‘The Prince of Egypt’: Henry LaBounta reflects on parting the Red Sea

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These days, Henry LaBounta is Studio Art Director at EA Ghost Games. But before his career in games, LaBounta was at the forefront of effects simulation at Industrial Light & Magic, where he helped generate the tornadoes in Twister. Later he worked on The Prince of Egypt at DreamWorks Animation, in particular, on the parting of the Red Sea sequence. After DreamWorks, LaBounta moved to PDI as a VFX supe on films such as A.I. and Minority Report, before segueing into the games industry.

With the 20th anniversary of The Prince of Egypt approaching, vfxblog decided to ask LaBounta at the recent VIEW Conference in Turin what working on that Red Sea sequence was like back then. Hope you enjoy this new retro Q&A.

vfxblog: How did you come to be working on Prince of Egypt?

Henry LaBounta: Before I left ILM, I’d actually gone up to Skywalker Ranch. I met with George Lucas about working on the Star Wars movies that were about to start up. And then this came up as well, working at DreamWorks, it was the first movie they were going to do, where I could part the Red Sea: I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ Those are two interesting opportunities, right? But I had never done any 2D animation work before. So I was really excited about the opportunity to work with DreamWorks on something completely different from what I had been doing at ILM. And some of my friends were like, ‘Are you crazy? You want to work on a Bible movie and you could’ve been working on Star Wars?’ I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my career, and I’ve never regretted a single one.

vfxblog: For the Red Sea sequence, since this was a (mostly) 2D animated film, how did you think that you were even going to do that in CG so that it still had a 2D look?

Henry LaBounta: It was tricky because I know back then the whole idea of using anything computer graphics generated in an animated film was something not really done on a big scale. For characters, for example, it’d only be a crowd character that was CG that was only ‘so’ big on the screen.

The challenge is, in general, it’s easy to get in there and start making something that looks like some big visual effects kind of thing, which suddenly looks nothing like the rest of the film. So we had to develop techniques to incorporate an animation style within the effect of parting the Red Sea. We had a lot of really talented people on the team. Doug Cooper was one of the people I was working with. He was a huge help, because he had been working on animated films for quite a while. And one of the tricks we used was just taking a 2D animation of a splash, and using that in a sprite, and instancing that. So every splash looked like an artist could’ve drawn them, and they had that little bit more of a 2D feel to them.

vfxblog: Were you also looking to use Prisms, or even an early version of Houdini, to do the water simulations?

Henry LaBounta: When I got there, one thing that was interesting was DreamWorks was brand new. I mean, literally it was plugging in computers and setting up desks and stuff like that. Unlike ILM which was completely setup with pipelines, workflows and equipment and staff. We were kind of building the team while we were making the film. And we didn’t know straight away what we were going to use, but as we looked at the task at hand, we looked at some different software. Some of the effects artists in DreamWorks at the time were using Alias, and then they were doing a whole bunch of really nice things with Alias.

And I had been using Softimage primarily, and RenderMan at ILM. But we knew there would be some complex effects animation. And I wanted to try some procedural techniques. And Prisms was kind of the go-to thing at the time, but Houdini was brand new. So we were just on that cusp as Houdini was coming out. It may have even been Houdini 1.0., it was just barely ready for production. SideFX was so fantastic in giving us support. Like, I could in the morning send them a note and say, ‘This thing isn’t working.’ And by the afternoon I had a patch that fixed that. They were just an extended part of the team in a way, they were absolutely committed to making it work, and getting Houdini to actually generate the ribs and everything that we used to render in RenderMan.

vfxblog: Had you used Prisms at all or Houdini, before this?

Henry LaBounta: I had not. Not at all.

vfxblog: So what was it like learning that new software?

Henry LaBounta: For me, it was mind-blowing because it was like, this is software the way my brain thinks. I want to do this and I want to do that next, and I want to connect it to this. And I want to be able to change anything in the entire chain at any point. Houdini allowed me to take any kind of data and use it any way we wanted. We did some things that weren’t typical computer graphics ways to use that data, but it was really easy to make that work and plug it into a shader we’d written. It was so different than any other software. The closest thing to it was Dynamation, I think.

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Henry LaBounta (centre) in Japan during a trip to promote The Prince of Egypt. He is with Michael Carter (left) and Richard Hamel (right) from SideFX. Image courtesy Kim Davidson.

vfxblog: This is Dynamation that was part of Wavefront?

Henry LaBounta: Yes. I’d done Twister at ILM, where we made that tornado with Dynamation. And it was something you could script and kind of procedurally control. And then Prisms and Houdini were like that on steroids. Like an entire package that’s based on those kinds of principles. Which are really common today, but back then it was pretty strict. You know, here’s a menu, here’s a drop down. This is the thing you want to do, you commit to that and it’s done.

vfxblog: Where did you get started on the parting sequence?

Henry LaBounta: DreamWorks had a great background painting department that would also do concepts for the film. They had already made some backgrounds for the parting of the Red Sea, and were working on some ideas of what this moment might look like. So our challenge was, how can we really bring that to life and animate it in an interesting way? We tried a lot of different things to get to this point. There were three directors on the film, all whom were fantastic to work with. And we took them along the process and we showed them work in progress.

Normally the challenge would be, how can we make a fluid system work in a really physically correct way? That wasn’t the challenge here. The challenge here was more, how can we bring something this scale to an animated film and not make it feel out of place? This wouldn’t have really been possible for the effects artist to draw at that scale and get that across. So shaders were a really big part of it for sure. And the work that Kathy Altieri, one of the art directors, had done, was super-inspiring. So by sticking with that colour pallet and being inspired by the paintings that were done, and always comparing our work to that, we tried to stay true to the format of the film that way.

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Worth checking out: ‘The Prince Of Egypt – A New Vision In Animation’. This art of book includes many behind the scenes stills from the Exodus sequence.

vfxblog: When you were making it, what could the directors review on? Were you able to do playblasts? Or did you get a pretty final result pretty quickly?

Henry LaBounta: What we would do is we would pick a few hero shots. Looking back at it now, some of the hero shots we picked were some of the most difficult shots to start out with, maybe not the best idea. And we would try and get those working. This is months and months of reviews and iteration to get it to the point where everybody was happy with it. And then once we got that done, it was like, okay that’s a foundation for all other shots. And a lot of other shots in a way kind of fell out of that very quickly. And those didn’t require as many reviews.

vfxblog: What do you remember was the reaction when this film got released?

Henry LaBounta: Well, I think the team was really proud of what we had created. And we had a great team we put together for this. Over the years as I’ve talked to people and said, ‘Oh yeah, I worked on this movie,’ I’ve been surprised how many people have told me, ‘I love that movie. I’ve watched that so many times. It’s our go-to movie at the holidays.’ And it’s just heartwarming to hear that it had that impact on people all these years, that they got something out of it and really enjoyed the work we did.

Find out more about the VIEW Conference at http://viewconference.it