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The world of Guardians and the scope of the project grew. Joyce envisioned 13 picture books to tell various parts of the tale (he's completed five), and he thought there should be a movie, but not a direct adaptation of the books. The film, set in the present, takes place 200 years after the time in which the books are set.
Oldenburg grew up in the suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas. He fell in love with movies at a young age.
"I walked out of Raiders of the Lost Ark knowing what I wanted to do with my life," he says. "That weekend, my dad and I went out and bought a Super 8 camera. I started making movies in the fourth grade, cutting them there at the kitchen table."
His mother noticed his talents and signed him up for art lessons.
He was a founder of Reel FX Creative Studios, a Dallas company that did work for Disney, Pixar, Blue Sky Studios and Troublemaker Studios.
In 1997, Joyce released The World of William Joyce Scrapbook and Oldenburg bought a copy. Oldenburg particularly liked the last page, which included drawings of characters for a book Joyce was then working on, The Man in the Moon.
To get Joyce's attention, Oldenburg crafted and mailed him surprise boxes, with springs and moving parts that launched pop-ups and created small effects. Soon, they talked on the phone, and Oldenburg said he wanted to make a movie with Joyce.
Joyce was very busy, often traveling to either New York or Los Angeles for book and film projects, but he decided to go to Dallas.
"My wife asked me, 'Why are you doing this?" Joyce says, intoning an implication of futility. "I had so much going on. But I said, 'I just have a hunch.'"
It didn't seem so promising at first.
"They didn't even know how to tell me how to get to their offices," Joyce says. "They were like, 'It's next to the Hooters downtown. If you can find the Hooters, we're right next door.' So I finally find it and Brandon comes out, and he looks like he's 11 years old. He looks like he's 15 now. This is 1998. I am like, 'Oh, my God, they're children.' I went through [Reel FX's] offices, and I don't think any of these guys shave. Do their parents drop them off? Is this some afterschool program?"
But he was impressed with their work.
"They had great instincts, great technological ability," Joyce says. "They were finding cheap ways to do complicated things. ... If you go into any animation house, you get an instant read on what the place is like. If a place is rocking, there's a happy sort of energy in the air. Pixar had that. It's rare. When I went into Reel FX it was there. It felt like when I had walked into Blue Sky for the first time. It felt like when I walked into Pixar for the first time."
Joyce and Oldenburg decided to make a short film together. Actually, it was just a sequence of scenes setting up The Man in the Moon story, a very early installment/prequel to Rise of the Guardians.
In late fall 1998, they spent a week filming in New Orleans because Morrison Productions Studio (located in the former Coliseum Theater in the Lower Garden District) had a computer-controlled boom arm that would allow them to shoot their scenes and create desired effects, incorporating miniatures and animation. The four-minute film later became crucial to their deal with DreamWorks, but it also helped forge the creative bond between Joyce and Oldenburg.
"It was the first time I directed anything. I had been wanting to direct," Joyce says. "We had so much freedom. We had so much fun. They did such beautiful work. ... I was supposed to be there for one day. I didn't bring a suitcase. Every day they had a flight for me [back to Shreveport]. And every day I had Chuck, the producer, call my wife and say it's not going to be today. ... We had the best time. We never slept and we never stopped. We finished all that we had the money to do."
Oldenburg also was elated.
"In our hearts, the two of us knew that if we could make a short film, it would be embraced by the world," he says. "We had to wait over a decade to try that again. It wasn't like we just formed a company overnight."
Many studios were interested in Rise of the Guardians and Joyce had pitched it to several of the larger ones. None of them was interested in the books.
"I had become way emotionally attached to the whole thing," Joyce says. "I felt this was the best thing I had done. I felt it was the story I was put on Earth to do. I cannot hand it over to Hollywood — even with all the assurances and even with being a producer or director. ...
"At first I was going to direct it. They all said no.
"They all offered tons of money. I was offered so many Faustian bargains, I felt like my soul was up for purchase — insane sums of money were offered, and I had to go, 'No. These are the conditions of which I will do this. Take it or leave it.' And they'd say, 'No, but here's a shitload more money.'"
He stood firm because he was very interested in the film's audience, and cautious about the way money works.
"These characters stay vivid and powerful in kids' imagination," he says. "More than if they are handing out coupons or selling products on TV. The way you see them in your head as a kid is pretty magnificent. [The Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy] do all these things in one night. They judge you. There's a lot more mythic power to them as a child than when you are a grownup. We wanted to honor that.