A little over 2 years ago, the world of animation and cinema as a whole experienced the seismic effects of Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a groundbreaking superhero tale that redefined the genre and reinvented the wheels of an entire creative medium. Since its release, Miles Morales has skyrocketed in popularity and more fans than ever have shown their love for Spider-Man and the various incarnations the film celebrated. Going on to win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 91st Academy Awards, its place in the history of pop culture was cemented. The hardworking team of filmmakers at Sony deserves all the credit, and today we spotlight one in particular, director Peter Ramsey.
The first Black artist to win the Oscar for Animated Feature, Ramsey is a trailblazer in every sense of the word. His filmmaking career reaches back to the 90s working as a storyboard artist and illustrator on hits such as Men in Black, Fight Club, and Cast Away. He would eventually find his way to the director’s chair, in both live-action and animation, but not in the way many would expect. With a slew of new exciting projects on the horizon, including a musical biopic, it couldn’t be a better time to reflect on Ramsey’s career, past and present. In a wide-ranging interview, we had the pleasure of speaking to the Spider-Verse co-director on the landmark film, his journey through Hollywood, upcoming projects, and filmmaking as a whole in these unprecedented times.
With COVID-19, what’s it been like for you working remotely on projects?
Peter Ramsey: When we were working on Spider-Verse and also way back, as far as Rise of the Guardians, a lot of times you end up farming stuff out or working with a facility that’s not, you know, in the same town as you. Dreamworks had a facility in India for awhile that was starting to handle some lighting and stuff like that and we would conference with them. We had people working up North when I was at Dreamworks and at PDI, which was in San Jose and we’re down here in LA. So we would do video conferencing with them and it worked fine. Working remotely isn’t that new of a thing for the animation and digital industries. When this started happening, I was involved with a few different projects and I was working remotely on those anyway. So it wasn’t a huge adjustment.
Definitely, that makes sense.
Peter Ramsey: Working in animation, so much is generated in the computer. So it’s easier. Easier to share things, easier to look at things. You’re not dealing with physical objects really at all. It’s always nice to be able to walk down the hall and actually interact with somebody in real life, but in those situations where you can’t, I don’t feel that the work suffers all that much.
In that same vein, I’m curious as to what goes into the orchestration of big set-pieces, like the ones in Spider-Verse where the action has to both look cool and further the plot and character arcs.
Peter Ramsey: With Spider-Verse, in particular, that was a movie that came together really organically. Animation is a very iterative process, you’re always trying one version and then making improvements or tweaks as you go. Sometimes big, sometimes pretty minute, but it’s a constant evolution. So it was the same thing with our big action set pieces in that movie. You would talk about what it did in the story, how it sat in the script, and then you started fleshing out in boards. What’s the shape of it? What’s the feel of it? What are the individual gags? What are we driving toward with each sequence? And as soon as you can get something up in editorial and start cutting and finding some kind of rhythm, you start understanding how it’s going to play and how it relates to other stuff in the movie. Then you see what needs to be emphasized or what needs to be pulled back in order to give the sequence some shape – let what it’s really about come forth. And Phil Lord and Chris Miller are really big on iteration. They don’t want something to be set in stone until they’re positive.
One of the reasons why Spider-Verse is so beloved is the fact that as much as it’s a big superhero film, it’s also really experimental in a lot of ways. How does that experimentation play out behind the scenes?
Peter Ramsey: I think anybody who was there would say it was like being in the middle of a hurricane. Because you have to remember, you’re not just dealing with one sequence at a time. Every sequence in the movie at one time or another is somehow in play. You’re juggling multiple scenes and multiple acts, with multiple characters, storylines, and all that stuff. So it’s a real challenge to keep any of that straight in your head and remembering that all of those parts have to relate to one another. But the single biggest challenge of the movie was that notion of like, “How do we keep the emotional thread?”, which is actually the most important thing. To keep it alive and still achieve the other ambitions we had for the movie creatively. We wanted to push the medium as far as possible. That was a big question like, “Well, if we’re going to do another Spider-Man movie, let’s take this opportunity to do something really crazy, that can really shake up the medium”, you know?
That’s awesome and it’s funny because I think, initially, some people gawked at the notion of an animated Spider-Man movie and wondered, why not another live-action film?
Peter Ramsey: I mean, it was the same with all of us. When I first heard about it, my reaction was probably the same as a lot of people’s, which was, well, hasn’t there been enough Spider-Man? Like that sounds cool, I guess, but okay? But then I heard that Chris Miller and Phil Lord were involved and that’s the thing that made me perk up and go, “Oh, wait a minute. This could actually be interesting.” And even then, I had no idea of how far they intended to push it or even that Miles Morales was the subject of the movie. I didn’t know that either.
That was huge. I remember tearing up after first watching the film because of how meaningful I found the representation and themes to be.
Peter Ramsey: That’s fantastic! That’s so cool because all the time we were working on it, you know, when you’re working on one of these movies, you’re consumed with the amount of work and you’re just trying to make sure that you’re doing a good job. So I don’t think any of us were prepared for the depth of emotion that it pulled out of people after it came out. That was mind blowing, how much it meant to people. We hoped it was going to do well and be big, but I don’t think any of us realized it was going to have this cultural impact. And we definitely weren’t thinking of anything like an Oscar. We were like, “A Spider-Man movie? That’s never going to get an Oscar!” but it’s so weird the way that things developed.
On that same note, you also executive produced Hair Love, which also went on to win an Oscar, which is incredible.
Peter Ramsey: I know! It’s kind of crazy, I gotta make a bigger deal out of that, what’s going on here? (laughs) Hair Love, all that credit goes to Matthew Cherry. Through blood, sweat, and tears it was brought to life. And he had a great team because, you know, Matthew was pretty new to the medium, but his idea was amazing and he’s got directing chops. Everett Downing and Bruce Smith, who are both animation veterans, came in and worked with him and I think Frank Abney, who’s a Pixar animator, also lent a hand. So it was Matthew’s drive and idea, plus those guys helping them get it over the finish line, that made it happen. I was kind of like a cheerleader in the very early days and read it when Matthew asked me if I thought it would be a good animated film. I told him, “Yeah man, go for it! Let me know if I can be of any help.” I chimed in a little during the making of it, gave some notes and watched cuts of it, but really I’m just happy to have seen it come to life.
It’s so cool that these stories are finally being told on screen and given the attention and accolades they deserve.
Peter Ramsey: It’s great and it’s so obvious when you see it, you just go, “Oh, well of course. Why haven’t we seen something like this before?” It just makes you see how absolutely silly it is that things are just so limited and so “status quo” when all of these stories are just reflecting the world as it is a little more. You see people like this every day when we walk out the door, it’s just pushing the camera a little over to the left and you have a whole other world that you can see and relate to.
As far as getting your start, you were a second unit director in the 90s, particularly on some John Singleton flicks, which is awesome. What were your experiences getting started in the industry?
Peter Ramsey: Well, really in the 90s, what I really was doing was storyboarding and I storyboarded a lot of films. I mean, man, it’s almost like you name it. I worked with John Singleton, God rest his soul. I did his first four films, starting with Boyz n the Hood, his first movie, that’s where we first met. We had a good time together on that and we had a good rapport, so he asked me back on the second movie, Poetic Justice. They needed a bunch of shots of a mail truck traveling, like beauty shots of it going down the highway and he was like, “You know what? We need some second unit shots, you should do those.” And so that was thanks to John. It was my first shot at working with a professional camera crew and directing these beauty shots of this truck and other stuff that went into the movie. It was great.
After that, the next couple of movies, I did the same thing. On Higher Learning, then Rosewood, which was a slightly bigger movie. I did more storyboarding and second unit and those were incredible experiences. Then I was in a position where I could actually get other second units. I did a little bit on Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. There was some stuff in New York where I shot some plates for the visual effects guys to put Godzilla into later and shot a bunch of stuff with soldiers running around, setting up equipment, and things like that. Then there was a big second unit I got on for a movie called Tank Girl, directed by Rachel Talalay, who now is doing a lot of Doctor Who, really cool. It was a crazy science fiction movie and it had a lot of stunts and, of course, it had a big tank in it. There were stunts and explosions and I was like, “Wow, I’m doing it. I’m doing it!” It was really cool and oddly enough, the real thing that came about from Tank Girl was that the guy who produced it, Aaron Warner, a few years later, went on to produce Shrek at Dreamworks.
So he was one of the formative figures in CG animation, sort of like coming into its own. He actually called me to come work on the first Shrek, but I declined. I think I was working on Fight Club, so I was like, “Animation? That’s cute, but come on, I’m kind of busy over here.” A few years after that though, CG had come into its own and you could see that you can really do some interesting things in this medium. He later called again and they were prepping Shrek The Third and he said, “Hey, I really think you would like working here. It’s art and cinema, two of your strengths kind of combining, and I think you would be a good candidate to eventually direct over here.” Because he knew me not just as a story artist, but also as a director from when we worked on Tank Girl. So I went over to Dreamworks, not thinking that I would be over there long and it just turned into this 10 year stay and it was so cool. It was a great place to work and they kept giving me opportunities. I was learning the craft of animation, storyboarding, and then learning what it took to direct something, that eventually led to Rise of the Guardians.
That’s really cool. I’m really curious as to what skill set an aspiring animator would need going into the animation field and hoping to get where you are now?
Peter Ramsey: It really depends on what you want to do. It’s always best if you have some kind of grounding in drawing and even better if you have some kind of grounding in 2-D animation. Even if you’re working in CG, the best animators have just as much chops in 2-D animation.
Do you have any desire to direct in live-action again?
Peter Ramsey: Oh, I definitely want to go back to live. I originally got into the business with live-action in mind. I had no thought of animation at all. My heroes were Coppola and Kurosawa, it was all live-action. That was my aim. And it’s funny, in animation I’ve been lucky in that my sensibility works with the projects, like Rise of the Guardians which was this epic fantasy film that had grounding in a kind of storybook realism. So it wasn’t like squash and stretch animation. It wasn’t like a cartoon, not to be pejorative, but it wasn’t that style of animation. It was something that was leaning much more heavily on influences from live-action movies, hopefully without just like blindly imitating them. So something like Rise of the Guardians or Spider-Verse later, both of those were in that thin sliver of projects that my sensibility would work in, but I’ve always wanted to get back to live-action and just finally climb that mountain. But I also love animation, I would never want to leave animation.
Are there any upcoming projects you can talk about?
Peter Ramsey: Yeah, I can talk a little bit about stuff! I am involved with the Spider-Verse sequel, in a little more of a behind the scenes kind of capacity. There’s a couple of other animated features that I can’t really talk about yet, but I’m executive producing one at Sony and one at Netflix [Lost Ollie, read more on it here]. Then there are some live-action projects that I’m attached to that are in development. Everything’s kind of held up now because of the Coronavirus, but there’s one that was announced and there’s a couple of others that have not been. The one that was announced is a live-action feature about Robert Johnson [Love in Vain], who was probably the most famous and archetypal blues man from the Mississippi Delta.
I heard about that! That sounds incredible.
Peter Ramsey: Yeah! The guy who sold his soul to the devil. So there’s a project that we’ve been working on for a little while now. It’s all about his legend, the legend of Robert Johnson. But yeah, I’m kind of spinning a lot of plates lately, which is pretty fun.
That’s cool. What’s it like having worked on this massive cultural phenomenon and now having even more amazing opportunities across mediums?
Peter Ramsey: I’m like super lucky on that. I always feel like I get too much credit for it. It’s like being on a Super Bowl winning team, you know? You didn’t win the whole game by yourself, you were part of a team. So that’s what Spider-Verse kind of feels like to me, that there were so many talented people involved that brought their A-game. It’s always wild to think of the great things that have come my way since Spider-Verse and the great people who all worked together to make it what it was.
Well, sincerely congratulations, the success of you and the film is all truly well-deserved.
Peter Ramsey: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure and I’m just glad people enjoy the movie and are accepting it in the spirit in which we made it.