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Breathing Life Into The Prince of Egypt


By Joe Tracy

The Prince of Egypt was no ordinary attempt by DreamWorks SKG to enter the highly profitable animation market. It was an all out attempt to set standards for future animated pictures and to introduce many new ideas and concepts, some becoming a first for the animation industry.

The Prince of DreamWorks
The story of The Prince of Egypt really begins with one of the most brilliant minds in the animation industry – Jeffrey Katzenberg. In 1994, Katzenberg left Walt Disney Studios after a falling out with Disney’s leader, Michael Eisener. In the 10 years that Katzenberg was at Disney, he oversaw the production and success of animated hits like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Now out of the Disney empire, Katzenberg sought to create a new empire. After meetings with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, the three created DreamWorks SKG. Katzenberg’s job was to oversee the animation division. The Prince of Egypt became his baby.

The idea for The Prince of Egypt was born before DreamWorks had even been announced to the public. The idea came from a meeting about the animation studio.

“Steven asked what the criteria would be for a great animated film,” says Katzenberg, “and I launched into a 20-minute dissertation about what you look for: a powerful allegory that we can relate to in our time; extraordinary situations to motivate strong emotional journeys; something wonderful about the human spirit; good triumphing over evil; music as a compelling storytelling element; and so on… Steven leaned forward and said, ‘You mean like The Ten Commandments?’ and I said, ‘Exactly.’”

It was then Geffen who suggested that such a story be made into DreamWorks first animated feature.

The Story
The Prince of Egypt is an adaptation of the famous biblical story of Moses. Although it is not 100% historically accurate, it is a very powerful story about two men – of two princes of Egypt. A lie made them brothers, the truth would tear them apart, and each would follow their own destiny.

“I’m sure there are those who think we’re nuts for choosing a Bible story as our first animated feature,” says Katzenberg. “But the fact is, this is a great emotional story about a remarkable man who must come to terms with his past, his heritage, and his faith.”

DreamWorks strove to keep the character of Moses as human as possible. Moses wasn’t just a messenger; he was a human with human weaknesses. Moses takes on a mission, but not without a lot of pain and fear. What makes the story in this film so unique and powerful is that the main conflict for Moses becomes his relationship with Rameses, the man he’s always called brother.

“This isn’t a traditional animated picture with a conventional hero and villain. It’s a much more complex story,” director Steve Hickner notes. “In our movie, Moses and Rameses are brothers; from the beginning of the film to the very last moment, they still care for each other.”

Another thing that helped formulate the story was DreamWorks sending a research group to visit Egypt and the surrounding lands. Upon returning from Egypt, DreamWorks hired a group of artists to capture the whole story in paintings and drawings. What better story to illustrate than one with such deep roots?

“The story is as timely today as it was 2,000 years ago, and as it will be 2,000 years from now as people continue to retell the story in whatever media exists at that time,” says director Steve Hickner.

The Artists and Effects
More than 350 artists, animators, and technicians from 35 different countries worked full time on The Prince of Egypt for four years. This included award-winning visual effects artists Henry LaBounta (Twister) and Doug Ikeler (Babe) who were brought on board to achieve a new level of special effects in an animated film. The special effects focus given to them were three scenes: the Burning Bush, the Plagues, and the parting of the Red Sea.

“The fire of the Burning Bush is a sort of slowed-down flame, and the effect it produces on the surrounding rocks is like light reflecting off water, says Brenda Chapman, one of three directors of The Prince of Egypt. “If you watch, you will also see that the bush grows and flowers throughout the scene to demonstrate that the bush burns but is not consumed.”

The realistic look of the plagues of blood, hail fire, locusts and Angel of Death was accomplished by 3D particle systems, which are like small dots in space. Animators were able to apply forces such as wind to move the particles around. The particles could then be rendered to achieve the end result of insects, fire, or any number of elements or things.

Doug Ikeler, sequence lead of the plagues, had challenges as varied as the plagues themselves.

“The first plague, blood, not only had to look like blood floating the water, it had to act driven,” says Ikeler. “For the plague of hail, the falling hail fire exploded into a molten lava-like substance when it hit the ground, and left a vaporous smoke trail, which gave it an eerie beauty.” In the Plague of Locusts scene, Ikeler had to create 7,000,000 swarming locusts, and motion cycles for the bugs that are seen eating the bread.

But perhaps the most difficult and awesome scene to animate was the seven-minute parting of the Red Sea sequence.

The Parting of the Red
Sea By far the most focused special effects effort went into the parting of the Red Sea. LaBounta was given a team of 10 digital artists, which was coordinated with 2D artist Jeff Howard and a team of 16 traditional animators. Two programmers were also added to the team. Just before the parting of the Red Sea comes a sequence that required a great pillar of fire to separate the oncoming Egyptian Army from the Hebrews who were trapped at the edge of the Red Sea with nowhere to go.

“[The pillar of fire] was a familiar challenge for me, because I had just finished supervising the tornado work on Twister,” says LaBounta. “My initial instinct was to create a tornado of fire, but I soon realized that the visual challenge here was to avoid making it photorealistic.”

Before work on the Red Sea sequence could begin, various concept artwork drawings were created for discussions that led to major decisions on the sequence, like the shape of the parting being more circular than straight up and down. Now the challenge became to make the parting seem much larger than life.

“We developed digital techniques which gave us the level of detail necessary to convey a huge scale,” says LaBounta. “But the style of hand-drawn animation is difficult to simulate.”

The solution was to use tiny variations of draw splashes and to apply the shapes that brush strokes create as the foundation of the water texture. Much of the scene is a blending of traditional artwork with digital animation.

“We used every technique imaginable to produce the Water effects in The Prince of Egypt,” says Dan Philips, the co-visual effects supervisor. “They {the water effects] ran the gamut from traditional animation to 3D effects to 2D CG, which is a digital approach using traditional paintings. We are very proud of the result, which is like a living painting.”

The final result of the seven-minute Red Sea sequence took 318,000 hours to render.

Bringing Hieroglyphics to Life
Earlier in the movie, Moses experiences a nightmare dubbed “The Hieroglyphics Nightmare sequence.” This sequence breaths life into the 2D hieroglyphic beings on the walls. One unique sequence in this nightmare shows 2D hieroglyphic characters moving along the walls onto 3D pillars to “hide” from other 2D elements in the nightmare.

“If you’re two-dimensional, the only way to hide from other two-dimensional beings is to somehow escape into a third dimension where they can’t see you,” says Simon Wells, one of the three directors of The Prince of Egypt.

The overall unique aspect of the whole scene, however, is that the entire environment is like watching hieroglyphic scenes seamlessly come to life.

“The hardest part was to make the characters appear as if they had been carved into the wall, and to carry the cracks and textures of the walls and columns onto the images moving over them,” says The Prince of Egypt producer, Sandra Rabins. “Dave Morehead [scene planning supervisor] did a great job accomplishing this effect using various software and the exposure tool.”

The Exposure Tool
There were many significant breakthroughs in animation technology developed by The Prince of Egypt team. The most impressive was the exposure tool, which DreamWorks developed in conjunction with Silicon Graphics. The exposure tool was the key to seamless integration of all the 2D and 3D elements in each scene.

“The exposure tool actually allows you to set your stage with any combination of 3D elements and 2D paintings and drawings,” says Morehead. “It then lets you choreograph them as you move through the scene with your camera.”

According to Don Paul, co-visual effects supervisor, the exposure tool “opened up the scope of the picture, allowing us to do the kind of camera work that’s never been seen before in an animated film.”

An example of the exposure tool in use is the chariot race between Moses and Rameses. While Moses and Rameses (as well as the horses) are traditional hand-drawn elements, the chariots they are riding in are 3D props. The entire scene, with backdrops flying by quickly, required all 2D and 3D elements to effectively be “married.”

“The exposure tool let us apply cinematic techniques – like constantly repositioning the camera and chasing the action – which would not have been possible before,” says Philips.

The Music
Katzenberg is strongly aware that songs and music in animated features need to move the story forward without interrupting it. To help achieve this result he turned to Hans Zimmer for the score and Stephen Schwartz for the songs.

Prior to doing the score for The Prince of Egypt, Zimmer had written musical scores for over 60 feature films including, The Lion King, The Rock, and Crimson Tide. Schwartz is well known for his songs in Pocahontas. He is responsible for the captivating song “When You Believe” that has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award and is expected to be nominated for an Academy Award.

“The inspiration for "When You Believe" began on a trip to Egypt with some of The Prince of Egypt crew,” says Schwartz in The Stephen Schwartz Forum. “One of the directors, Steve Hickner, and one of the producers, Penney Finkelman-Cox, and I were bouncing around the Sinai in the back of a van, and they were talking about how they would like a song at the end of the movie that was triumphant in feel and summed up the message of perseverance in the face of hopelessness. Steve also mentioned the song ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ as a kind of model. I thought of the title "When You Believe," and they liked it, and the song sort of grew from there.”

Schwartz has a way of connecting the audience to the different characters in the film in a short time period. You feel the sufferings of real Hebrew slaves and not just biblical symbols. When Moses’ Hebrew mother sang her lullaby, you feel her pain at having to give Moses up to a river in order to save his life.

Schwartz came up with the inspiration of the song “All I Ever Wanted,” sung by Moses when he first discovered the truth about his past, when Schwartz visited Egypt. One moonlit night the team had gotten permission to visit an Egyptian Temple that was not yet opened to the public. He recalls, “There was something about walking through those beautiful white columns reflected in the moonlight and seeing the hieroglyphs that triggered the tune which became, ‘All I Ever Wanted.’”

As far as the score goes, the greatest challenge for Zimmer was the background score for when Moses came upon the Burning Bush.

“I instantly embraced the challenge,” says Zimmer, “but a year later I was still thinking, ‘I have no idea how to do this…’ I wanted to be very careful, because the scene deals with so many peoples beliefs. But at the same time, when you become too careful, you can’t create.” He finally concluded to make it personal. His studio became a monastery, as Zimmer locked himself away and focused on finding the belief in him.

The Firsts
With The Prince of Egypt DreamWorks hopes to set some new standards in the animation industry. As part of DreamWorks apparent commitment to doing things differently than it is done at Disney, The Prince of Egypt has achieved many firsts in the animation industry.

  1. It is the first animated feature film to be developed around a biblical story.
  2. It is the first animated feature film to have a woman director - Brenda Chapman. There were also two male directors, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells.
  3. It is the first animated feature film to use major Hollywood stars in all voice parts (including minor parts).
  4. It is the first animated feature film to use a special process of melding 2D and 3D animation into a realistic blend, via DreamWorks exposure tool.
  5. It is the first animated feature film to seriously challenge Disney’s monopoly in the market and may even gross enough money to make it into the Top 10 Animated Films of All Time.
  6. It is the first animated feature film that Jeffrey Katzenberg has listed his name in as Executive Producer.
  7. It was the first animated feature film to undergo strict pre-release screening and scrutiny from many major organizations (including the Vatican) to gain their approval.
  8. It was the first animated feature film to be released worldwide the same weekend it was released in the U.S. This includes being released in 25 different languages in 37 countries the same weekend.
  9. It is the first in-house animation project by DreamWorks. ANTZ (released in the Fall of 1998) was created by PDI, a strategic partner of DreamWorks.

The Opening
DreamWorks The Prince of Egypt opened in theaters on December 18, 1998 against a strong effort put forth by Disney to try and keep people from going to see the film. Disney countered The Prince of Egypt by adding new blooper sequences to its popular A Bug’s Life movie and by showing sneak peaks of its live action film, Mighty Joe Young. Even so, The Prince of Egypt managed to come in second place at the Box Office (behind You’ve Got Mail) with a $14.5 million opening weekend gross. The following weekend, it made more money, bringing in $15.1 million, well ahead of the official opening of Disney’s Mighty Joe Young. In the first two weeks, The Prince of Egypt made over $40 million, putting it on a course that could possibly make it the first non-Disney animation feature to ever break into the Top 10 Animated Films of All Time. What a timeless reward that would be for such a timeless classic.


Joe Tracy is the Publisher of Digital Media FX Magazine and author of the book Web Marketing Applied.

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