Visual Effects Guru Ray Giarratana masters the art of visual narrative as Writer-Director of The Tiger Rising

Ray Giarratana started out in Hollywood making wondrous things happen onscreen. As an in-demand high-end visual effects supervisor, he helped make the 1990s the breakthrough era of CG wonder, but Giarratana always knew he wanted to do more — and he wanted to do it through the magic of storytelling, not just visual effects. As the writer-director of The Tiger Rising, he brings the New York Times best-selling book to life, “a story about cages…the cages we build to protect ourselves from hurt, loss and pain.”

Ray Giarratana and his challenging Italian last name (“Jer – a – tanna”) have been a staple in the film and entertainment industry for over 30 years always with an emphasis on telling compelling and entertaining stories. Even though he came from the global world of high-end visual effects, Ray’s focus was writing and directing which led him to adapt award-winning author Kate DiCamillo’s powerful book, The Tiger Rising which he then went on to direct.

Starting his career helping build Pacific Data Images (now Dreamworks Animation) as an award-winning visual effect and animation house landed Ray the creative role supervising and directing commercials at James Cameron’s company, Digital Domain, leading up and through the classic Titanic where he was the driving force behind many top commercial campaigns. While at DD, he also directed the $26 million, 70mm event film “Artist’s Journey” for Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project in Seattle.

Ray considers his early years working with the world’s top directors such as Michael Bay, David Fincher, Wes
Anderson, David O. Russell, Michael Mann, Antoine Fuqua and dozens of others, as his film school. Collaborating with such top filmmakers on a daily basis while working on incredibly diverse projects has given Ray a broad range of skills and a unique perspective as a storyteller.

Director’s Statement

The story is told through the eyes of Rob Jr., an imaginative 10-year old boy who is dealing with the loss of his mother,” says Giarratana. “I felt it was important that we told this universal story in a mature and honest way that would resonate with all ages, even though the film’s main characters are children. The film also takes us into the mind of Rob’s magical imagination — the way he sees his world and how he copes with his circumstances.

Another theme in the film is that not everyone responds to pain the same way. Rob’s new friend, Sistine, is dealing with the pain of her parent’s divorce. Instead of holding everything inside, like Rob, she acts out boldly, both verbally and physically, and also in contrast to her more natural self as seen in her reactions to Rob’s drawings and carvings.

Adults are no different. Rob’s father is struggling with his own grief over the loss of his wife, Caroline, which has changed his world dramatically and left him alone to raise his child. We can see his struggle to connect with his son during this time, knowing especially that Rob Jr. and his mom shared a special bond.

Willie May is the heart and soul of the film, essentially an angel in the form of a simple hotel maid. She speaks to the children through her years of life experience and her own hidden pain, meeting them right where they are. Her words are honest and true and reach deep inside Rob and Sistine.

I wanted the film to have a thoughtful pace to enhance the feel of Rob’s world in rural northern Florida — the humidity in the air, the dew on the ground in the woods — the unrushed life of a child. I remember discovering Tommy Emmanuel’s lyrical guitar incredibly moving and inspirational when I wrote the script. We used his guitar as a kind of “lead violin”, if you will, then surrounded his guitar with the orchestra, giving the film presence and emotional weight.

We crafted the camera work to be personal and unobtrusive, to help take the audience further into the story. The colour palette and production design were specifically chosen to reflect Rob’s fond memories of happier times when his mother was alive compared to the present, where Rob’s world is colder and emptier.

And, of course, the tiger. The majestic animal that Rob finds in the woods behind the motel where he lives is symbolic of his emotions — they’re both in cages. The film explores the complications of opening up both of these cages and the release it finally brings.

Ultimately, I hope the film resonates with children and adults alike, reminding them that they’re not alone, and giving them courage and hope to just take that next step towards healing and freedom.

Giarratana’s journey as a screenwriter

Working as a visual effects supervisor on high-end music videos like Michael Jackson’s Black or White and commercials for Apple, Coca-Cola and Mercedes, and soon moving on to films including Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabee’s, the Russo Brothers’ Captain America: Civil War, David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King, Chad Stahelski’s John Wick Chapter 3Parabellum, and Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Giarratana realised that he connected with story and character as much anything he was doing.

“That actually helped as a visual effects supervisor,” says Giarratana. “Wise filmmakers realize visual effects supervisors can really help them tell their story, or see it in another way, or help solve problems. I’m not some tech-focused ‘pocket protector guy,’ so if I talk to filmmakers about story instead of the latest tech, or discuss a film in terms of character, that’s more comfortable for them. And it is for me as well, and I can then translate that to my visual effects team.”

“That ability to talk about story elements was something that was always part of my toolbox, and with it, I knew I wanted to branch out,” says Giarratana. “Visual effects guys often get branded in the industry with the line of, ‘They can’t tell a story or talk to talent.’ I’m not that guy.”

Giarratana was spurred on even more when, one evening, he happened to catch the end of a film on television. He had seen it many times before, but it suddenly held extra meaning for him.

“I was watching the 1993 sports drama Rudy on cable around midnight one evening as I was paying bills,” recalls Giarratana. “It gets to the end and the crowd chants ‘Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!’ I put my chequebook down, looked at the screen almost in tears, and was chanting with them. I thought, how did they do that? How did David Anspaugh, the director of that film, grab my heart and make me feel this?”

Soon, Giarratana took classes with esteemed acting teacher Judith Weston. “I thought I knew how to talk to actors, and then I read Judith’s book Directing Actors and I thought, there’s so much more to learn! Judith had some workshops specifically for directors, and I spent a lot of time on that over the years.”

Giarratana wrote several scripts in the years that followed — most of them comedies — then decided that adapting a story would play more to his strengths.

“I can look at a story and see how it translates, what it might need, and what can be cut,” he says. Through his wife Deborah’s introduction to L.A. literary agent Jason Dravis of The Dravis Agency, the two one day were discussing Giarratana’s plans when Dravis walked over to a shelf and got best-selling author Kate DiCamillo’s acclaimed 2002 middle school book The Tiger Rising.

“I flew to New York not long after that and read the book on the plane, and Kate’s words absolutely connected to me,” says Giarratana. “I grew up in Florida for a part of my life, and her words and sense of atmosphere was amazing. She’s such a great storyteller, and I could see how it might be a movie. By the time the plane landed in New York, I’d pulled out my laptop to start typing out ideas.”

After he adapted DiCamillo’s book, Giarratana held a table read with actors in L.A. As the film became a reality in 2019, Giarratana got ready to guide his cast and crew while filming in the Georgia towns of Thomasville and Tifton (which doubled for the story’s setting of northern Florida). And his set, he knew, would truly reflect his personality. “I’ve been on sets where the atmosphere is so heavy, and I don’t think you get the best work from people that way. And it was especially important to me that our young actors felt incredibly comfortable and free on set, which was something I made very clear to the entire crew.”

The material from DiCamillo’s book provided a heartfelt, child’s-eye view of grief, hope, and family, as a reserved fifth-grader named Rob Horton Jr. learns to process his grief over his mother’s recent death from cancer while he and his father, Robert Horton Sr., are living in a run-down motel. When Rob Jr. meets a new classmate named Sistine Bailey — and the kids discover a caged tiger owned by the mean-spirited motel owner Beauchamp — the 10-year-olds find that emotions, like tigers, need to be free.

“I never saw The Tiger Rising as a kids’ story,” says Giarratana. “It’s bigger than that. Something I said to everyone was, the stars of the film are 10-year-olds, but we’re not making a children’s film.”

“Kate’s book told a story about loss,” adds Giarratana.” Rob Jr. has lost his mom, his father is hurting, Sistine is hurting from missing her dad after her parents’ divorce. They all have things they’re hurting from. It’s a middle school book but a universal theme for everyone, regardless of age.”

Kate DiCamillo’s Remarkable Writing Journey

Kate DiCamillo grew up in Florida and moved to Minnesota in her twenties when homesickness and a bitter winter led her to write Because of Winn-Dixie, her first published novel, which became a runaway bestseller and snapped up a Newbery Honor. Twentieth Century Fox adapted it for the big screen and it was Kate’s first project distributed by a major motion picture studio and experienced huge box office success.

The Tiger Rising, her second novel, was also set in Florida and went on to become a National Book Award Finalist and landed the coveted position of required reading for 4th and 5th grade in schools across America.

Since then, the best-selling author has explored settings as varied as a medieval castle and a magician’s theatre while continuing to enjoy great success, winning two Newbery Medals and being named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. She now has over 37 million books in print worldwide. Kate DiCamillo’s books’ themes of hope and belief amid impossible circumstances and their messages of shared humanity and connectedness have resonated with readers of all ages around the world.

In her instant #1 New York Times bestseller The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, a haughty china rabbit undergoes a profound transformation after finding himself face down on the ocean floor, lost and waiting to be found.

The Tale of Despereaux, the Newbery Medal–winning novel that later inspired an animated adventure from Universal Pictures, stars a tiny mouse with exceptionally large ears who is driven by love to become an unlikely hero.

The Magician’s Elephant, an acclaimed and exquisitely paced fable, dares to ask the question What if?

And Kate DiCamillo’s second Newbery Medal winner, Flora & Ulysses, was released in 2013 to great acclaim, garnering five starred reviews and an instant spot on the New York Times bestseller list. In 2021, it was released as an original movie on Disney+. Her most recent trilogy of novels, starring three best friends in the world of Raymie Nightingale, all achieved national bestseller list status and are positioned to become coming-of-age classics for decades to come.

Her latest novel, The Beatryce Prophecy, about a girl who is destined to unseat a king, was an instant #1 national bestseller and named a best book of the year by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Publishers Weekly.

Born in Philadelphia but raised in the South, Kate DiCamillo now lives in Minneapolis