THE PRINCE OF EGYPT
THE PRINCE OF EGYPT
Two men—brothers and princes of the greatest empire on earth. One will someday rule Egypt. The other will become one of the greatest heroes of all time. A lie made them brothers…but the truth will destroy a dynasty and forever separate them…in faith…in heritage…in destiny.
The epic journey of Moses from slave to prince to deliverer has been told and retold for centuries, inspiring generation after generation. Now this timeless story comes to the screen in a new form for audiences of every generation to experience.
“The Prince of Egypt” features the voices of Val Kilmer as Moses and Ralph Fiennes as Rameses. It also brings together the vocal talents of Sandra Bullock as Miriam, Danny Glover as Jethro, Jeff Goldblum as Aaron, Steve Martin as Hotep, Helen Mirren as the Queen, Michelle Pfeiffer as Tzipporah, Martin Short as Huy, and Patrick Stewart as Pharaoh Seti.
The production team is headed by directors Brenda Chapman, the first woman director of an animated feature, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells; producers Penney Finkelman Cox and Sandra Rabins; and executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Oscar® winner Stephen Schwartz (“Pocahontas”) wrote six original songs for the film, and composer Hans Zimmer, an Academy Award® winner for his work on “The Lion King,” created the score.
Over 350 artists, animators and technicians from over 35 different countries devoted four years to bringing “The Prince of Egypt” to the screen. The film breaks exciting new ground in animation with such developments as the state-of-the-art exposure tool, developed by DreamWorks and SGI, which allows for the seamless blending of 2-D and 3-D animation. New approaches in character and production design give the film a look that is distinctly different from other animated films. In addition, award-winning visual effects artists from the world of live-action films joined with traditional animation artists to achieve a new level of special effects for an animated feature.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
The idea that would become DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt” began to take shape even before the company was formed. Of course, the story has its roots in the biblical book of Exodus, but the inspiration to bring it to the screen as the studio’s first traditionally animated feature arose unexpectedly from a conversation between Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen back in 1994.
The three were talking about their ambitions for their as-yet-to-be-announced studio venture. Katzenberg’s revolved around a new animation studio, which prompted a question from Spielberg. Katzenberg recalls, “Steven asked what the criteria would be for a great animated film, 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.’”
However, it was Geffen who brought the concept home, as Katzenberg remembers, “David said, ‘What a great idea. Why don’t we make that our first animated movie?’ And we were off…”
Katzenberg acknowledges, “I’m sure there are those who think we’re nuts for choosing a Bible story as our first animated feature. 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. In our telling of the story, we also focus on the extraordinary relationship between two brothers and how the roles in which they have been cast in life draw them into conflict with each other.”
“The Prince of Egypt” fulfilled another of Katzenberg’s long-held goals, allowing him to take animation into new territory. “In live action,” he states, “there is an incredible variety of movies—dramas, comedies, big effects films, intimate romantic comedies… As moviegoers, we demand that kind of diversity from live-action features. I don’t see why animation can’t be as varied in the types of stories it tells. I hope and believe that we can use animation as a cinematic tool to tell many different kinds of stories…that today’s animation can be something more than movies for children.”
“We do not want to exclude children as an audience, but set out to make a film that we as adults would want to see,” producer Penney Finkelman Cox adds. “This part of the Bible touches on sophisticated themes, which set the movie apart from the start. In other words, the story determined what the film would be, as opposed to the technique used to tell it—animation didn’t define the movie, the nature of the material did.”
For the filmmakers, the fact that the film would be animated made it no less important to try to be accurate in depicting the time and place of the story. Everyone involved in the production became part of a process of exhaustive research in their respective areas—from the story itself to the geography, architecture and clothing of the Egyptian Empire. The filmmakers also consulted with archeologists, historians, theologians, Egyptologists, biblical scholars and religious leaders.
During the early stages of production, key members of the creative team embarked on a trip to Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. Traveling through the ancient land, directors Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells; producers Penney Finkelman Cox and Sandra Rabins; executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg; story supervisors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook; production designer Darek Gogol; art directors Kathy Altieri and Richard Chavez; and songwriter Stephen Schwartz were each inspired in their own way. Schwartz observes, ÒIt’s hard to define, but thereÕs an intangible connection that comes from being on the actual spot…seeing the locations and breathing the air. There were times when I was walking through a temple or looking at a giant statue and music would actually come into my head. Several themes in the movie originated that way.Ó
The filmmakers recognized that there were a number of inherent challenges in bringing the Exodus story to the screen. Producer Sandra Rabins offers, “We began by identifying the problems, and then set out to solve them during an 18-month evolution in which we continually honed the story to discover what worked and what didn’t.”
The first dilemma was how to tell a story of such enormous scope in about 90 minutes. Co-story supervisor Kelly Asbury says, “The challenges were to be as true to the biblical source material as possible, maintain the overall narrative of the story, capture the emotions of the characters, and make a film you could really sink your teeth into—all within the time constraints.”
Co-head of story Lorna Cook continues, “It was also important to keep the character of Moses as accessible as possible, because ultimately he was human. That was one thing we wanted to get across: he wasn’t just a messenger; he was a man who took on a mission, but not without conflict and sometimes with a lot of fear.”
In “The Prince of Egypt,” the main conflict faced by Moses becomes his relationship with Rameses, the man he had always known as his 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.”
Val Kilmer, who is the voice of Moses, offers, “We can all identify with having people in our lives who we still care strongly about, even after the relationship has changed.”
“They become estranged to the point where they are enemies. But when brothers are enemies, they don’t stop being brothers,” says Ralph Fiennes, who provides the voice of Rameses.
“In fact, they still love each other very much,” director Brenda Chapman states. “Their conflict arises because of the different ways in which they grow—one doesn’t grow very much at all; the other grows beyond anything he could possibly have imagined. The relationship between the two brothers evolved out of a storyboard sequence created by story artist Ronnie del Carmen. When we saw what he had conceived, we realized that the story of the two brothers was the heart of the film. To me, it’s the key to what made the story work.”
As the story developed, so did the concept for the look of “The Prince of Egypt,” which was primarily influenced by the work of three very disparate artists. Nineteenth-century French illustrator Gustave DorŽ created Bible etchings that, although black and white, are incredibly rich and very detailed. The paintings of Impressionist artist Claude Monet are alive with lush palettes of color and light. Finally, the filmmakers looked to the work of director David Lean, an undisputed master of epic cinema.
Katzenberg says, ÒWhen we were recruiting, people would come in, and I’d show them the DorŽ illustrated Bible, a book of Monet paintings and some stills from Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ I’d say, ‘These are our inspirations; I hope we can do them justice.’Ó
REBUILDING A LOST EMPIRE
The setting of “The Prince of Egypt” is divided into two major worlds: the majestic empire of the Egyptians, hewn from stone with clean hard edges and sharp angles; and the small, winding, intimate milieu of the Hebrews, made with mud bricks and timber and worn by the elements. This stylistically different approach helped underscore the contrasts between these two cultures.
“I designed the Egyptian world to be larger than life,Ó says production designer Darek Gogol. ÒWhen you go to Egypt and stand next to the actual temples, you realize that for ancient people, these were the skyscrapers of their time. What’s amazing is that in the 20th century, we’re still overwhelmed by this architecture. I wanted to make the buildings bigger than they actually were to capture that sense of scale on the screen.Ó
During his research, Gogol found another way to connote the Egyptian style of architecture. “All the ancient Egyptian drawings I studied are flat; they didn’t know about perspective,” he remarks. “I thought it would be interesting to take that element and draw the architecture in a very flat way without showing any vanishing points. The columns, for example, have no ellipse. They get bigger or smaller as we get closer or farther away, but they remain flat.”
In sharp contrast to the splendor of the Egyptian Empire are the modest dwellings of the Hebrews in Goshen. Art director Richie Chavez notes, ÒThe world of the Hebrews is more organic. We gave Goshen more of a rounded, eroded look because the homes were made of mud brick, which is weathered by the rain, the wind and the sand. The homes are asymmetrical and off-kilter to give them a flow and ebb that the angular Egyptian side didnÕt have.Ó
A similar split extended to the design of the people who inhabit these worlds. Character designers Carter Goodrich and Carlos Grangel studied ancient wall paintings and carvings to find a visual language that would help define the two societies. The Egyptian characters are more sculpted in appearance with chiseled features, while the Hebrews are more curved and looser in their shape.
In creating the faces, the character designers, along with lead animator William Salazar, hit on an approach that further set their characters apart from those in other animated films. Standard practice had been to divide the faces into thirds: one third for the eyes and forehead, one third for the nose and cheeks, and one third for the mouth and chin. In “The Prince of Egypt,” the familiar 33-33-33% formula was altered to 30-40-30%. Slightly elongating the middle section of the face and shortening the upper and lower ones gave the characters a more realistic and engaging countenance, and allowed the animators to bring out more expression in their faces.
The designers also utilized color to accentuate the contrasts between the two cultures. The buildings of the Egyptians are in polished white and light pastels, while the homes of the Hebrews are in muted earth tones. Their costumes also reflect these color separations. The Egyptians are dressed in white with jewelry accents of gold, red and turquoise, while the Hebrews are clothed in natural shades of brown and beige. Only the Midianites, the desert tribe of Jethro and Tzipporah, are dressed in vibrant colors.
“The Prince of Egypt” is the first animated film to employ a professional costume designer. Kelly Kimball worked closely with the character designers to create a “wardrobe” for the characters. She did extensive research, and also experimented with fabrics and natural dyes that were available in the time of Moses. She discovered that the people of the day would have been able to achieve a full palette, which opened up the range of colors that could be used in the costumes.
Color became integral not only to the look of the film, but the impact of the drama. During the development phase, the filmmakers worked with the art directors to map out what became known as the “emotional beat board,” which assigned specific color schemes to different points of the story.
“There are color cues we all respond to naturally,” art director Kathy Altieri explains. “We played on those throughout the film. The happier sequences, for example, have lighter brighter colors with lots of sunlight streaming through. We applied red and black for more dramatic, scary or violent sequences. We used blue, a soothing color, in the scene when Moses’ basket floats into the Queen’s water garden to emphasize that something nurturing and safe is happening.”
Lack of color also came into play. “The sequence of the death of the first-born is almost monochromatic. Whereas we had used color saturation to fill a scene with life, to express lack of life we literally sucked the color out. We helped convey the emotions of the story through color, light and contrast, but it should be very subliminal. If the audience becomes consciously aware of it, we didn’t do our job well,” Altieri states.
In animation, there is no set, so every sound has to be created from scratch, just like the visual elements. Award-winning sound designers Lon Bender and Wylie Stateman worked for over two years to develop the sounds of ancient Egypt, modulating the frequencies of the background noise in relationship to the action. The Red Sea sequence, for example, demanded that they give volume to the crashing waves without competing with Hans Zimmer’s score. They did this by keeping their frequencies out of the range of the music, allowing the sound and the score to be harmonious. In the final step, re-recording mixers Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer and Shawn Murphy wove together the sound effects, the music and, of course, the voices.
“The Prince of Egypt” has a roster of stars as impressive as any ever assembled for a feature film—animated or live action. Casting director Leslee Feldman began the process by gathering voice tapes from a wide assortment of actors. She then played them for the filmmakers, often not revealing whose voice they were hearing. Brenda Chapman explains, “You want to listen for voice quality without being influenced one way or the other. You need to think about how you’re responding emotionally to what you’re hearing.”
Rabins notes, “Leslee had only worked in live action, so she had no preconceptions about what an ‘animated’ voice should sound like. She just presented us with the best actors for the roles, and 90 percent of the time everybody went for the exact same voice. We then approached those actors and actresses and told them about the film, and every one of them wanted to be part of it. We ended up with a dream cast.”
Cast in the central role of Moses, Val Kilmer brought the necessary range of both age and emotion to his performance. “Val has a wonderfully rich voice,” Wells says. “He could convey the innocence of youth of an 18-year-old boy, and could then capture the gravity and authority of an older and wiser man.”
Kilmer acknowledges that it might have been intimidating to portray someone who holds such significance for so many people. “However,” he adds, “as you become involved in his life, you begin to understand that he is a man; he has highs and lows and ups and downs…but his destiny is something he cannot escape, and it leads him beyond what he ever considered possible.”
Making his animation debut, Kilmer offers, “The rhythms of speech and the importance of each phrase made it very reminiscent of doing theatre. It was an extraordinary luxury to be able to keep refining my performance and to do the kind of work I’ve rarely had the chance to do in film. As an actor, it was a joyful and unique experience to be included in the process.”
Rabins comments, “Val gave this film everything we asked for and more. He pushed his performance to incredible levels and was always willing to come back in, even to record a single line. He was a joy to work with.”
Ralph Fiennes gives voice to the pivotal role of Rameses. “Ralph is not only a great actor, he actually helped us to develop the part of Rameses,” Chapman states. “There’s a vulnerability that comes out in his voice, even when he’s being very strong. That became the core of Rameses—he is this big, powerful Pharaoh, but deep down there’s some small part that’s a little unsure. He is trapped and driven by tradition and heritage, which are everything to him. He is so determined to live up to his father and be the greatest Pharaoh ever, that he’s blinded to anything else.”
“I think he’s a tragic figure,” Fiennes observes. “He’s unable to see that it’s wrong to treat other people as slaves because he’s been conditioned by how he was raised, and that kind of conditioning is very hard—sometimes impossible—to break. He is not a villain, which I think is one of the strengths of our approach to Rameses. He’s misguided and arrogant, but he is not overtly evil.”
Fiennes, who did his own singing in “The Prince of Egypt,” adds that working in front of a microphone instead of a camera was creatively and technically very different. “It is very difficult to be in a dramatic scene with another actor when they’re not there,” he says. “In a sense everything is focused into your voice; your voice has got to be its own physical body. It’s thrilling…but very exhausting.”
“Ralph really worked to bring out all the ambiguities and nuances we incorporated into the role,” Finkelman Cox remarks. “He’s incredible to watch because he becomes the character. He just disappeared in front of us and became the Pharaoh Rameses—proud and full of strength. He’s an amazing actor, and we were very excited to have his singing voice as well as his speaking performance in the movie.”
Another cast member who did her own singing was Michelle Pfeiffer, who is the voice of Moses’ wife Tzipporah. “She brought the part to life,” Hickner states. “Once we heard her voice, we were able to complete the design of the character. It became more and more clear who she should be.”
Tzipporah’s father Jethro is voiced by Danny Glover, who, Chapman says, “brought a wonderful exuberance to the role of this boisterous, happy, free man who loves life. Jethro teaches Moses that the value of a good life is not in materialistic wealth; it is in how he shares his life with others, which has a big influence on him.”
Sandra Bullock provides the voice of Moses’ sister Miriam. She describes her role as “the one who holds on to her faith from beginning to end. She is the one who forces her brother to see where he came from, which ultimately begins his journey. I’m very proud to be a part of this film,” she continues. “I think it’s groundbreaking—it’s going to change people’s perceptions of animation.”
Contrary to Miriam’s unyielding faith, the voice of doubt is represented by Moses’ Hebrew brother Aaron, played by Jeff Goldblum. “My character is very skeptical about the whole idea of Moses’ mission, but he comes to believe,” Goldblum says. “I love this story. It’s very uplifting in a way that’s heart-centered and conscience-driven. It inspires me.”
In one of the rare instances where two actors actually worked together, Goldblum and Bullock also inspired the filmmakers while recording the scene in which Miriam confronts Moses. “We had conceived this as a very heavy moment when Moses finds out who he really is,” Wells reveals. “Instead, Jeff and Sandra brought such a sense of humor to it that, at first, it put me in a bit of a panic. But then, the more we worked on it, we began to realize that what they were doing with the scene was better than what we had planned. The great thing about Jeff is you have to physically stop him from doing takes. He will do 150 takes on one line if you let him because he keeps coming up with more ideas.”
Steve Martin and Martin Short were another acting duo who recorded together in the respective roles of Hotep and Huy, the Pharaoh’s court magicians. In addition, they also did their own singing on the song “Playing With the Big Boys.” Chapman notes, “They believe that the magic that they have is actually the power of the gods. They bring a slightly comic but more sinister element to the movie.”
Patrick Stewart brings his distinctive voice to the role of Pharaoh Seti. “Patrick had a huge responsibility,” Hickner reveals. “In only a few scenes, he had to establish the ‘baggage’ that Rameses has to carry, so in the second half of the movie, you sense the weight of the mantle that Rameses bears. Patrick did that beautifully.”
Pharaoh Seti’s Queen, who draws Moses from the Nile River to raise as their son, is voiced by Helen Mirren. “The Queen represents the soft side of the Egyptian world,” Hickner says. “Helen gave her an innate gentleness; you can feel the bond she has with Moses in just the few moments they share onscreen.”
Though the Queen is the only mother Moses knows, the woman who gave him life is his birth mother Yocheved. The internationally popular Yemenite Israeli singer Ofra Haza brings heartbreaking poignancy to the part of Yocheved, singing her last lullaby to her baby as she sets him adrift in a basket on the Nile.
It was composer Hans Zimmer who originally called the filmmakers’ attention to Haza for the role. “We had auditioned a number of people who were pretty good, but no one quite hit the mark,” Wells says. “Then Ofra came in and just blew us away. It wasn’t acting…it was the real thing.”
Audiences worldwide will have the opportunity to hear Haza perform her role in almost every language. She not only sang the English-language version and, of course, the Hebrew, but recorded her song in 17 other languages as well, including German, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Hungarian, Swedish, Polish, Norwegian, Flemish and Greek, among others. Haza actually speaks seven languages fluently, and learned her part phonetically in the others.
Several other notable performers lent their singing talents to “The Prince of Egypt.” Taking on the musical portion of the role of Jethro, Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell sings “Through Heaven’s Eyes.” Chapman states, “Brian worked to make himself sound more like Danny Glover. His natural voice is pretty close, but he listened to Danny’s takes and achieved a seamless transition between the two voices. He’s incredibly skilled, and he was having so much fun recording the song that everyone in the room was just grinning with joy.”
Another performer who had to match his voice to his speaking counterpart was Amick Byram, who sings Moses’ songs “All I Ever Wanted” and “The Plagues.” “Val Kilmer has such a unique voice that it was especially difficult, but Amick really worked to get it,” Wells says.
The singing voice of Miriam is split between two actresses: Sally Dworsky sings the adult Miriam’s part of “When You Believe”; and Eden Riegel is young Miriam, who sings a prayer for her baby brother as she watches him being rescued from the Nile River. Linda Dee Shayne provides the singing voice of the Queen.
“We were incredibly fortunate to have this unbelievable ensemble of talent who were so generous and supportive in making this movie,” Katzenberg says.
THE FACE TO THE VOICE
Though it’s the actors’ voices that personify the characters, the animators also play a vital part in bringing those characters to life. “In a way, there is an ensemble of ‘actors’ for each role—one doing the voice and several more doing the animation. You actually cast your animators, and direct their ‘performances’ in much the same way as you do your voice talent,” says Wells.
Dave Brewster, supervising animator for Older Rameses and the Queen, agrees. “Animators are just frustrated actors who are too scared to act in front of the camera, so they act with a pencil.”
Just as actors have different techniques, so do animators. Fabio Lignini, the supervising animator for Aaron, notes, “Some of us close our doors and act out the scenes before we even start drawing. I also went to the recording sessions, which was very helpful because Jeff Goldblum has very specific mannerisms and gestures.”
In addition, the actors are videotaped as they record their lines, and the animators often use this as a reference. Rodolphe Guenoden, the supervising animator on the character of Tzipporah, illustrates, “Michelle Pfeiffer has a certain spontaneity; she just went to the mike and, bang, the scene was there. I tried to get that same spontaneity in her character.”
Bob Scott, the supervising animator on Miriam, adds that sometimes the voice alone is enough to inspire him. “There is a distinctly sweet quality to Sandra Bullock’s voice. It really adds to her character, and made it easier to animate Miriam.”
Traditional hand-drawn animation has seen some refinements over the years. Nevertheless, the daunting task of creating tens of thousands of pencil drawings to fill 24 frames per second remains unchanged. Consequently, certain characters must be split between two supervising animators and their teams, as was the case with Moses and Rameses.
William Salazar was the supervising animator on Younger Moses, who we first meet as a carefree youth, but who is then confronted by a truth that changes his entire life. “I think the most difficult thing is to show emotion without dialogue,” Salazar says. “For example, there is a scene that was animated by a member of our team, James Baxter, in which Miriam is trying to convince Moses that he is her brother, and she sings their mother’s lullaby to him. You can see the panic in Moses’ eyes when he realizes he has heard this song before; you know he remembers without his speaking a word.”
The supervising animator on Older Moses was Kristof Serrand. The younger version of his character had already been conceived, so Serrand had the advantage of not starting from scratch. He first had to match his drawing of Moses to that of William Salazar and then age him appropriately. He adds, “The other challenge was to keep the character real. Moses is an impressive man, but if you’re so impressed by the character, it becomes too intimidating and you can’t do anything. I had to think of him as a normal person, someone I could meet somewhere.”
Serrand also served as the supervising animator on Pharaoh Seti, who, he says, he “tried to portray as a father rather than just as a ruler. That made him more human and more interesting.”
The role of Rameses was also divided, with Dave Brewster supervising Older Rameses, and Serguei Kouchnerov handling the younger incarnation of the Egyptian prince. For inspiration, Kouchnerov studied ancient Egyptian art, in addition to the performance of Ralph Fiennes. Also the supervising animator for baby Moses, Kouchnerov had a more personal inspiration for this character—his own three-month-old baby daughter.
Patrick Mate had a special appreciation for his work as the supervising animator on the magician team of Hotep and Huy, being a fan of their alter egos Steve Martin and Martin Short. “I had a lot of fun with the movement and the choreography of the characters. They are always together, so it was much better to have one animator supervising both of them,” Mate says.
The supervising animator for the role of Jethro, Gary Perkovac, was also incorporating the work of two actors, but for only one role. “Danny Glover and Brian Stokes Mitchell brought things in common to Jethro that I tried to draw from,” Perkovac says. “They both have very kind eyes and both gave incredible energy and joy to their performances.”
A large portion of the animators, as well as other members of the production team, were alumni of Steven Spielberg’s London-based Amblimation and had come from all over the globe. “It brought an international feel to the picture, and made it more interesting to direct…as long as you could speak 20 different languages,” Steve Hickner laughs.
In addition to the main characters, “The Prince of Egypt” features thousands of “extras,” who would have been virtually impossible to animate using traditional hand-drawn animation. Through some remarkable digital innovations, the computer animators were able to populate the film with hundreds of thousands of people.
CG crowd animator Wendy Elwell remarks, “Obviously, you can’t tell the story of the Exodus with only 100 characters, so ‘The Prince of Egypt’ required that we figure out how to put tens of thousands of people on the screen.”
The process began in the traditional way, with the hand-drawn design of a character, which was then modeled in the computer in 3-D. By reshaping that initial character, the animators were able to produce four “key” characters representing extremes of height, weight and age. They then took varying percentages of the four models and blended them in different proportions to make a database of about 20 characters. Modifying features like skin, hair color and clothing gave them even more variety. The process was duplicated to create a database of women and children as well. “It’s limitless,” Elwell states. “You can have as many characters as you need.”
The next step was to give the characters a “skeleton,” so the animators could assign repeatable motion cycles like walking, hammering, polishing, etc. Elwell expounds, “We could pick from an entire library of different actions and apply them individually as suited the character. An old man, for example, was animated very differently from a young woman.”
Applications of what is called behavioral software made the computer generated characters seem actually aware of their surroundings and the obstacles therein. To illustrate: the characters are given parameters of space, distance and variable speeds and set on a “path.” When a younger, faster person approaches an older, slower one, the faster character can judge how much space there is to go around the slower one without bumping into him, so they don’t crash into each other.
Even though the computer generated people could sense time and space, they didn’t seem to have much fashion sense…so to speak. Many of them are wearing long robes, but the computer didn’t know that the fabric should not go through the skin and vice versa. To prevent that from happening, the clothing had to be animated along with the character.
There was, however, one major drawback to animating the multitudes needed for scenes like the exodus itself. The amount of data necessary to create tens of thousands of 3-D character models would have slowed down the computer enough to have made it nearly as impractical as hand-drawn animation. To overcome this problem, software developer Mike Ullner designed a crowd simulation program for scenes where the characters would only be seen from a limited perspective. The computer could map a two-dimensional image of the animated character onto a “card” in three-dimensional space. Instead of the thousands of data points necessary for a 3-D model, the computer only needs the four data points of the “card” to show the character in motion from just the audience’s point-of-view.
Using these methods, “The Prince of Egypt” team was able to create a combined total of hundreds of thousands of characters for sequences like the exodus and the Red Sea passage. The final epilogue shot alone depicts over 146,000 fully animated characters.
You cannot bring the Exodus story to the screen without depicting miracles, and you cannot depict miracles without special effects. “The Prince of Egypt” breaks new ground in the effects arena, with the introduction of pioneering technology, as well as new approaches to traditional methods. The look of the film would not have been possible without these technological breakthroughs, and, conversely, the technological breakthroughs depended on traditional methods to make them work for the film.
The most significant breakthrough was the revolutionary exposure tool, which was developed by DreamWorks in conjunction with Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI). The exposure tool facilitates the seamless integration of 2-D and 3-D elements in a scene. For the layout artists, supervised by Lorenzo E. Martinez, the exposure tool was the key that opened the door to a new era in animation camera work.
Scene planning supervisor David Morehead expounds, “The exposure tool actually allows you to set your stage with any combination of 3-D elements and 2-D paintings and drawings, and then lets you choreograph them as you move through the scene with your camera.”
Co-visual effects supervisor Don Paul adds, “It 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.”
Two of the most striking applications of the exposure tool come early in the film. The first is at the end of the prologue. As we pull away from the Queen’s tranquil water garden, the camera steadily rises up through a high scaffolding on which Hebrew slaves labor under the desert sun, finally revealing the vast panorama of the Egyptian Empire. The exposure tool allowed layout artist Harald Kraut to compose the first animated crane shot that encompasses hundreds of 2-D and 3-D elements simultaneously.
We then smash cut to another example of the seamless merging of 2-D and 3-D animation and camera work made possible by the exposure tool: the breakneck chariot race through the city between the young Moses and Rameses. The two princes are traditional hand-drawn animation, as are their horses, while the chariots are 3-D props. As the cameras follow the rushing chariots, the walls of the city—another traditionally hand-painted element—seem to fly by. Using rapid cutting and constantly shifting angles, the cameras continue to keep pace with Moses and Rameses as they careen through the streets and alleys onto a scaffolding, which collapses. The young men narrowly miss being crushed by a huge stone nose that breaks off a statue, only to be swept away by a river of sand when the embankment they are on gives way.
This extremely ambitious sequence required a combination of complex camera work and the marriage of 3-D computer-generated elements (the scaffoldings, the chariots, the sand and the nose) with traditional 2-D elements (the princes, their horses, some clouds of dust and the painted backgrounds).
“The exposure tool let us apply cinematic techniques—like constantly repositioning the camera and chasing the action—which would not have been possible before,” co-visual effects supervisor Dan Philips states.
A more subtle application of the exposure tool is seen in the sequence known as the Hieroglyphic Nightmare, in which two-dimensional hieroglyphs move along the walls, segue onto columns and then back onto another wall. In conceiving the scene, Simon Wells says he imagined, “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.”
Rabins reveals, “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. Dave Morehead did a great job accomplishing this effect using various software and the exposure tool.”
The hieroglyphs seen in “The Prince of Egypt” were created in the style of genuine hieroglyphs seen in Egypt. They were designed by illustrator and graphic designer Hani D. El-Masri, who also crafted the authentic tools and props seen in the film.
In a live-action film, the goal is normally to make the visual effects seem photorealistic, but in animation, the effects must blend with the hand-drawn appearance of animation and the style of the painted backgrounds. To help achieve this, the filmmakers began by un-departmentalizing the staff. “We mixed people up, sitting a traditional artist next to a CG artist, so they could design shots together,” Paul says. “It really opened up communication, creating a new visual vocabulary, which helped to integrate everything and raise the quality to a new level.”
Also raising the quality was the use of fine artists to create the 885 hand-painted backgrounds which set the backdrop for the story. Supervised by Paul Lasaine and Ron Lukas, the artists also did a myriad of paintings that were texture mapped onto the computer generated elements to carry the same painterly style throughout the film.
Philips says, “We created pieces of artwork—whether it be with a pencil, a brush, a keyboard or a mouse—and brought them together visually so they exist in the same world.”
It is misleading to think of special effects in animation in the same vein as live action. Every frame of an animated film has to be created, so, in that context, effects encompass even subtle things like shadows, light, reflections and the glint in a characterÕs eye. The effects work in “The Prince of Egypt” primarily focused on three “miracle” sequences: the Burning Bush; the Plagues, culminating with the Angel of Death; and the climactic parting of the Red Sea.
Director Brenda Chapman comments, ÒTaking a cue from the art direction, we drove everything that represented God toward the organic. The fire of the Burning Bush, for example, is a sort of slowed-down flame, and the effect it produces on the surrounding rocks is like light reflecting off water. 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 production pushed the edge of the effects envelope by enlisting the talents of live-action special effects artists, including Henry LaBounta, an Oscar® nominee for his work on “Twister,” and Doug Ikeler, who worked on such films as “Babe,” which won the Oscar® for visual effects.
Ikeler, the sequence lead on the plagues, had challenges as varied as the plagues themselves. “The first plague, blood, not only had to look like blood floating in the water, it had to act driven,” he illustrates. “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.”
For the plague of pestilence, Ikeler had to create motion cycles for the bugs that are seen crawling out of a loaf of bread, which in turn disintegrates as it is eaten away. The bugs also had to interact with items on the surface without running into them. A very different kind of infestation, the plague of locusts, required him to manifest 7,000,000 swarming locusts.
Jamie Lloyd served as the sequence lead for the Angel of Death, as well as the Burning Bush. Seen in the final plague—the death of the first-born—the Angel of Death is described by Don Paul as “a breath that goes through and takes life. It also had to be very organic—a thinking image that could pause at a doorway and enter or move away.”
The plagues of blood, hail fire and locusts and the Angel of Death were achieved using 3-D particle systems, which are like little dots in space. Using the computer, the animator can apply forces such as gravity or wind to move them around. Once each particle’s position is set in space, it can be rendered to attain the desired look, whether fire or insects.
The most formidable task the effects artists faced was the parting of the Red Sea. Henry LaBounta led a team of no less than 10 digital artists, who collaborated with 2-D artist Jeff Howard and 16 traditional animators and two programmers to accomplish the powerful sequence. In the end, it took more than 318,000 hours of rendering time to complete this seven minutes of screen time.
Leading up to the parting of the Red Sea is the Pillar of Fire, which LaBounta says “was a familiar challenge for me, because I had just finished supervising the tornado work on ‘Twister.’ 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.”
The parting of the Red Sea began with visual development artwork, from which the filmmakers were able to determine the overall look they wanted. The artwork, for example, led to the decision to have the water pull away in a circular pattern, rather than the more familiar separation split.
The filmmakers wanted the Red Sea to have incredible scale but still look like the visual development artwork on which the design was based. LaBounta says, “We developed digital techniques which gave us the level of detail necessary to convey a huge scale, but the style of hand-drawn animation is difficult to simulate.”
Using tiny variations of drawn splashes, LaBounta and his team were able to give the large simulations the look of hand-drawn artwork. They also applied the simple shapes that a brush stroke creates as the base element of the water texture. In many cases, the traditional artwork was blended into the digital animation, allowing the latter to reflect the same lighting and atmosphere as the artwork.
Water, from the Nile River to the Red Sea, is a central element of the film. “We used every technique imaginable to produce the water effects in ‘The Prince of Egypt,’” Philips says. “They ran the gamut from traditional animation to 3-D effects to 2-D CG, which is a digital approach using traditional paintings. We are very proud of the result, which is like a living painting.”
Two Academy Award® winners collaborated to create the music of “The Prince of Egypt.” Hans Zimmer, who won an Oscar® for “The Lion King,” composed the score and arranged all the songs, and Stephen Schwartz, a double Oscar® winner for “Pocahontas,” wrote the six original songs heard in the film.
Katzenberg states, “Music is used as a tool of narration throughout the movie. It’s very emotional and very compelling, and is a critical element of the story. Our film benefited enormously from the talents of both Hans and Stephen. They gave the movie its soul.”
In terms of research, Zimmer recognized early on that, as composers, he and Schwartz were at a disadvantage compared to other members of the creative team. “The ancient Egyptians and Hebrews obviously didn’t record anything that we could use as a reference,” Zimmer notes. “I worked rather to create a musical path through the emotions of the story, while remaining true to the two cultures as far as we know.”
“To some extent, I tried to differentiate between the Egyptian music and the Hebraic music,” says Schwartz. “But they are so close in style that it’s not easy to do.” One unique way in which he accomplished this was to incorporate the Hebrew language in his lyrics.
In “The Prince of Egypt,” the filmmakers and the composers together took a different approach to the songs as a vehicle in the movie. “We looked for places where the song could advance the story, rather than stopping everything for the song and then starting up again. We wanted to avoid that at all costs,” says Wells.
The first song heard in the film is “Deliver Us,” a cry for freedom from the Hebrew slaves, which underscores the film’s seven-minute prologue. “That’s actually what launched us into production,” says Rabins. “We’d had a lot of meetings about how the prologue would work, but when Stephen gave us the song, we knew how to storyboard it.”
“First of all, the song had to immediately establish the sound of the movie,” Schwartz says. “I used the Egyptian and Hebraic chord patterns and melodic structures, with some contemporary underpinnings. As a lyricist, it was important to me that the audience be invested in the sufferings of the Hebrews and feel that this was happening to real people and not to biblical ‘symbols.’”
The centerpiece of the prologue is the sequence in which Yocheved eludes the Egyptian soldiers and puts her baby in a basket on the Nile. “I spent a lot of time writing a lullaby for Moses’ mother who we never see again,” Schwartz says. “In just those few moments, I wanted the audience to connect with the pain this mother went through having to surrender her son to the river as her only possible way of protecting him.”
Years later, when Moses learns the truth of his birth, he sings of losing the only life he had ever known in “All I Ever Wanted.” Schwartz found his inspiration for this song during the filmmakers’ research trip to Egypt. On a clear moonlit night, they obtained permission to visit a temple that was not officially open 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.’”
Moses eventually runs away into the desert, where he sheds all vestiges of his life as a prince of Egypt. Coming to Midian, he is welcomed into the tent of the High Priest Jethro and his daughter Tzipporah. Jethro shares his philosophy of life with Moses in the song “Through Heaven’s Eyes.” It is perhaps the best example of a song advancing the story in the film, as it plays over a montage showing the passage of many years in which Moses settles into a new life, falls in love and marries Tzipporah.
The song also proved to be one of the greatest challenges for Schwartz, who explains, “We wanted Jethro to be a man of great faith and spirituality, but not specific to any one creed, so putting his message into words was very tricky. Ultimately, it came out of the question of how you measure the worth of a man. Is it what you accumulate in this world, or is it based on how you live your life? It was very important to me that the song say something that all of us—including myself—could stand to be reminded of.”
In turn, one of the greatest challenges for Hans Zimmer came in scoring the scene that followed this song—the pivotal moment when Moses comes upon the Burning Bush and is charged with the mission to return to Egypt and free his people from bondage.
Zimmer acknowledges, “Of course, I instantly embraced the challenge, 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 people’s beliefs, but at the same time, when you become too careful, you can’t create. In the end, the only way I could compose it was to make it a completely personal experience. My studio became a monastery; I locked myself away and was totally focused on finding the belief in myself. In writing it, I knew I had to open up some very private emotions.”
Moses returns to Egypt and must confront Rameses, now Pharaoh. In the song “Playing With the Big Boys,” the Pharaoh’s court magicians, Hotep and Huy, try to dare the power of God with their own magic. Schwartz was able to write the song with Steve Martin and Martin Short in mind, knowing they had been cast in the roles.
When Rameses refuses to free the Hebrews, it leads to “The Plagues,” which might seem an unlikely place for a song. However, the song served a dual purpose: it presented the plagues in a limited time frame; and the altered reprise of “All I Ever Wanted” that is woven into the song conveys the final tearing of the relationship between Moses and Rameses.
“I thought there was no way we could get all the plagues into such a short period of time until Stephen wrote the song,” Zimmer remarks. “I realized that a song allows you to say things quickly, succinctly and dramatically in ways you never could with huge stretches of dialogue, because it goes straight for the raw emotion of it. I think he did a brilliant job with it; he surpassed anything I could have imagined.”
Schwartz counters that it was Zimmer’s imagination which led to the use of the song as an emotional turning point for the brothers. “I’d never really arrived at a ‘brother song,’” he offers. “Hans suggested to me that we put a twist on ‘All I Ever Wanted,’ which had never occurred to me, but as soon as he suggested it, I knew it was perfect.”
After the final plague, the death of the first-born, Rameses relents and tells Moses to take his people and leave Egypt, leading to the song “When You Believe.” Finkelman Cox reveals that this song also had its roots in the research trip to the Middle East, noting, “Steve Hickner, Stephen Schwartz and I were riding through the Egyptian desert when we came up with the idea for a song that would represent optimism in the wake of the devastation of the plagues.”
“The song began to form in my head looking up at Mount Sinai and hearing the echoes of history,” Schwartz remembers. “Then in my research, I came across the words to a song that the Hebrews were supposed to have sung after coming through the Red Sea, ‘Ashira l’Adonai,’ loosely meaning ‘I sing a song of praise to the Lord.’ I thought it would be nice if the children who were free for the first time in their lives sang this song of praise and joy in Hebrew in the middle of ‘When You Believe.’”
“The first time I heard the song, I knew Stephen had accomplished everything we had talked about that day in Egypt,” Finkelman Cox affirms. “‘When You Believe’ embodies all the hope of the human spirit, and the ability to recover from enormous adversity and walk forward to a better life if you hold on to your faith and your dreams.”
The Hebrews walk forward to the Red Sea where they witness the climactic miracle of the parting of the waters. “When you get to score something like the Red Sea sequence,” Zimmer says, “you can’t over think it, you just dive in…no pun intended. You embrace it in your language, which, as a composer, is music. Stephen can use lyrics to help tell the story; I try to illuminate what is going on emotionally through music.”
The music of “The Prince of Egypt” extends beyond what will be heard in movie theatres. A soundtrack album and two unique “inspired-by” albums will be released prior to the film’s opening, marking the first time three distinctly different albums have been produced in support of a film release.
“The Prince of Egypt – Soundtrack” contains music and songs from the feature film. In addition, it presents the first-ever duet by top female recording artists Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, who sing “When You Believe (from The Prince of Egypt)” on a track produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. There are also cover versions of songs performed by popular recording stars Amy Grant and K-Ci & JoJo, and an original song entitled “I Will Get There,” written by Diane Warren and performed a cappella by Boyz II Men.
“The Prince of Egypt – Nashville” is a compilation of songs performed by such chart-topping country artists as Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Randy Travis & Linda Davis, Clint Black, Wynonna, Alabama, Faith Hill, Pam Tillis, Charlie Daniels, Steven Curtis Chapman, Toby Keith, Alison Krauss, Mindy McCready, Jessica Andrews, Mac McAnally, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Gary Chapman. James Stroud, head of DreamWorks Records Nashville, served as executive producer on the album.
“The Prince of Egypt – Inspirational” brings together a number of top-selling artists from the arenas of pop, urban and gospel music, including Boyz II Men, Kirk Franklin, Jars Of Clay, dc Talk, BeBe Winans, CeCe Winans, Carman, Take 6, Fred Hammond & Radical For Christ, Shirley Caesar, Brian McKnight, Donnie McClurkin, Trin-i-tee 5:7, Tyrone Tribbett & Greater Anointing (featuring Dave Hollister and Mary Mary), and Christian. The album is executive produced by award-winning producers Buster & Shavoni.
Rabins says, “We were thrilled by the response of so many gifted musical artists to the film. The participants in all three albums are performers whose music we have enjoyed and admired. It was very exciting for us to take part in a project that bridges popular music and film in such a unique way.”
DOING OUR HOMEWORK
From the outset, the filmmakers remained keenly aware of the responsibility they had accepted in bringing a Bible story to the screen. They understood that while they wanted the movie to be entertaining, they had to be respectful of the biblical source material and sensitive to the many millions of people of different religions for whom the story of Moses is a foundation of faith.
Katzenberg states, “Our goal was to be faithful to the text without always being literal—to embrace the themes and the fundamental aspects of the story as they are presented in the Bible. However, as good as our intentions were, I have learned over the years that intentions and perceptions are not always the same. No matter what we set out to do, what would count was how people perceived what we’ve done.”
ÒWe did extensive research, reading the commentaries, histories and philosophical texts that deal with Moses and the Exodus story,Ó Finkelman Cox offers. ÒWe learned that there were certain aspects of the Bible on which we could elaborate, and aspects to which we had to be absolutely faithful, and we learned to distinguish between them. The gist of what we discovered was that where the Bible is specific, you should respect the specificity, but when the Bible is silent, we could be more creative and interpretive. Coming to understand those distinctions was extremely important.Ó
The filmmakers brought in two prominent biblical scholars to act as ongoing consultants: Everett Fox, whose recent translation, The Five Books of Moses, enabled them to understand the original text more fully; and Burton Visotzky, who worked with Bill Moyers on a series of critically praised programs about the biblical book of Genesis. In addition, they hired Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, a civil rights attorney with a background in interfaith relations and religious studies, to serve as the liaison to the religious community.
Ultimately, however, the filmmakers realized that it was impossible to fully understand the many interpretations and beliefs of the diverse religious community, so they came up with a simple solution. They would ask.
“We asked religious leaders from every faith group, as well as theologians, scholars, archeologists and Egyptologists from around the world to come in, and invited their comments,” Katzenberg says. “I was concerned that trying to get a consensus from hundreds of people would constrain us, but actually, I am certain that our movie has been qualitatively and quantitatively improved by the incredible diversity of opinion and observation we brought into the process.”
Katzenberg continues, “I want people to be entertained first and foremost. We have a long history of finding great entertainment in stories of faith, in everything from epics like ‘The Robe’ to contemporary musicals like ‘Godspell.’ The story of Moses has come to the screen several times before, including Cecil B. DeMille’s magnificent classic ‘The Ten Commandments.’”
Steve Hickner notes, “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.”
Katzenberg concludes, “I hope audiences have a great time, but that this movie also engages them to want to know more about the story.”