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El Dorado: The Old World Meets the New in Tradigital Animation

DreamWorks SKG is seeking box-office gold with their new film, The Road to El Dorado. J. Paul Peszko goes behind the scenes to reveal a new production process, a new type of artist and why this film might just reach the promised land.

The Road to El Dorado. TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC.

Though Spanish explorers failed time and again to locate El Dorado, the lost city of gold, that didn't stop DreamWorks SKG from mapping out a direct route. With all the elements in place for a commercial success, their The Road to El Dorado, the studio's second traditionally animated feature, promises to be paved with box-office gold. Packed with laughs and excitement for the whole family, El Dorado is reminiscent of the live-action Hope-Crosby-Lamour "road" movies of the Forties and later classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Man Who Would Be King. The idea for the film came right from the top. Four years ago, while The Prince of Egypt was still in production, Jeffrey Katzenberg decided DreamWorks' next animated project should be a departure from the standard fare. He wanted a change of pace from the majestic and sublime to a concept that was more fun, more exciting -- a comedy adventure. He also passed over the usual heroes for characters who were tainted and not so high brow. A couple of petty swindlers would do just fine. As for the setting, that had to be something new, something that had not been done before, a place teeming with adventure. What could be newer or more exciting than the New World at the start of the 16th century? This lush, pristine paradise lent itself ideally to the artistry of the animation team at DreamWorks.

peszko01.gif After escaping Cortes' ship, Miguel (voiced by Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (voiced by Kevin Kline) find themselves alive but beached on strange shores in DreamWorks' The Road To El Dorado. TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC. peszko08.gif When it comes to winning the big game, Chel (voiced by Rosie Perez) holds Miguel and Tulio's secret weapon. TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC.

El Dorado features the voices of Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh as Tulio and Miguel respectively, a pair of two-bit con men who win the map to the legendary City of Gold in a game of chance. After a daring high seas escape from the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes, Tulio and Miguel wind up in El Dorado. Aided in their flight by Altivo, a very clever war horse, the pair runs into a delightfully saucy native girl, Chel (Rosie Perez), who helps the two con men dupe her tribe into believing they are actually gods. Not just a buddy movie, El Dorado is a two guys-and-a-girl movie with the girl falling for one of the guys naturally, leaving the other one to stew. If the story sounds similar to The Road to Bali, it is but with a marked contrast. Tulio and Miguel are much more daring and flamboyant than Hope and Crosby and decidedly more fun. The dynamics of their relationship, however, was not necessarily ingrained in the script, which had borrowed heavily from its live-action counterparts.

"The relationship of the two characters [Tulio and Miguel] and their relationship with Chel, I think, developed a great deal throughout the production," states James Williams, co-supervisor of scene planning and layouts. "Chel, of course, is a very different heroine in many respects. She's very much a mover and a shaker, so that rather than reacting, she's very proactive. Therefore, her entire aspect changed more than anybody else. It certainly is not really a movie about two guys but about two guys and a girl, which, I think, makes it much more interesting."

And indeed it does. If anyone deserves credit for this, Katzenberg does. Not for the tight control he exerted on the film but just the opposite -- his willingness to let the artists have their freedom. Rodolphe Guenoden, who was the supervising animator on Chel, certainly feels this is the case. "Jeffrey [Katzenberg] really gave me a carte blanche to do whatever I pleased with her, and we were of the same way of thinking, so I was really free to make her what I thought she should be." Kevin Turcotte, who supervised El Dorado's 18 background painters agrees, "I hadn't seen a feature film yet that gave the artists more control from start to finish. And that would be from a traditional start to a digital finish in most cases, although we had a few artists who were a hundred percent digital. And the results we got were pretty good. There was a lot of learning along the way, but when we had it meshed all together, it was working pretty well. I think we've got a real good way of working here."

Prince Paved the Way

While The Prince of Egypt, DreamWorks' first traditionally animated feature, may not have been the financial success that the studio had hoped for, it has paid for itself in the long run by serving as an artistic springboard for El Dorado, a much bolder film with greater commercial possibilities. James Williams concludes, "In terms of ground-breaking procedures we didn't have to utilize so much new technology on this film. But what we were able to do was to really hone our skills and use some of the technology that we used only in the exceptional scenes in The Prince of Egypt and pretty much use it throughout El Dorado." By "exceptional" Williams means a blend that fuses the artistic quality of two-dimensional paintings and drawings with three-dimensional sets. The layout department created over twenty 3D sets on El Dorado more than four times as many as Prince.

Co-directors of The Road To El Dorado, Don Paul (left) and Eric

Don Paul, who had previously served as co-head of the visual effects department on Prince, also spoke of how that film influenced the work on El Dorado, which he co-directed with Eric "Bibo" Begeron. "There was a lot of technical ground-breaking we had to do just to get the studio organized and get the type of platform where we could actually create the film [Prince]. We went through a lot of challenges visually for that film, but it established a certain framework of what we would be able to use on this film [El Dorado]."

While there may have been little ground-breaking technology initiated for El Dorado, the blending of traditional artists and digital artists or "tradigital" -- a word coined by El Dorado's digital supervisor, Dan Phillips -- created a work that takes feature animation to a new level. It is more than coincidental that just as the Old World meets the New World in the film, traditional animation has been blended with digital animation in the production. According to Don Paul, the effect was intentional. "We tried to mix the two [traditional and digital] so that it isn't one or the other. The thing that I enjoy about the way the departments are forming here is that it's a mixture of traditional people and digital people, and they're working together to create the shots. What was really interesting about The Prince of Egypt was we had more of the CG artists than the traditional artists on that show. And because they had worked together for so long, this show started to have its hybrid artists, where they were both. You know, it used to be we'd have to hand off to one or the other. But this new type of artist is starting to grow here, and they usually have a couple of tool sets with them. It may be drawing and it may be digital animation."

Background supervisor Kevin Turcotte (left), background painter Paul Duncan (middle) and art director Paul Lasaine study some of the landscapes for the film. TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC.

Kevin Turcotte agrees with Paul. "Artists have their own offices where they do the traditional paintings, but they'll share computers for the digital part. There's a main lab plus two smaller labs. So, they'll actually have two homes here." Of the 18 background animators that Turcotte supervised, 15 were "tradigital" hybrids and only three were purely digital. "What's really unusual about this film, too, is that on The Prince of Egypt, all of our background approvals were physical backgrounds," Don Paul cited. "On this show [El Dorado], everything was digital, so the background approvals were all on monitor. It's kind of strange. This is the first show I've ever worked on where you couldn't actually hold the painting [for approval]."

If audiences have as much fun watching El Dorado as the 95 animators at DreamWorks had creating it, the film should definitely be a blockbuster. "It was actually much more fun [than Prince] in some ways," Paul states. "We didn't have the same technical hurdles that we had on the last show, and I think people generally had a lot more fun doing the shots and exploring what potentials the system we built had."

Advancing Strides

Camera movement was one of the key aspects in planning El Dorado. Yet, even though the camera is quite active, the movement is very subtle. James Williams regards this as essential. "One of the great differences of El Dorado from The Prince of Egypt is that it's very much a buddy movie. Very much a Hope-Crosby type film. Therefore, it really didn't lend itself to the huge, majestic [style of] film. It's intimate, funny. So, it's a very different cinematic style. Although we have beautiful shots, of course, a lot of the work that we did on this movie was in the subtlety of the shots."

This subtlety becomes evident at once in the "Brig" sequence onboard Cortes' ship, where Tulio and Miguel are planning their escape. "The camera is very active," Williams explains. "It's following the two characters. What you're actually seeing here is something you saw only rarely on Prince of Egypt. And when you saw it, you made sure you saw it. This [the Brig] is actually fully three-dimensional, so what it gives you is truly the feeling of the space...By putting it into literally a three-dimensional box, we were able to give you the feeling of confinement. But due to the process we actually developed, we were able to move the camera off the animation that we put in. So that way we weren't anticipating the animation. The camera was actually following the animation to make the whole thing seem natural. There was an enormous amount of work put into this movie just so the audience wouldn't notice the great things that we did. But I think overall it certainly gives you the impression of a well-crafted movie, and hopefully it'll keep the audience in the film." Don Paul pointed out the unusual variety of camera movement. "Some of the camera movement in the film is almost a throw-away. There are some fun pans that are really cheated dolly shots. Some of them are 3D. Others are traditional that are created to make them look three-dimensional." As Williams mentioned above, DreamWorks has developed their own technology to enhance camera movement. Don Paul elaborates on one particular process. "We have this motion blur [software program] that was written here, and it's come in so handy. When you have a fast pan, we can apply the motion blur to it at different ratios depending on how much blur we want, and it gives us a nice directional. It really makes it look like a live-action sort of blur. We can also apply that to 2D character animation as well. So that gives us a fun sort of way to push the camera work into a different arena."

El Dorado, the Lost City of Gold. TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC.

Another process that was developed at DreamWorks is "Spryticle." In the finale called "Crashing the Gate," our heroes have to smash a ship loaded with gold into the gates of El Dorado. Doug Ikeler, the sequence lead on "Crashing the Gate," details how the process replicated a hand-drawn splash 10,000 times: "The big effect for this sequence is splashing water, which in the past hasn't been done in a lot of computer graphics mostly because of the complexity required to get...little driplets and the spray of water. So we came up with a system that we call Spryticle...that allows us to use hand-drawn animation copied onto the location of a particle system. A particle system is really a bunch of spots that we move around with world forces like gravity and wind and turbulence. And then on each one of those spots...we put the hand-drawn animation. So what Spryticle does is really give us a way of multiplying this hand-drawn animation a thousand fold. "Spryticle, what's powerful about it is its randomization techniques. The ways to make each one look a little bit different. I had to get splashes to interact with the boat, interact with the cave walls it was bouncing off know, make the splashes characteristic to the scene. Traditionally, to hand draw water which is one of the hardest things to draw, we're looking at drawing every single frame...I'd say it would take a crew of 2D animators a good part of a year to draw all this."

In another scene Tulio is having leeches pulled off his back. To give this a realistic look, they used ER (elastic reality) Warping. "Basically, it's morphing a character drawing or drawings to give it a feeling of motion," Don Paul stated. In the leech scene, we actually see Tulio's skin recoil. "Tulio was a held cel or held character drawing, and then we put an ER Warp on it to get him to react to the leech pull." It was used again to economize the "Volcano" sequence. "We did the same thing on the volcano smoke. It was basically one drawing, and the smoke was morphed to look like it's churning out of the volcano. All but two or three shots were morphed. We did that a lot with background characters. We used to have a lot of held character levels. Now it's great because you can do a little bit of a head tilt or an eye blink or have the mouth close or open. So that was great. It kept some of those characters alive."

Learning Along The Way The DreamWorks team used standard software as well as their in-house programs. For example, the background department worked with Photoshop and Painter. Kevin Turcotte was pleased with the amount of time these programs saved his crew. "A complete light change in the background previously required two painted backgrounds. Here we're able to take one painting and digitally change the color so that everything is perfectly lined up. There's no registration problems or anything, and it's a fairly simple procedure to do without taking the extra week or two to create a complete background. It's just maybe a day or two."

Turcotte was responsible for training his crew of 18 background painters. "At the same time I was learning it myself. I had never worked on Photoshop or Painter or a computer for that matter. I'm still struggling with how to deal with e-mail. But Photoshop and Painter I was learning on-the-job...The learning curve was a little steep at first, but then it really took off. They're pretty incredible programs, and it's amazing to think that they're just off-the-shelf."

See how the cool colors set the mood for this scene with Miguel and Tulio bargaining with the Chief. TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC.

The backgrounds are hand-painted initially then scanned in and digitally enhanced. Once they are completed and a library of scenes begun, various elements can be transferred from one background to another. "We were able to pop them in a few other scenes and color-balance, so you had great continuity and a little more economy." Turcotte asserts, "Pretty much one painting can get recycled a number of times, but because we're able to change it a little bit [digitally], it doesn't feel like we're using the same exact elements. It gives it a little bit more richness, too." Their work was slower at first until they could build up a library of scenes. Turcotte noted, "Once a library is established, we can take an overlay from one background, flip it around and combine it with an overlay from another background, relight it with either a cooler or warmer palette and get a new background that fits totally within the style of the film but takes only a fraction of the time to paint compared to traditional methods." When they were finished, Turcotte's crew had compiled a library of 858 backgrounds with 480 of those produced completely digitally from the library. Conscious Touches El Dorado also contains something called The Wizard of Oz effect. In that live-action classic, there is a total change in background ambiance between the reality of Kansas and the surreal world of Oz. The team of art directors on El Dorado wanted to achieve that same effect between Old World Spain and the New World. "We purposely left out green in Spain," says Turcotte. "There was very little foliage. You might see a green shirt on a character or something like that, but there's no real lushness to the environment. We save the real explosion of color for El Dorado."

And explode it does! After their escape from Cortes' ship, Tulio and Miguel ride through jungle backgrounds that are lush and green. They are mainly hand-painted backgrounds mapped onto simple 3D geometry. Their journey ends at an icon-filled monolith that appears to be a stone version of their treasure map. Here the color is lowered and darkened using a lot of cool blues and a gray mist. The colors remain muted as the two are surrounded by natives and led off through the jungle. That sets us up for their entrance into El Dorado, which heats up exlosively with a riot of yellows and reds. All the stops are pulled out so there can be no doubt that we have arrived.

This shot features the lush greens used in the New World scenes. TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC.

Not all of the animators on El Dorado were "tradigital" hybrids. Rodolphe Guenoden, a traditional artist, was the supervising animator on Chel, perhaps the most delightful character in the movie. Trained at C.F.T. Gobelins in his native France, Guenoden worked at Amblin Entertainment in England first on An American Tail: Fievel Goes West and later on We're Back and Balto. He explains that he does sketches until he finds the essence of the character. "Then we take the drawings or sketches and model them more to what we like. She was a lot skinnier than what she is now...Jeffrey [Katzenberg] and Bibo [Bergeron] were in the same frame of mind not to make her a regular character."

The toughest part of the film for Guenoden was not a wild action sequence but a relatively static one. "Animating Chel the first time she discovers that they're [Tulio and Miguel] there just to find the gold, and she has to convince them that they need her help. It was all acting and just very different to do. There were a few changes to add on in production to that sequence but the most difficult thing was to make her enjoyable enough so that the audience would like her."

Rodolphe Guenoden, supervising animator on Chel. TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC.

Adding mannerisms is the key; and subtlety the method. "Little things just to bring a little ethnicity to her," says Guenoden. "She would have this little kookiness or playfulness that would translate into a little shake of the head or the shoulders without going too far because then she would be too much like a rap music character. Just enough so she's fun and kooky but still cute in a way. Not vulgar, not too rough. That was the main focus: to keep her cute whatever she was doing. Cute in an enjoyable way, not cute in a 1940s way, not in a Snow White way."

So where did Guenoden find these subtle movements? First, he sat down with Rosie Perez on her breaks during the recording sessions for Chel and studied her mannerisms very closely as he listened to her tell stories and engage in casual conversation. Next, every Thursday evening, he watched Friends and Frazier for more comedic gestures and timing.

So how involved does Guenoden get with his characters? "Extremely involved," he admits, "especially with a female character and being a male animator, it's like having an affair for two years. You know working all day long with the same character, drawing the same features, curves. And then even though you go back home, you're still thinking about the scene and your character." Is he sad that the affair has finally ended? "I miss her already," Guenoden confesses.

The Final Polish With the "tradigital" platform firmly in place, El Dorado presented far less problems visually than Prince. However, from a stylistic standpoint, it demanded greater attention in another area, namely the soundtrack. Co-director Don Paul spoke about the dialogue and what was unique about it. "I think stylistically it's a bolder film, and the use of dialogue in the film is much tighter. There's more overlap to the lines. We really have much more character interaction against each other's performances. It's just a whole different mentality of telling a story."

As usual they cut the dialogue for a scene in editorial then handed it off to the animators of that scene's lead character. "If Kevin [Kline] did a line, and Kenneth [Branagh] did another line, we'd cut it where it overlapped. Then we'd issue the scene to character animation for Tulio [Kline], and they would animate Tulio. We'd look at that and approve that. Then we'd hand it off to the animator who would do the Miguel [Branagh] character and animate it to react to the animation done on Tulio. So, basically one character would lead the way. Then we'd issue it to another character after his animation was done."

All of this is standard procedure. Over a 3-year period, Kline's voice was recorded on 25 separate occasions while Branagh's voice was recorded 22 times and Rosie Perez's voice 16 times.

This shot highlights the film's excellent acting. TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC.

Dialogue editing continued even while they worked on the animation. The directors kept sliding lines against one another to get just the right banter for Tulio and Miguel. "We were thinking about Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey types of films and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. There's a certain way of rhythm, of dialogue against each other. And it's not line, beat, line all the time. And there's a real nice sort of overlap, and we wanted to create a little energy between these characters especially Miguel and Tulio. If you play back a lot of their sequences, you'll see that they're really just like good friends. They're kind of on top of each other's lines, finishing the other one's sentence."

A rare dual recording session set the model for the dialogue. "It was inspired by a recording session that was done for the sword fight. We recorded Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline together, which is very unusual for an animated feature. You never really record character actors together, but we wanted to get the interplay. And that's really where it started. They were kind of on each other's lines, and even though that was one of the only times we brought them together, we thought, 'Oh, my God, this is great!' So even when they were recorded seperately, in editorial we would work a rhythm. And it took a number of months before we got a real good rhythm of how the film needed to play, but it was initially inspired by that first recording session."

If Tulio and Miguel were the first to be cast in a scene, who was the last? "If Altivo [the war horse] is in the scene, normally, he would be the last character you cast to because you want him to do a beat and react. You want him to delay his reaction so he listens to the lines and then reacts. You have to time each one and choreograph it. So, it's like a dance in that they all really react together. That's why five-character scenes are very costly because you can't cast them altogether usually. It's not the right way to do it anyway. You don't get that good a performance. Just like any good actors, they [animated characters] have to play and feed off the other performers."

The musical score on El Dorado is strictly high-powered, reuniting the Oscar-winning team from The Lion King, songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice, and composer Hans Zimmer who collaborated with John Powell on the music. Don Paul had nothing but praise for Zimmer. "Hans Zimmer's great. In my opinion, the Elton [John] songs were very pop. But by the time Hans got finished scoring, there was all this great sort of ethnic instrumental. He just brought a whole warmth to it that was not really your normal Elton song. It was out of his genre. It was into a whole different flavor for the film." More than likely this score will generate some Oscar and Grammy nominations of its own.

Ultimately, box office receipts will determine how much gold there is along The Road to El Dorado. If the film turns out to be as successful as it looks, no doubt it will launch a new era in feature animation. But whether or not DreamWorks' "tradigital" animation platform becomes the quintessential standard for the industry depends on how much freedom other studios are willing to give their artists. Despite the great cast, colorful characters and wonderful soundtrack, the key ingredient to El Dorado's success would have to be the freedom DreamWorks has provided animators to explore wider creative possibilities.

Like the people of El Dorado celebrating the coming of the new Gods, DreamWorks is hoping to have reason to celebrate real soon! TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC.

Ten Cool Facts About The Road To El Dorado 1. Character models for the three main characters were sculpted in clay, then lit and photographed to help effects artists understand how light was cast on the characters. Then an additional ten character models were used in constructing crowd sequences.

2. A scene in the "Ceynote Tribute" sequence has 2,013 3D characters in the crowd. A total of 156 3D characters were created for the film, by varying the hair, skin tone and clothing of the thirteen original models.

3. More than 485 artists from more than 30 different countries devoted some four and a half years to the making of The Road to El Dorado.

4. The first sequence of the film, "Creation" which tells the story of how the legendary city of El Dorado came to life, is a computer-generated sequence and was animated at DreamWorks' Pacific Data Images (PDI) in Palo Alto, California.

5. The "Crashing the Gate" sequence has seventy 3D shots, which took six artists a year to complete.

6. The film The River Wild was used as reference by layout and effects artists to approximate the speed the gondola might travel as it crashed through the entrance gate to the city of El Dorado.

7. A team of layout artists built a model out of Lego's before designing the alley set in the "Bull Chase" sequence.

8. The layout department used Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo as a reference for designing the cinematics of a scene where Miguel and Tulio are looking down into a ceynote well.

9. Approximately 3 million sheets of paper were used throughout the course of the production, along with more than 8 million paper reinforcements.

10. Approximately 87,957 pencils and 37,806 erasers were used during the production.

J. Paul Peszko is a freelance writer and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He writes feature articles, interviews and reviews for regional publications. He currently has two scripts under option and is working on a feature comedy, in addition to just completing his first novel. When he isn't writing, he teaches communications courses.