Earlier this year, filmmaker Peter Ramsey’s name flashed into the collective consciousness when “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” won the Academy Award for best animated feature, elbowing the Japan-made nominee, “Mirai,” to the side. As co-director of a three-man directorial team, Ramsey also became the first African American director to win in the animation genre.
As “Mirai” lost out to its rival, social media was rife with concerns that Japanese anime was losing its edge. Being defeated in the world of live action was one thing — I’m still hurting over “Shoplifters” losing to “Roma” in 2018 — but a loss in animation was harder to swallow. (This, despite the fact that Japanese anime has won an Oscar only once in the past — for Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” in 2003, and has only been nominated six times since the award was established in 2001.)
“I understand why the Japanese would feel that way,” says Ramsey. “Anime is so much a part of Japanese culture. For us in the U.S., it’s practically synonymous with Japan itself. But really, Japanese anime hasn’t lost its edge. I know that a lot of animators in Hollywood get their inspirational fixes from Japanese anime. I myself grew up loving Japanese anime, like ‘Kimba the White Lion’ (1965-66) and ‘Gigantor’ (1963-66). Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo (creator of 1988’s ‘Akira’) remain key influences in my work.”
Ramsey says he has always felt closer to Japanese anime than American cartoons. Despite his peers enjoying the locally-produced fare, he felt they were too simplistic and aimed solely at getting laughs.
“Japanese anime worked with a much wider range,” he says. “They had sadness, moments of quiet, emotions and poetry. The storylines were much more complicated, and you could tell that the animators were aiming for a lot more than just getting laughs from kids.”
Ramsey’s all-time favorite Japanese anime films are “Spirited Away” (2001) and “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988), which he enjoyed with his young son.
“The mood created by ‘Totoro’ is both unreal but also matter-of-fact. It just lets you slip into a magical world without forcing you to like it. So many children’s films make that mistake but ‘Totoro’ lets you have the freedom to experience its world on your own terms.”
Ramsey grew up in South Central Los Angeles, an area near enough to Hollywood to be aware of the movie industry but too far away to actually think about a career in it.
“My father was a mailman and my mother was an aide at an elementary school, so we were a typical working-class family. The movie business seemed glamorous, magical and unattainable. To me, getting a job in Hollywood was the equivalent of wanting to become an astronaut. But when I watched Japanese anime, I felt a little encouraged. Eventually, I decided I had to discover a way into the world of animation.”
It helped that Ramsey loved to draw. After graduating from University of California, Los Angeles, he did a brief stint in advertising before signing up with an agency for storyboard artists.
“Storyboards are a huge part of the moviemaking process, and it’s a skill that comes in very handy for a director,” he says.
During a prolific 30-plus-year career, Ramsey has worked on storyboards for such landmark films as “Independence Day” (1996), “Fight Club” (1999), “Being John Malkovich” (1999) and “Men In Black” (1997). After joining Dreamworks in 2007, he went on to direct his first animated feature, “Rise of the Guardians,” in 2012.
“Initially, I wasn’t very interested in being an animator,” he says. “But with the success and rise of Dreamworks, American animation artists have a much higher profile. Worldwide, the demand for animators has become huge, which means that artists can now demand more — both in terms of compensation and respect. People take animation very seriously, and Japanese anime is still the authority in this world.”
“The complexity and range we associated with Japanese anime were what we wanted for ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,'” he says. “We also wanted an organic process of creation, which is also how we see Japanese anime being made. Usually, when you have three directors working on an animated feature, you get a fair share of conflict and competition. But we decided in the beginning that everyone would have a say at every level of the artistic process. We all worked in the editing room. We all worked on the designs. All of us had our fields of expertise and different ideas, but we matched them up as we went along. That held us together.
“I used to think that conflict and competition was important for a filmmaking team and for a story like ‘Spider-Verse.’ You know, the initial fighting and arguing, followed by the bonding, which can also be part of the storyline. But ‘Spider-Verse’ is more about finding your tribe and putting conflict aside in order to move forward as a tribe. That seems to be one of the themes in many Japanese anime stories, too.”
On these shores, many Japanese anime fans have taken their hats off to “Spider- Verse.” More than a few fans have pointed out the filmmakers’ dedication to the story, and the overall teamwork that put the movie ahead of their own artistic agenda. Of late, Japanese anime has been accused of “show-off tactics,” that pit various artists against each other, creating discord on the team and sometimes leading to visual inconsistencies in the movies.
For now, Ramsey is deeply ensconced in the world of animation, but going forward, he hopes to return to live action.
“I’ve gotten used to animated movies, where the time span per project is very long — maybe two to three years from start to finish. That’s because we have to develop everything from the ground up,” he says. “With live action, it’s more like a year or a year-and-a-half. You don’t have to stay with the project for so long, but it’s much more hectic. I miss that, sometimes — the feeling of doing something, and then moving on. On the other hand, there’s a lot going on in animation, aspects that haven’t been discovered yet. I may be hanging around to find out.”
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” will be released in Japan on DVD, Blu-ray and 4K UHD on Aug. 7.