Book Review: 'The Art of Rise of the Guardians'

This book explores the beautiful art behind the new DreamWorks film Rise of the Guardians

© 2012 DreamWorks Animation L.L.C.

The Art of Rise of the Guardians, by Ramin Zahed.  Preface by William Joyce.  Foreword by Alec Baldwin.

San Rafael, CA, Insight Editions, October 2012, hardcover $40.00 (158 pages).

Note that this is The Art of Rise of the Guardians!  It is not The Art and Making of Rise of the Guardians!  With coffee-table art books on practically every major animation studio’s theatrical feature of the last half-dozen years, the “making of” aspect has been pretty thoroughly covered by now, especially for the CGI/3-D blockbusters.  That leaves the Art to be emphasized.

As usual with these books, the author is an animation-industry veteran who has been given access to DreamWorks Animation’s full production team and materials.  Ramin Zahed has been an animation-industry writer and the editor of Animation Magazine for well over ten years.  The Preface is by William Joyce, the director of the Disney animated feature Meet the Robinsons, winner of the 2011 Academy Award (as author and co-director) for Best Animated Short Film for The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, creator of The Guardians of Childhood series of children’s books that Rise of the Guardians is based upon, and co-executive producer of Rise of the Guardians.  The Foreword is by Alec Baldwin, the voice-actor of North (Santa Claus), arguably the most important member of the cast.

Although William Joyce has been kicked upstairs to co-executive producer of this movie, his vision is all over it.  Joyce’s concentration upon Santa Claus goes back almost twenty years, to his bestselling children’s picture book Santa Calls (HarperCollins, September 1993) and to his cover painting for The New Yorker for December 12, 1994, both showing Santa Claus as a modern business executive.  For Rise of the Guardians, Santa is recast as a combination of the traditional North Pole-dwelling toy manufacturer and a macho (no jolly old elf here) 19th-century Russian warrior complete with Cossack kubanka fur hat.  (Alec Baldwin gives him a wonderful thick Russian accent.)

The spine of The Art of Rise of the Guardians shows six stylized geometrical shapes that represent the six major characters of the film.  These are explained in more detail in the book.  “Two of the many interesting aspects of the movie are that each character and their corresponding realm have their own shape language and color scheme.  Beneath all their telling flourishes and details, the designs for each of the Guardians and their realms are rooted in simple shapes: North is based on a [red] square; Bunny on a [purple] triangle; Sandy on a [golden] circle; and Tooth on a [green] diamond.” (p. 23)  The other two shapes are a blue hexagon for Jack Frost, not originally a Guardian of Childhood although he is invited to become one; and a black coffin representing Pitch, the Boogyman; the Nightmare King.

The DreamWorks team had to meet the classic challenge of designing an original movie about well-known characters.  “‘We’ve seen Santa and his elves, or the Easter Bunny, in hundreds of other movies and books before, so we wanted to offer a new take on these characters,’ says production designer Patrick Hanenberger, a DreamWorks Animation veteran who worked on Bee Movie, Over the Hedge, and Monsters vs. Aliens.” (pgs. 17-19)  “The best illustration of this point is provided by the designs of the main characters and their unique home environments.  North (Santa Claus) is also a seasoned warrior; “ […] DreamWorks Animation concept artists Chris Applehans, Ryan O’Loughlan and Takao Noguchi created an expressive vision of North as a sword-wielding, barrel-chested figure of a man with an imposing white beard and moustache.  […]  ‘The final visual is a blend of the ex-Russian soldier with a character that audiences will instantly recognize as Santa Claus.’”  (p. 24)   “North’s bold red, which contrasts with the ice blue and gray of his surroundings, suggests strength, aggression, and masculine energy – some of the defining traits of this larger-than-life character.”  (p. 26)  North’s (the name is an abbreviation of Santa’s name in William Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood books, Nicholas St. North) Ice Castle toyshop workers are Yetis, hulking furry mixtures of a polar bear and an abominable snowman that look like the aides-de-camp of an ex-Russian warrior.  There are 22 pages of art devoted to North’s Kremlin-like Castle at the North Pole.  As usual, each image (from two to six per page) is identified by its artist.

“Bunny (the Easter Bunny) is a ranger-like figure capable of surviving in the Australian outback.”  (p. 19)  Despite Bunny’s color being purple and his being played as an epitome of a sarcastic, self-reliant figure (voiced by Hugh Jackman), the predominant color of Bunny’s vast Warren is green for life and rebirth.  Art director Max Boas says, “Our goal was to look at Bunny as the creator of life and to view has warren as the birthplace of spring.  This realm was once inhabited by a large population of rabbits, but today Bunny is the sole survivor.  He is the guardian of life and hope.  He feels this huge responsibility because if he goes, then life ends on Earth as well.”  […]  Producer Christina Steinberg adds, “But then when Hugh [Jackman] was cast to play Bunny, the artists came up with this notion of him as a cool and tough Australian ranger.  We had a lot of fun marrying that rugged image with what he does, which is to shepherd in Easter and spring.  You never expect this tough, sarcastic creature to be your guide to this Easter Bunny warren and to be so nurturing with these flowers and eggs.”  (p. 47).  Bunny’s warren is detailed with 20 pages of concept and storyboard art, usually in two-page spreads.  (The Easter Bunny is referred to as “Bunny” throughout The Art of Rise of the Guardians, while he is “Bunnymund” throughout the film’s trailers.  In William Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood, he is E. Aster Bunnymund.)

“Tooth (the Tooth Fairy) is a half-human, half-hummingbird creature, but she could very well be one of the fantastical human forms found in Eastern mythology.”  (p. 19)  “The artists’ highly creative take on the Tooth Fairy was inspired by the half-bird, half-human gods of ancient Buddhist and Hindu cultures.” (p. 70)  The art looks more Persian to me.  “In [Takao] Noguchi’s later iterations, Tooth developed peacock-like tail feathers, which made her look like a princess wearing a long, glamorous gown.  But the tail is also functional: Not only does it allow her to make quick turns, it also features a pattern of eye-like shapes that ward off predators, just as they do in the natural world.”  (ibid.)  Most of Tooth’s conceptual designs look like elaborate ballet costumes. 

The Sandman’s realm is primarily aerial.  “A character as light and otherworldly as the Sandman would naturally feel at home floating in the clouds.  It’s from high above that he sprinkles his golden dream dust, creating sweet dreams for children as they sleep at night.” (p. 95)  Sandy gets 14 pages of art, segueing into the villain’s chapter.  Pitch, the Nightmare King’s color is black.  “One couldn’t really pick a more appropriate inspiration for Pitch’s home than the melancholy, sinking city of Venice.  The decrepit walls of Pitch’s palace are sliding into the water, and the interiors are covered with mud.  Set in one of the most haunting and beautiful cities in the world, this gloomy Renaissance-style lair is a reminder of the dark turn the villain’s life took hundreds of years ago.” (p. 111) 

Jack Frost, the final figure, brings The Art of Rise of the Guardians back into light.  Jack is the “Guardian of Fun”, representing youthful exuberance and a lack of cares and responsibilities.  When the four Guardians of Childhood realize that they are not enough by themselves to combat Pitch, they invite Jack to join them.  Who better to be a Guardian of Childhood than the personification of Childhood?  But to battle Pitch, Jack will have to accept responsibility, to learn to work with others, to go into danger.  Is he willing to do this?

The book’s blurb says, “The Art of Rise of the Guardians is a fascinating look at the ways these artists and craftspeople collaborated to create a stunning CG movie in 3D that will change the way we look at childhood.”  That is putting it too strongly.  Our images of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy, and Jack Frost are probably too well-established to let Rise of the Guardians affect them for long (and the Boogeyman is so amorphous that he does not really have a standard image).  But you will not forget this movie’s interpretation of them!  And for the duration of this movie, you will believe that this is what they really look like.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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