The Glitter-Bomb Visuals Behind DreamWorks’ Latest Animated Spree Rise Of The Guardians
The premise of DreamWorks’ newest movie, due out on November 21, doesn’t sound very enticing for anyone that’s been potty trained for more than a few years: a group of mythical characters—Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Jack Frost and the Sandman—team up to defeat the Bogeyman, who seeks to spread despair in the world by destroying the dreams of children.
I know—I cringed too.
Rise of the Guardians, however, is not as cheesy as it sounds. In the deft hands of an all-star team, including executive producer Guillermo Del Toro, Academy Award-winning writer William Joyce, and Shrek alumni/director Peter Ramsey, what could have been a limp, kiddie version of The Avengers is instead a charmingly creative holiday movie with lots of visual pizzazz. It might not be as groundbreaking as DreamWorks’ tour de force, Shrek, but if you find yourself chaperoning your bratty cousins to one movie over the holidays…make it this one.
A kid wakes up to this fairytale posse in his bedroom (courtesy Museum of the Moving Image)
At a recent preview screening for the public at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, William Joyce told the crowd of mostly squirming kids that he wasn’t interested in the “flawed” superheroes of Hollywood; he wanted each character to be treated with immense respect. The film’s visual effects are fittingly majestic—I’ve never seen so much exploding glitter, swirling smoke and twinkling lights packed into 90 minutes—and it inventively utilized stereoscopic 3D to shock and awe the audience. “Awesome!!” was something I heard a lot in the dark.
The Guardians’ HQ—a room in Santa Claus’ toy factory (source)
After the film, I hopped up a flight of the museum’s stairs to check out an accompanying exhibition: a full-length documentary with behind-the-scenes footage, plus 25 sketches, drawings, and artifacts, including gross-looking silicon masks they used to create fake skin. I discovered the movie had 15 years to stew in its own juices—and this long gestation period, I believe, resulted in the production crew’s OCD-like attention to every detail.
The Sandman casting golden spells on children as they dream (courtesy Museum of the Moving Image)
This sense of thoughtfulness is the main reason why Guardians pulls off such a familiar story without falling into clichés. Every character has an elaborate and unconventional visual style that goes against your expectations, and they all live in separate worlds designed to reflect their unique backgrounds and histories.
Santa yelling at Jack Frost (source)
For example, Santa Claus (voiced by Alec Baldwin doing his best Russian accent) is a gruff, knife-twirling Soviet whose ruggedness is reflected by the architecture of his factory—a rectangular cave dominated by strong vertical and horizontal lines inspired by (of all things) Russian Constructivism. “It’s almost like we were the ‘Method’ animation guys,” Joyce remarked, referring to the extent that the design team delved into each character’s psychology.
Santa Claus—not someone you’d want to mess with (source)
On the other hand, the Easter Bunny—or E. Aster Bunnymund as he’s named in the movie—began as an effete nobleman during the initial character development stage. But after Aussie wunderkind Hugh Jackman was cast as his voice, the team redesigned him as a sarcastic outback ranger, probably because that’s what everyone already thinks of when they hear Jackman gabbing.
The Easter Bunny, before Hugh Jackman’s involvement (courtesy Museum of the Moving Image)
The Easter Bunny, after Hugh Jackman’s involvement (courtesy Museum of the Moving Image)
With the Tooth Fairy, voiced by Isla Fisher (also known as Mrs. Sacha Baron Cohen), designers continued the barrage of cultural references by modeling her after Kimaris—a half bird, half human creature from Buddhist and Hindu mythology. Her dwelling, a delicate structure filled with glittering stalactites, was inspired by the Sri Meenakshi temple in India.
The Tooth Fairy—part hummingbird, part Mrs. Sacha Baron Cohen (source)
With all of these varied characters and settings, the movie risked looking like it was made of disparate parts sewn together. Knowing this, the departments kept in close communication with each other to make sure Guardians remained unified and integrated—instead of turning into a Franken-film.
Production tree showing circular communication among departments (courtesy of Museum of the Moving Image)