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Paving the Musical Road to El Dorado

Sharon Schatz profiles the big name talent -- Elton John, Tim Rice, Hans Zimmer and John Powell -- behind The Road to El Dorado and finds how music and art are carefully crafted into one.

There is a little armadillo that tags along with Tulio and Miguel, the lead characters in The Road to El Dorado. "Whenever you see him," explains the film's co-composer, John Powell, "We put churango music in. [A churango] is actually the back of an armadillo shell, which has been hardened out and they string it with five or six strings. It's a very particular sound of South America, obviously, but rather ironic." Irony and inside jokes aside, it is this attention to detail and ethnic flavor that musically brings the world of El Dorado to life. But, the task of matching the music to the film was actually a bit more complicated than simply playing armadillo-made instrumentals over an animated armadillo.

Composer Hans Zimmer (middle) with songwriters Tim Rice and Elton John (left to right). Courtesy of DreamWorks LLC.

The Team

DreamWorks' second traditionally animated featurereunites songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice and composer Hans Zimmer, the Oscar-winning musical team from The Lion King. Powell, who co-composed the Antz score, teamed up with Zimmer on the new film. The Road to El Dorado is a buddy road adventure about two Spanish con men that escape from a ship bound for the New World and find El Dorado, the legendary City of Gold. The movie features six original songs, five of which are sung by Elton John, who narrates the story through song. The sixth song is a duet between the two lead characters, which are voiced by Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh. Other character voices include Rosie Perez, Armand Assante and Edward James Olmos.

Marylata Jacob, music supervisor on El Dorado. Photo by Kelvin Jones. TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC.

The musical vision for The Road to El Dorado began about five years ago. Marylata Jacob, who started DreamWorks' music department back in 1995, was the film's music supervisor. Her work began before there was even a script. Jacobs explains, "My role early on in this project was to help executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg decide what styles of music he thought would represent El Dorado. Obviously, El Dorado is a mythical place, but its roots are in Central America, whose influence of music is global. It comes from Europe. It comes from South America and Africa. A lot of things converge in Central America, musically speaking." It was at this early stage that Katzenberg met with songwriters Elton John and Tim Rice to give them a feel for the story.

Finding the Songs

When the script was completed, it was divided into sequences in order to figure out where songs would better further the story than dialogue. Co-producer Bonne Radford comments, "We didn't want to follow the traditional song formula. This isn't so much a musical as it is a movie with music. We were trying to break free of that pattern that had been kind of adhered to in animation and really put a song where we thought it would be great...and get us through some story points."

Once it was decided where the songs would go and what each song was to convey, Elton John and Tim Rice began their task of bringing El Dorado to life musically. Rice wrote the song lyrics and then gave them to John to write the music. John then recorded a demo, which was given to the animators. The artists storyboarded to this temporary version, as the tempo and vocals would remain intact, even though the arrangement would undergo changes to better blend with the feel of the film.

Elton John and his toon alter-ego from the music video for El Dorado. Photo by Greg Gorman. TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC.

The Matching Game

Co-director Eric "Bibo" Bergeron explains the process: "We storyboard the sequence...The song gives us the beat on which we should animate the characters. We cut the scenes together to have a certain pace that matches the pace and rhythm of the song."To animate the characters on the beat, the music is put on a 35mm magnetic tape, which is then read on an exposure sheet. The songs bass drum provides the beat. The editor marks the frame numbers on the exposure sheet to indicate where the music comes in and where the beats fall. Through this process, the editors know how many frames are in a beat for each particular song. This also enables the editors to match the characters mouths to the words for the lip syncing of songs. Listening to the pace of the lyrics enables them to determine the number of frames for each individual sound. "Tough to Be a God" is the only song that the characters sing.

While the artists animated on the demo, co-composers Hans Zimmer and John Powell worked on molding the songs to fit the ethnic flavor of the film, which, according to Jacob, was not an easy task. She comments, "Elton John sings these songs and they have real pop roots. [His] material comes to you so perfectly written, that it was a real challenge to make it work within the body of the world of El Dorado."

A beautiful shot from

But, Zimmer and Powell clearly worked their magic. Bergeron comments, "'The Trail We Blaze' is the second song in the show. It was kind of a Vaudevillesque song that Elton did. John and Hans turned this into something that was very South American, and some of it, Spanish." As the composers added their touches to the song, they kept the same beat, staying with the editing and rhythm of the animation. Powell explains, "We'd just take [Elton's] voice and we'd replace everything else and rearrange the song to fit the scene."


As the film continued to take shape, there were changes that inevitably affected the music. John and Rice had written a song for the villain, but it was decided that the character was developed enough and the song was unnecessary. A beautiful song called "Without Question" was almost cut, but made its way back into the film with a new angle, much to the delight of the filmmakers. Powell explains, "It was originally a love song between two of the characters. But, that was an element of the story that worked on its own. We didn't need them to stop and sing a song about [it]."

About a year after "Without Question" was removed from the film, everyone agreed that there was an emotional beat missing from the story. There wasn't enough motivation for Miguel (Kenneth Branaghs character) to want to stay in El Dorado. The editors reminded everyone about the old footage from the defunct love song. Powell remembers, "By talking to [the editors], we realized that we could change the aspect of the love song from the love of the girl to the love of El Dorado. Some of the images were much more up-tempo and joyous and a real ballad wouldn't work, so we tried some things with the song. Eventually, we came up with a way of doing it where it was a much more up-tempo number and that meant that we could bring that whole scene back."

The Road to El Dorado may indeed lead right to gold for Sir Elton John with another big hit song and video. TM & © 2000 DreamWorks LLC.

Animation versus Live-Action

Radford says that working with music for animation is very similar to working with music for live-action films in that it's all about pre-production. The same types of decisions -- things like tempo, duration and who will sing the song -- have to be made in both mediums in order to shoot the scene to the music. But, she adds, there are some unique opportunities in music for animation: "[Animation] is a place for an abundance of original music. This is not so in live-action. This has to do with the MTV generation. It's clear that the movie-going audience has been raised solely on MTV. Their impression of visual music is radically different than any previous generation."

Powell explains another difference between working on animation and live-action: "Normally, in an animated film, it's all worked out so much that they're really not going to change the edit around. Although, El Dorado was an example where the edit was changing pretty much up to the last minute. In can have complete re-edits going on from day to day. As a composer, you're writing on a film that's never stationary and that's very difficult."

Executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg reads over a script with music supervisor Marylata Jacob and Composer Hans Zimmer (left to right). Courtesy of DreamWorks LCC.

In a League of Its Own

When asked to compare working on the music for El Dorado to her work on other DreamWorks features, Marylata Jacob comments, "Antz was not a musical, yet there were musical moments. It was fun to put in redone commercial songs, which hadnt been done before." Jacobs explains that making fellow musical The Prince of Egypt was vastly different from El Dorado. She says, "Prince of Egypt was really classic. We used well over a 100-piece orchestra. It was epic. We had large choirs. The visuals were showing 400,000 slaves leaving, which was depicted in a very grand, epic way, musically." El Dorado, she says, is on the other end of the spectrum. "Musically, its small. Hans' themes are very intimate. We didn't use big orchestras at all. The featured instrument is acoustic guitar, and then marimbas."

And of course there's that armadillo instrument, the churango. Clearly, the process of creating music for animation, making the necessary changes, and then actually matching the music to the film is quite an intricate task. Playing armadillo over an armadillo is just one decision, clever as it may be. And speaking of inside jokes, though the animal is not named in the film, the musicians and animators called the armadillo Bibo, after co-director Bibo Bergeron.

Sharon Schatz is a writer for a popular childrens television Web site and is also a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.