Walk Like an Egyptian
By Marc Savlov
DECEMBER 21, 1998: When Jeffrey Katz- enberg walks into a room, you damn well know it. Alongside partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, the hyperactive producer is the "K" in DreamWorks SKG, the fledgling studio created four years ago that has since produced as much controversy ("When will they break even?" is the oft-repeated Hollywood refrain) as it has actual films (The Peacemaker, Mouse Hunt, Antz).
Compact and wiry, Katzenberg nonetheless carries with him the sort of manic electricity that telegraphs competence in an industry that as often as not seems to reward sloth. This, obviously, is a guy who get things done.
The most recent thing Katzenberg has done is to executive-produce The Prince of Egypt, a lavish, technically brilliant animated retelling of the Book of Exodus, featuring the voices of Val Kilmer as Moses and Ralph Fiennes as Rameses. Apart from overseeing the creation of a revolutionary wave of behavioral and 3-D animation software for use in the epic production, Katzenberg and his enormous team sought out the assistance of scores of religious leaders worldwide to ensure a proper vision for the film, and enlisted not one, not two, but a record three directors to helm the four-year-long project.
As the former studio head of Disney (before an acrimonious split with Michael Eisner in 1994), Katzenberg revitalized that studio's flagging animation empire (his successes include The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King) and now looks to usurp the Mouse's throne via DreamWorks' crack animation team. Recent charges surrounding Katzenberg's decision to open the studio's CGI-animated Antz in advance of the similarly themed Disney/Pixar project A Bug's Life -- after publicly promising to open after -- have led to some acrimonious mudslinging from Pixar head and former Katzenberg buddy John Lasseter, though Katzenberg has taken the high road and adamantly refuses to comment on the record (though off-the-record reactions have been, in a word, loud).
I spoke with Katzenberg while he was in Dallas in mid-November drumming up publicity for his new film and asked him about the future of DreamWorks, animation, and the wisdom of second-guessing religion in toto.
Austin Chronicle: First and foremost: Why such a loaded subject for DreamWorks' maiden voyage into semi-traditional animation? The Bible? That's a lot of chutzpah for such a young studio, isn't it?
Jeffrey Katzenberg: We wanted to animate a great story, and this is a Bible story but it's also, to me, a great human adventure. What I responded to when the idea for doing it -- which came from my partner, Steven Spielberg -- came about, the first thing that came to mind was the man Moses. That is what I remember first from what I've learned, or read, or was taught: the idea that Moses was an innocent boy, an ordinary man, who is called to this very challenging and heroic mission, and rises to that challenge and becomes a great leader and a very noble man. So, that's what I thought of first and foremost.
Here's an analogy: If you say "Private Ryan" to me, the first thing I think of is the nobility of that character. The first thing that comes to mind is what an incredible man that man was. The heroics of that man, the sense of mission, and honor, and sacrifice. That's what I think of. Then I think of the 20 minutes at the start of the film. It's the same thing with Moses: First I think of the man and then I think of the Red Sea parting. When I think of Lawrence of Arabia, the first thing I think of is the man -- that's what interested me -- then I think of the cinema of the movie, the incredible majesty of David Lean as a filmmaker.
Our goal was to tell the humanity of the story first. The story is the story, and we've told it as faithfully and accurately as we could. The story didn't change, what changed was the humanity, the human detail, the brothers' relationship, which is something that we created for the film. And by the way, the Bible's silent on that -- we don't know if [Moses and Rameses] did or didn't have a relationship. We didn't do anything that actually contradicts what is in the Bible, but in some places the Bible is silent and we imagined what might have been there. As long as, in doing that, we did not change the meaning of the value or the essence of this story, then that kept us on our mandate of a faithful and accurate telling.
JK: Like there's no tomorrow.
JK: No. CGI is what Antz is and that's a great and wonderful device for animation, and we plan to push that further and further and I do hope we'll continue to grow and develop new and better skills and software in that vein. Computer animation is now exactly two movies old, so we are at the beginning of the beginning of applications in this area. In terms of what we've done on The Prince of Egypt is to create a certain look, which we call a "painted realism." What that means is that we have taken what is the greatest strength of traditional animation -- which is acting, acting by hand -- and there is not a single frame in this movie which is rotoscoped. Every single piece of it is out of an animator's pure, honest creativity. And the paintings in the movie are also by hand; they have a painterly look, which is something that, as a style, we wanted, and it's also something that has a very long and rich tradition. We took those two aspects of traditional animation and married them together with what are the state-of-the-art, 21st-century digital software storytelling tools. The hybrid of that has created a style that has a painted realism to it. For instance, we can either say that it's a painting brought to life, or it's life painted. Either way, it's a razor's edge and we're on one side or the other with that. It's a choice, and it's a mission that we set out to achieve.
JK: Well, one new piece of software we've used on The Prince of Egypt is called the exposure tool. What that in effect allows us to do is to seamlessly marry together 2D- and 3D-created elements into one, in a way that you can actually take the camera as though it existed in three dimensions in a set and move into it and around it in a way that has never happened before. Before this, all you could do was a multiplane shot where you could move through dimensional art if you drew it that way, if you created layers to it. Now, with this, we can actually have the kind of cinematography that Steven Spielberg does have on his movies, or the kind that David Lean had on his movies.
JK: Yeah, well, it was one of our goals. The thing I want to be careful about is that although I love cartooning, and I love going to cartoons, and I love making them, it's like if Steven Spielberg got up every morning and only did variations on E.T. -- he'd get tired of it pretty quick and so would everybody else. In other words, you want some variety to it, and to me I thought it was an opportunity for us and for audiences to now see what else could get done using the technique of animation. Steven takes the technique of film and makes Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler's List and Amistad, and it's just a very rich variety of stories, all using the technique of film.
JK: That's not what we were worried about. Unfortunately, that was very misunderstood as to what we were doing. At the very first meeting in which we talked about the idea of the story, I got the single best piece of professional advice I think that I'd ever gotten in my entire career: David Geffen said to me, "Jeffrey, you know this is not a fairy tale, this is not like when you were at Disney and you could just put a happy ending on The Little Mermaid.
"If you're going to do this story," he said, "there are three things I am going to tell you: One, you must tell the story faithfully. Two, you must tell the story accurately. Three, you don't know anything about this story!"
And that was true. I left that room with a mission, and that mission was to go out and discover everything about this, as many points of view as I could find.
The notion that somehow I got into this as a political thing, to ensure that people weren't against us, twisted something that was a valuable filmmaking, storytelling, and positive mission into something that was very limited.
One of the first things we did was go to the Harvard Divinity School where they had assembled together 25 of their most prominent teachers and scholars. I can tell you in a way that was quite profound that I could understand at that moment in time what they mean by the phrase "a deer caught in the headlights." To be sitting there with 25 of the most intelligent, thoughtful, scholarly people who deal with this material from many points of view, that really defined what David Geffen had said to me. We made sure that we got out there and learned, whether it be as simple a thing as hieroglyphs on the wall being accurate or anything else.
JK: In terms of animation? I don't know. I think that if people make good stories, it'll be hot. If they make bad stories, it'll be cold. When Antz came out, people responded to it and loved it in a pretty gigantic way and it's now going on to gross $100,000,000. That's a wonderful surprise for us and we're certainly very excited about it. There are about to be a number of animated movies released [over the holiday period], so we'll see how well these others do and how good they are.
In terms of things like the behavioral software developed for The Prince of Egypt, what that was used to do was to create our extras. This movie is about slavery and freedom and faith, and that means we had to go back to slavery and create it, and in order to do that we needed to be able to have in our movie tens and tens of thousands of extras. If you were to do it credibly and to bring the kind of epic scale and size to this story that it requires, animation is uniquely one of the reasons this can be done today. You could not deliver this on the screen in live action, unless you did it digitally.
What the behavioral software does is allow us to take fundamental drawings that were done by hand, program them into the computer, and from there create dozens and dozens of variations on sizes, scale, weight, costume, props and all of the things that give individuality to a character. And then we could actually program them to act and move in a way that would seem natural. If you have thousands of people walking you can't very well have them walk into each other, they can't head different directions, and it's a very complicated thing to do. We actually had to develop new software to make this work.
JK: That's part of what I love about animation: It's a true collaborative art form. There are three directors, three producers, two heads of story, three designers, two composers ... I could go on and on and on. There are probably 25 or 30 people who are part of the key brain trust creative leadership of making one of these types of movies. I can tell you that if you took any one of them out of the equation it would not be the movie that it is. That's how impactful and influential the sort of leadership of these movies are. I'm one of 25, and in that I certainly have a point of view and as I'm sure you know I'm not shy about expressing it.
The trick is how do you take dozens and dozens of individual, strong, articulate artists -- and the definition of artist, in my opinion, is someone who is an individualist -- and how do you find a common goal, where somebody can keep their individuality and artistry and serve a single goal for a movie. And the answer is I can't tell you, other than to say it is what we do. It's frustrating sometimes along the way, there are times when you have to bow to somebody else's point of view or somebody else's idea, even though you might not share it, but that's the process that goes on. That's what producing is all about. In the end, the movie is the only thing that gets to win.
The Prince of Egypt opens in theatres across the country on Friday, December 18.
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