Peter Ramsey, the first Black nominee for the Best Animated Feature film at the 2019 Oscars recalls with Our Weekly the journey from the Crenshaw District to Hollywood as a “twisty road” that required him to change direction as he learned more about himself.
Question: When did art become your language of expression?
Answer: “From as early as I could remember. I didn’t realize that it was art at the time, but I was a very small kid and my Mom was at home with us; I had a younger brother and sister, so I was the oldest. And I would draw to entertain myself. It was something to do… I’d grab one of her magazines and a ballpoint pen and start scribbling in the margins and, you know, draw little characters and make up little stories.”
Q: What specific to your upbringing in a majority Black community still serves you?
A: “The grounding. My parents were really down to earth. There was no pretense about class or money. I never felt poor or deprived. I’d never really felt that I was missing out that way. Those kinds of luxuries be it brand names or anything like that. Those types of status symbols, they didn’t mean much to me because I grew up with that sort of ethos.’
Q: How did you decide to pursue art as a career?
A: “It’s not something that you get educated about in school. I grew up in L.A. 10 miles from Hollywood. I had no idea that I could make a living in the film industry… until I was in my 20s. It had never entered my mind that a normal person like me could work in the movie business. I had been at UCLA as a freshman in the fine arts program—17 years old—and I was confronted with a way of thinking about art that I had never had before. I identified myself as an artist, and suddenly I was finding out that, ‘oh, this thing that I think I am, I don’t really know if I am! If this is it, then I don’t think I’m it.’ But it was also a great thing because it made me sort of realize that the thing that interested me about art was how it fit a narrative.”
Q: Are looking for ways to get the children in the Crenshaw district to channel their art?’
A: “I would love to do that. I would love to create the opportunity so people can channel their art in Crenshaw specifically with kids at an earlier stage. The sooner that you can get concretely the idea of what to do, what you like to do, the sooner you can concretely get some sort of context for kids who have this creative drive and don’t really know what the right outlet is or what the possibilities are.”
Q: In some neighborhoods, art classes are only affordable if they are free. What advice do you offer to artists who can’t afford classes?
A: “There’s so much available that you can get almost for free. And that just takes an internet connection and a computer.”
Q: What was the set like working with 2Pac and Janet Jackson on “Poetic Justice?”
A: “It was quite electric. The other thing about it, was that it was John Singleton. He was quite a cultural hero at that point. It was kind of like being part of a movement. It was energetic, energizing, and inspiring. It was a kind of sense that something new was happening. I was still early in my career, but to be working on ‘Poetic Justice’ when John Singleton was a thing and you had 2Pac and Janet Jackson. That movie was a little bit of a ‘mecca.’ There were a lot of talented Black people drawn to the process.”
Q: What is art?
A: “Societal expression and communicating to other people an experience so that other people can empathize, so that they can learn, so that they can have a different perspective on either our experience or of looking at their own experience. It can be a way of celebrating stuff. It can be a way of interrogating stuff. There’s a lot of different things to express. You’ve got to be open to all the different things that art can do for you.”
Q: What advice do you offer for the child who may want to make animation a career?
A: “Read a lot of books, draw a lot of pictures. Animation as an art form is gonna require an understanding of art, maybe anatomy, all those things you can learn with just a pencil pad and a piece of paper. Storytelling? You can just read books. You can watch movies. You can take stuff that you like and that moves you and study it!”
Q: What do you use for inspiration when in a creative rut?
A: “Remembering the things that I loved and remembering the things that inspired me. Go back and look at a movie by Andy Copolla…one of my favorite directors. Don’t tell yourself that you’re not supposed to be there, because you are there. Your unique power is that you are the original. It doesn’t matter who you are; there’s something that you have that nobody else does.”