it, although it went against its own “rules” too many times. Once you establish a rule, i.e. Jack Frost isn’t believed in so he can’t be seen by children or touch them, don’t then show him picking up a little kid, don’t break it. That’s fantasy 101.

      1. The guardians interact with real world objects throughout the film. They pick up things, open windows, and get coins from the laundromat. I don’t think it’s breaking the rules to carry an unconscious child home.

  9. I wrote the novels upon which this film is based. I also served as one of the films producers. The mythologies of these characters varies wildly and is open to interpretation. A Russian Santa seems as viable as any. And as probable. Children overwhelming enoy the film. As has the general public who has seen it. Santa is not identified as any specific nationality. And the sadman has been widely embraced. The filmmakers had no say in the marketing of the film. That regrettably was entirely left to the misguided whims of paramount pictures marketing. They were the marketing partners of Dreamworks films. Guardians is the last Dreamworks film they are in charge of marketing. The film has opened in the rest of the world to great success and praise. Only in the US has it somewhat faltered. Only in the states was it subject to this abominable marketing. We made the best film we knew how to make. We treated these childhood icons with great affection and we think tact. We did not take this task lightly or casually. It was important to us. Watch the film with a bunch of kids. They embrace it without stunted prejudice of cynical adulthood. They enjoy it as the entertaiment it was intended.

    1. Hello Mr Joyce and Yanks,

      Firstly Im English, So A Russian Santa did not bother myself…infact I loved it!!!….it obviously didnt go down well with your fellow yanks….for obvious reasons “cough” cold war “cough”…grow up U.S.A audience its for children…children dnt have prejudice or judgement..tahts what the films about innocence, imagination and believe and it captured it beautifully…..well done Mr Joyce and Dreamworks!!! and well done 4 getting 2 number 1 on the UK box office!!!….we british have far better taste!! and I pray this film gets a sequel or 2….id luv 2 see the back-story of North, Bunnymund and Pitch….also Id luv 2 meet the Man On The Moon next time round….god bless you Mr Joyce!!! -HIGH-FIVE-

    2. Dear Mr. Joyce,

      Thank you so very much for sharing your Guardians with the world. I am currently studying to be a Children’s Librarian (in the U.S.), so I stumbled upon your work while reading children’s picture books and chapter books for various class assignments. Words cannot describe how beautiful and just downright fun all of your books are, in particular your “Guardians of Childhood” series. And I love the film adaptation just as much (tomorrow will be my fourth time seeing it in theaters). The character designs are fun, the characters themselves are engaging, and the story is well-rounded and well-executed. I know that as a writer you must be no stranger to criticism, but please know that there are many, many people around the world who appreciate your work. Thank you again for sharing your Guardians with us. We have been blessed because of it.

      Anxiously awaiting “The Sandman and the War of Dreams,” a child at heart,
      Marissa

    3. Dear Mr. Joyce,
      I apologize on behalf of those who seem to delight in being negative and hateful-and am amazed how you reply them gracefully.
      I have seen “Rise of The Guardians” more than 5 times and even though I am a quarter of a century, I found myself, with every viewing, laughing along with the characters and my spirits and heavy heart lifted.
      There is no denying there was so much thought, effort and love in this film- whatever “flaws” and “plot holes” many claim to have found in it.
      I recently purchased the first two of the Guardians series -along with The Man In the Moon picture book-, interested in knowing more about them.You didn’t just write a series. You’ve helped raise the hopes and the spirits of many, to make them believe in the power of Good…for that I thank you a thousandfold.
      (P.S. Its too easy to become like Pitch…I hope he finds a better center…or redemption.)

    4. Hi Mr. Joyce

      I believe that this film is a masterpiece and im happy to see it performing better at the box office. I first wish to offer my condolences for the loss of your daughter i am positive that must have been difficult for you, but I am sure she is proud and moved by this film and the series as I have been. I want you to know that there are millions who love this movie and are fighting for it to earn the sequel it deserves, and needs heck even a tv show which would be epic. You are a true talent and I can not wait to see the sequel to this as well as your next film Epic. I am sure 20th century fox will do a much better job at marketing than paramount did for this film and cannot wait for the dvd. Wish you well

  10. I found it to be a wonderful and charming movie. The fact remains that this was made in memory of his daughter, these books and everything were made in memory of her. I find it appalling that people would try and beat down this gift he made in memory of his daughter. I found it quite inspiring and beauty. It’s amazing how cruel people can be, I’ve read the books and loved them…I loved the movie as well. I stand behind William and his choices on how he tackled such things. I find this entire argument…pathetic at best and I don’t think it holds much chance of making the other true fans turn their back on this wonderful piece of work.

  11. Rise of the Guardians was absolutely beautiful. The characters were vibrant and realistic — the settings, the music, the plot; I’ve seen it 4 times. I’ve ‘never’ gone back to see a movie.

    I don’t have to say much other than this. It’s wonderful.

  12. Dear Mr.Joyce
    First off, I want to say that I ADORE the Rise of the Guardians. Santa here is a wonderful character, they all are! There is the good guys win reassurance that I love to see in kid’s movies, but all in all the morals were in shades of grey. The designs and stories for each character, and the details that show off emotions have enraptured me, and like so many others I’m eager to immerse myself in this world. I’m in my late teens, but the movie made me feel as if I were a kid again, waiting up with a flashlight to see if I can see the Tooth Fairy or the Sandman. You’ve got me believing again Mr Joyce, so thank you! I hope this endeavor continues to make you happy and successful!

  13. I absolutely loved this movie. I sat there in the theater, in awe even at the beginning. By the end, I was in tears because I felt as though every character had my heart for their triumphs and struggles, even Pitch ( who was refreshingly dimensional as a villain!) The sound track was in sway with my feelings, and the animation was so incredibly detailed and utterly magnificent. I really want to read the stories now, in order to find out the other character’s backstories. Great movie : )

  14. I am 17 and love this movie! I have seen it twice already and cannot wait until it comes out on DVD. The animation was fantastic and SO detailed! The characters were all great and visually stunning. I liked the fact that the characters were different from how they are usually portayed. It kept me interested! Everything about this movie was just phenominal and i hope there is a sequel!!

  15. I think this movie was beautifully done. Everything was perfect down to the smallest details. Mr. Joyce, you are an amazing writer with a brilliant mind! Keep up the awesome work!

  16. This movie was simply amazing in my opinion. I rather enjoyed the fact that there was different takes on the characters, such as a Russian Santa. It made things more interesting, instead of having every be Americanized. Now, I am not bashing on America seeings how I am proudly an American. But for those out there saying that it is a bad thing to have interracial characters in this because it doesn’t fit to your standards need to just not watch the movie. For starters, this is a childrens movie. My daughter and her friends adore the movie, as does my seventeen year old son. Thank you, Mr. Joyce for such a wonderful book series and a great movie.

  17. Some of these comments are ridiculous. What’s wrong with the design? As an average watcher, I found them incredible. The people I know talk about how amazing the animation is. It doesn’t matter where people or characters come from or what they look like. It matters who they are on the inside. That’s one of the major points of this movie. I think it was well executed.

  18. I’ve seen the movie 8 times, twice in 3D and both times were with my mother, and every single time I see something new in the movie. Rise of the Guardians is the type of movie that one can watch over and over again and find some new lesson, something new in it. It brings back that time in childhood where everything was new and nothing was scary, where the monster under the bed was chased away when your parents came in. The guardians were not only original and creative but easily loved, small bunny was adorable too. The idea of Russian Santa was perfect and I had no issue with it what so ever nor did I have any issue on the tough guy Easter bunny idea, that just made him better in my book. Everything about this movie was amazing and just made me feel like I can do anything I set my mind to. I have hope, dreams, wonder, memories, fear, and fun. I have the guardians with me…This movie taught me that. It also inspired me to reinvent some guardians of my own, like Cupid for instance, and has inspired many others to do so as well. I don’t care for what some people might say about this movie. Just know this.

    I believe in the Guardians.

  19. I’ve been to see this movie several times in just the last two weeks, and I enjoyed it more each time. Every time I went, there theater was quiye full, mostly of children, and each time, when the credits rolled, the children cheered and clapped.
    My nephew has reached that age where he’s doubtful of Santa and the Easter Bunny, and all those innocent things, but once I took him to see this film, he began to talk about Santa coming for Christmas with new enthusiasm. After the film, we even sat down to begin reading the books together.
    My whole personal outlook was changed by this film. It’s put a new hope in me for the younger generation, and I’m happy that these tales have been given new life through The Guardians.
    Thank You, Mr. Joyce, for sharing this amazing tale with the world. I adore your work. Please don’t stop.

  20. There are so many flaws with what reviewers are saying about these characters. It’s absolutely appalling. So what if Santa is Russian and has tattoos? I like the interpretation to try and get things out of the norm;I like the difference. What you all seem to be obsessed with is the LOOKS of the characters when that shouldn’t even matter. It was literally like you sat down for each character to be introduced, stood up and then left with a close-minded opinion about them.

    It’s nice to see these childhood figures interpreted in different ways. You don’t have one image for every legend; there are many images because that’s what makes them exotic and fun to watch! It’d be downright boring if they just went with the “american safe societal norm” versions. It’s almost like censoring a child’s creativity.

    Heck, I’d take my kids to see this just so they could embrace the wonderful characters. Not shun them simply because they don’t look like a stereotypical Santa or a cute, white fluffy bunny rabbit!

    I suggest this movie; Don’t let the negativity steer you away from it. Take it from someone whose seen it at least three times now and analyzed it down to the very detail. This film is beautiful and should be treasured for what it is and what its trying to convey.

    “Don’t judge a book by its cover”

  21. William, ever since I saw Rise of The Guardians, I have become sensitive about the topic of the Guardians series. I haven’t read any of the books yet, but I’ll try to buy them. I think the movie was, well, I really can’t put it into any words, but here’s one I think it fits the most. It was Frost-tastic!(Frost-tastic: Frost and Fantastic put together) I hope you get to make more of the Guardians series!

  22. I’ve seen Rise of the Guardians three times, and have realized despite its flaws, the heart into it, the detail, the overall spirit, makes it a beautiful film for children and adults. The entire opening scene was captivating, and it just got better from there. It left me wanting in the end for a sequel, for the fleshed out backstories of these beautifully designed characters and distinct personalities. It’s a shame other reviewers regard the animation as “ugly,” when to me personally Rise of the Guardians is one of the most stunning animated films I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen many Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks films.) And it would be unfair to mention Mr. Joyce’s superb novels the movie was based upon, which has made me care for the characters even more. Yes, it was a children’s film, but it made me feel like a child again, like the wind really was Jack Frost passing through and a random daisy growing between sidewalk cracks was Bunnymund. It’s such a shame it has been failing at the box office, with the possibility of a sequel waning thin. I can only hope the fan hype online and Oscar buzz will do it some justice.

  23. i am 21 years old and went to see the film with my 4 year old brother, and 17 year old sister, as well as my parents. We all loved the film. My stepmom was inspired to try and replicate Jack’s hoodie and my little brother has been pretending to be Jack ever since. I am an art Major and I was in love with the all the details in the animation as well as in the story. It made me and my sister feel like little kids again. I don’t understand who the message of childhood has escaped most of the critics I’ve read about this movie but i for one, am grateful for such a heartwarming and uplifting masterpiece.

  24. Yeah, I don’t know what those reviewers are smoking, but ROTG inspired me and really just thinking of it picks me up when I’m down. I personally LOVED the character designs, and I actually saw a commercial with the film being portrayed as “just another Christmas movie,” and that infuriates me to no end. These people need to calm down actually WATCH the movie, and judge it based on what’s in it, not what the characters look like, even though they’re all beautiful. The book was wonderful as well. Thank you for bringing such a wonderful creation into my life. You’ve really done many people proud.

    1. Look up the true story of St. Nick. There’s a VeggieTales movie about it, in fact. The man who helped so many people dressed up as a fat man in a red suit as a disguise. No, he was not fat, but he needed to keep his identity hidden in order to help these people.

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