Ramin Zahed | The Art of Rise of the Guardians (Insight Editions)

Don’t ask me how they do it—if I knew, I’d be bottling it and selling it to the other studios, because it’s the kind of trick a lot of films have tried to pull off and failed.



156 pages. Insight Editions, 2010. $40.00 (hardcover)
[Editor’s note: This review was submitted in early December and is only being posted at this late date because of editorial forgetfulness. Much apologies. –JG]
For most people, mid-November means Thanksgiving is just around the corner. For film critics, it means the start of the screener season, that all-too-brief period each year when we are bombarded by invitations to screenings and our mailbox becomes overloaded with DVDs and promotional materials sent by the movie studios. In such a deluge, it takes a lot for a film to really grab our attention, but a trial by ordeal may be as good a way as any to separate the wheat from the chaff. Honestly, I might have been more impressed with Argo had I not seen it in close proximity to Zero Dark Thirty—but given the opportunity to make a direct comparison, Argo is a jingoistic caper flick while Zero Dark Thirty the best picture of the year.
But I digress. Among the animated features up for awards this year, Rise of the Guardians popped right off the screen and demanded my attention. Not because of the storytelling, which in truth is pretty weak, nor the characters, which are variations on the usual dudes-and-a-token-feisty-girl, but for the beautiful, detailed art. Sometimes almost too detailed, in fact—I frequently wished the story would slow down so I could just soak up the backgrounds.
DreamWorks clearly knows on which side their bread is buttered, because in conjunction with the film they have issued a large format (10.1” x 11.3”), full-color book which delivers just what the title promises: The Art of Rise of the Guardians. It’s written by veteran journalist Ramin Zahed, with a forward by Alec Baldwin (the voice of North/Santa Claus in the film) and a preface by William Joyce (author and illustrator of the book series The Guardians of Childhood, on which the film is based), but it’s Joyce’s art that is the real draw.
The Guardians are benign figures who watch over children and bring them joy—North/Santa Claus, Bunny/the Easter Bunny, Tooth/the Tooth Fairy, and Sandy/the Sandman. Jack Frost has been summoned to join them, but he’s not sure he wants to. Meanwhile, the evil Pitch wants to steal all the teeth children leave under their pillows for their teeth fairy, so our heroes must band together to fight him, and of course Jack gets drawn into the mission also. 
Joyce’s art for Rise of the Guardians captures the wonderment of a Victorian Christmas album and always feels handcrafted, while at the same time it manages to feel streamlined and contemporary rather than old-fashioned. Don’t ask me how they do it—if I knew, I’d be bottling it and selling it to the other studios, because it’s the kind of trick a lot of films have tried to pull off and failed.
There’s an edge to these characters—North is not the beaming Santa of a vintage Coca Cola ad, but a somewhat scary if ultimately benign guy (it’s no accident that his red coat is trimmed with black fur rather than white). Bunny is always ready for a fight, and Pitch is positively menacing with his crew of black horses and the nightmare dust he casts over the sweet dreams of innocent children. The other characters are less threatening but still visually interesting: Sandy/the Sandman doesn’t get to do much besides look cool (he’s a swirling pile of sand), and Tooth Fairy is a startlingly humanoid hummingbird, resplendent in her iridescence and supplied with a crew of adorable miniature fairies to do her legwork (or perhaps that should be “wingwork”). Jack Frost is a contemporary indie boy in a hoodie and emo haircut (and suffering from an identity crisis, like all good teenagers), yet he fits right in with the more fantastic elements in this story.
The Art of Rise of the Guardians devotes a chapter to each of the main locations in the film—the North Pole, Bunny Empire, Tooth Palace, the Clouds, Pitch’s Lair, and the Human World. For each, there’s text explaining how the worlds and characters were created, with preliminary sketches, diagrams, and finished art to help you understand the artistic processes that shaped the film. Right in the middle of the book is foldout diagram showing the workflow for one sequence in the film, along with commentary from 17 of the people who worked on it. It gives you a real appreciation of how complex the process of making an animated CGI film is, and what a miracle it is when the end product is actually something worth seeing.
The Art of Rise of the Guardians contains enough detail to interest people who are working in animation, or who want to be, as well as those who are fans of this film. You can see a preview on the publisher’s website  http://www.insighteditions.com/The-Rise-Guardians-Ramin-Zahed/dp/1608871088 and see some art from the Guardians book series on their web site http://theguardiansofchildhoodbooks.com/. | Sarah Boslaugh

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