What a great time to be a film student in Atlanta.
Not only has Hollywood moved south, thanks to the state’s tax credits for filming projects, but a number of the industry’s on-screen and behind-the-scenes stars have made Atlanta a destination for speaking engagements.
Peter Ramsey’s long list of art-department film credits includes “Men in Black,” “Independence Day,” two of the “Shrek” movies and “Minority Report.” He directed “Rise of the Guardians,” the animated feature now in theaters.
Yet he struck a self-effacing tone during a recent visit to SCAD-Atlanta. It was one of several recent visits at different area schools that paired key industry figures with Atlanta students who are interested in film.
“I guarantee you know more about animation technology than I do. You can probably teach me a thing or two,” said Ramsey, who toured SCAD’s digital media center and then met with a group of students aiming to follow in his accomplished footsteps.
“Rise of the Guardians,” based on author William Joyce’s work, renders childhood icons Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost, the Sandman and the Easter Bunny as superheroes. Ramsey said he worked on the project for three years.
“There are so many characters,” said Ramsey, who’s also worked on “Panic Room,” “Fight Club” and “Being John Malkovich.” “It’s so complex. We went through version after version of just about every scene.”
Although the movie is a fun family flick, it represents cutting-edge innovation, he said. The Sandman character in particular was challenging.
“That took a lot of development and a lot of technology that didn’t exist when we started,” Ramsey said.
Camp Flix, a filmmaking camp for teens and tweens held at Emory and Oglethorpe universities, is already taking applications for next summer’s camp sessions after this year’s event featured a master class with Atlanta native and “The Help” star Chris Lowell. The director of “Beside Still Waters,” an independent drama set for release next year, he also struck a humble tone.
“I am sure that at some point in my life, I will be asking one of you for a job. I will be groveling,” he told the campers. Earlier in his career, Lowell starred in one scene in “Up in the Air” with George Clooney. His entire scene takes place while his character is on the phone with Clooney, so there was no reason for them to ever meet. Yet Clooney took time to help Lowell rehearse, an act of kindness that provided a valuable lesson.
“Who am I? I’m a nobody with a tiny little part. Clooney comes in on his day off and sits with me, and we read lines for hours,” Lowell said. “It really made a huge impression on me. It’s simple, but be nice to people. Say ‘thank you’ a lot. No one ever gets mad when you say ‘thank you.’ ”
More recently, students at Emory and Spelman and Morehouse colleges met Academy Award winner Geoffrey Fletcher, who won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for his work on “Precious.” The movie, starring Atlanta’s Mo’Nique (who won the best supporting actress Oscar for her role in the film), was based on the novel by poet Sapphire.
“I wasn’t aware of the book before (director) Lee Daniels brought it to my attention,” Fletcher said during an interview in between appearances organized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ “Academy On Campus” program. “I wasn’t aware of its passionate following. If I had been aware, I might have felt less freedom in taking leaps.”
The book about an impoverished and abused teenage mother could not be more bleak. The movie based on Fletcher’s screenplay and starring Gabourey Sidibe, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd and Lenny Kravitz is not as grim.
“I saw it brimming with possibilities,” he said. “At the end of the day, I think people respond to truth and inspiration.”
Fletcher was brought on board after Daniels saw a short film he wrote and directed. A graduate of Harvard and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Fletcher today is an adjunct film professor at Columbia University and the Tisch School. At the time, he had begun to wonder whether he’d ever be a filmmaking success, yet the timing turned out to be perfect.
“If that opportunity had come years earlier, I don’t think I would have been ready for it,” he said. “Early on I thought, ‘I’m ready now! I know it all now!’ An opportunity isn’t an opportunity if you aren’t ready for it.”
His advice for aspiring filmmakers: “Keep working. Keep believing in yourself. Have a degree of humility. Any sense of entitlement can severely stunt your learning.”
And don’t be in too big a hurry.
“There’s the idea that it should happen quickly,” he said. “I kept thinking I was ready. I saw classmates go on to be wildly successful. All those years before ‘Precious,’ I’m so thankful. I wouldn’t trade that. Living life gives you something to say.”