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Martha BaylesThe book's fine illustrations represent every stage in the process, from initial scribbles to finished frames, while only hinting at the beauty of the film itself.
— The New York Times Book Review
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As the chorus intones the song "Deliver Us," armies of Hebrew slaves tow a gargantuan sphinx, make bricks, carry loads, and build temples under the overseers' whips. The opulent splendor of Pharaoh Seti's empire and the profound suffering of the slaves are immediately apparent.
Fleeing from the terror of the Egyptian soldiers in Goshen, the Hebrew slave Yocheved places her baby son, Moses, in a basket and sets it adrift in the River Nile, while Moses' brother, Aaron, and sister, Miriam, look on. Miriam follows the basket to see what becomes of her baby brother. After a perilous journey, the basket floats into the Queen's water garden, where Miriam sees Moses' miraculous rescue by the Queen.
The film's prologue concludes with a dramatic shot that takes the audience up from the quiet water garden, through the oppressive world of the slaves as they build Seti's monumental temple, to a majestic vista dominated by the palace where Moses will start his new life as a prince of Egypt.
"There's never been an opening that tells so much story and takes so much time," comments lyricist Stephen Schwartz. The sequence, which lasts more than seven minutes, presents a sweeping range of narrative and emotional moments. "Deliver Us," or the prologue, as the filmmakers call it, holds forth the mysterious, cruel nobility of the Egyptians; the pounding, burning, stinging, sweating labor of the slaves; the ominous presence of the soldiers in Goshen; Yocheved's courageous, tender love; the perils of the Nile; Miriam's watchful faith; the peace of the water garden, and the promiseof hope. Like the overture to an opera, the conflicting images, emotions, and world views depicted in the prologue prepare the audience to respond to the larger depiction of the themes in the film.
The prologue was the first sequence that the filmmakers completed, and the song "Deliver Us" was written before storyboarding and visual development for the film began. "I tried to find a way into the film and establish what the world of the film would be," says Schwartz. "I wanted to set up the idea of a deliverance and of supernatural forces at work." Director Brenda Chapman recalls that when the artists heard Hans Zimmer's arrangement of Schwartz's song, "We knew we had something wonderful and unique. The inspiration for the visuals was overwhelming."
The song had to be more than a set-up for the world of the film: it also had to introduce Moses. Schwartz wanted to establish a musical theme to clarify the core conflict within the film's central character. "We needed Yocheved's lullaby, her last words to her son, to be the connecting symbol that brought Moses to the realization that he was Hebrew," says Chapman. The lullaby had to be so tender and unforgettable that eighteen years later, Moses would still recognize the song he had not heard since his infancy. "I wanted people to believe that somehow Yocheved's song wove its way into his subconscious," adds Schwartz. "that the haunting theme would hang in his mind."
"We wanted Moses, the human being, to be the focus of the film," says Chapman. The prologue helps establish that focus. The visuals and lyrics evoking the cruelty and fear of slavery enable the audience to understand Moses' life and goals.
The prologue takes the audience on an extraordinary journey. As Moses' fragile basket travels down the Nile, it is threatened by crocodiles, fishing nets, and the crushing oars of ships. Whether Moses survives this perilous trip through chance or fate or God's will is left deliberately ambiguous, allowing viewers to interpret the story according to their own beliefs. As Chapman notes: "The key to the prologue is that it ends with `hope.'"
The process of making an animated feature is not unlike constructing a pyramid--with the possible exception that the building materials are lighter. An animated film production spans several years and requires the dedicated efforts of hundreds of skilled artisans.
Before we discuss the actual creation of The Prince of Egypt, we should flash back for a moment to the movie's origins.
In the fall of 1994, a new production studio was formed by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. The nascent studio had no staff and no building to put them in--at that point they didn't even have a name. All Jeffrey Katzenberg had to attract artists to this new animation studio was an idea, and a weathered volume of the Bible illustrations of the great nineteenth-century French illustrator and painter Gustave Dore.
For Jeffrey, that was enough.
His pitch to each artist was a challenge: to make a feature-length animated epic of the life of Moses in a style that combines the illustrations of Dore, the paintings of Claude Monet, and the cinematography of director David Lean. The scale of the ambition was startling. If you were looking to play it safe, this was not a project for you. If you wanted to be part of something new and journey into uncharted waters, then this was an opportunity not to be missed.
One by one, each said yes. As The Prince of Egypt crew, we would exceed four hundred artists and technicians, represent thirty-eight countries, and speak twenty-six different languages--a kind of Olympics of Animation, with all of us playing together on the same team. For some, the material itself served as a personal draw. For others, the lure was the enormous scale of the story. But for many, the attraction was above all the chance to try to expand the possibilities of the art form we loved.
While we gradually assembled, the realization dawned that a more difficult obstacle stood before us: how to translate an epic narrative that is a cornerstone for three of the major faiths of the world--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--into a personal experience each member of the audience can share.
To accomplish this goal, all of us on the crew immersed ourselves in the story, consulting with religious leaders and theologians from every faith, as well as Egyptologists and scholars. The choices that had to be made in order to tell eighty years of Moses' life in ninety minutes would be difficult, and answers could only be found through education and understanding of the themes and meanings of the original text.
As the movie began to take shape, certain factors became apparent. We wanted to portray Moses as an accessible and human character, not just a religious icon. The film needed to be compelling and richly entertaining, but the story would not accommodate many of the standard animation devices with which we were familiar. The Prince of Egypt would have no talking animals, no comic confidants for the lead characters, and no easy distinction between a good protagonist and an evil antagonist. The very nature of the story of Moses was one of complexity and nuance and called for a treatment and approach quite different from the usual animated film.
The process of bringing The Prince of Egypt to fruition was as arduous as anything any of us have experienced, but before it was over we would all feel that making this film was the most rewarding experience of our professional careers. The book you hold is a chronicling of out journey over the past four years. It will take you through our process of thinking and discovery, so you can retrace the steps we took in making the DreamWorks animated film that tells the story of Moses.
-- The Prince of Egypt Crew
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Posted April 20, 2000