Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas: About the production: Creatures great and small

Sinbad is not the only one with a pet. Eris has her own menagerie of creatures, although they are hardly what you would call tame. The goddess often dispatches them to instigate the chaos she lives to create.

The inspiration for Eris’ monsters came from the night sky. Many of the constellations were born of mythology, so in turn, the filmmakers made them part of the Sinbad mythology. Johnson, a self-proclaimed “astronomy nut,” remarks, “To bring these astronomical icons to life as creatures that a goddess could call her ‘pets’ was an exciting way to have some fun with the character while hinting at her power.”

Gilmore illustrates: “The constellation Cetus became our sea monster; Aquila inspired our giant bird of prey called the Roc. You see Scorpius, you see Draco’ They are all part of Eris’ cosmic realm of chaos.”

The gigantic sea monster is the first of Eris’ “pets” to confront Sinbad, and the computer-animated creature posed almost as big a challenge to the CGI animators who had to manipulate it. The sea creature had a myriad of moving parts’a head, a tail, tentacles, ears, legs, a tongue, and more’all of which had independent controls, making it exceedingly complex.

The computer-animated snowbird called the Roc presented a different set of challenges. Not only does it appear the size of a commercial jetliner, the Roc also generates a perpetual snowstorm in its wake. Doug Ikeler, the 3D effect supervisor, notes, “Wherever he flies, a snowstorm follows, but it couldn’t look like falling snow; it’s snow that’s caught up in the vortex caused by his flapping wings. It has a hand-drawn, swirly quality to it, so it was a very large effect for us.”

The Sirens, while hardly monstrous in appearance, were among the most dangerous creatures faced by Sinbad, Marina and the crew of The Chimera, and among the most complicated to animate. Johnson offers, “Sirens are the mythological women who sing songs that entrance sailors and cause them to crash on the rocks and drown. We wanted our Sirens to feel unearthly and derived purely from water. We went through a lot of development to take animated female figures and turn them into essentially living fountains. When they rise out of the water, they splash up like a wave, float in the air, and then fragment into a million drops of water as they try to sweep the men off the deck of the ship.”

To choreograph the graceful movements of the Sirens, the 3D animators, led by Michelle Cowart, studied the moves of rhythmic gymnastics, ballet and modern dance. They also looked at underwater photography to depict the fluidity of the seductresses. The initial 3D characters looked more like naked silver plastic women until the effects department took over. The effects team used particle systems to create flowing drapes of water that gave the Sirens their liquid appearance.

The Sirens’ hair, which enhances their ethereal quality, took the longest to animate. Every Siren had 16 strands of hair, each of which had a minimum of seven separate controls to manipulate its shape. The problem was that even when the animators got the individual strands moving beautifully, they didn’t always move beautifully together, resulting in the character looking more like Medusa than a Siren. In addition, the animators didn’t know exactly what the end result would be after the effects department completed the look, so there was a lot of going back and forth between the departments and starting over again to get it right.

After eluding the Sirens, Sinbad and Marina find no respite even on what appears to be a small tropical island. The small island is actually a big fish that would dwarf even the largest whale. During an exciting escape sequence, Fish Island ends up with The Chimera in tow, taking the crew on a wild ride that tests the fortitude of even the most experienced seafarer.

Doug Ikeler describes, “This relatively tiny boat is being dragged behind a fish that’s thousands of feet long, which generates this gigantic wake behind it. The boat is caught in the wake, making it do these wave-boarding moves. We had to render huge splashes and the white water that you would associate with those enormous wakes, as well as the mist to give it scale. It was probably a 50-layer scene for us, because we had to create all the things that make water look like water.”

The advancements in animation notwithstanding, animating water still poses tremendous challenges. True to its title, “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” is set on the ocean, and when a story takes place almost entirely on the water, the demands increase exponentially.

Patrick Gilmore notes that, with the help of DreamWorks’ preferred technology provider Hewlett-Packard, the effects department developed an ingenious way to expedite the process. “Rather than compose the ocean per shot, what they decided to do was build an entire ocean and have it run procedurally. It was our ability to have this entire rolling ocean at our disposal that made it possible to do as many water shots as we needed in the film.”

Ikeler explains, “We needed a way to put the ocean in almost every scene of the movie, so we devoted a lot of time to coming up with software that would give us a kind of plug-‘n’-play ocean library. Once we had our ocean simulation, we just let it play for about 1,000 frames, which gave us our ocean on a grand scale. We then told everyone, ‘It’s done; it’s baked. Your ocean is playing. Go put a camera on it and shoot it from whatever angle you need to.’ The layout department could then take the base shape of the water, fly a camera around it, and compose their shot with an already produced ocean. Once they had their basic composition, we came back in and laid in all the elements that went with that particular location.”

The layout department also benefited from the unprecedented use of computer models of scene elements, called animatics, to camera block the entire movie in 3D. While animatics are not new to animation, no other film has ever been pre-shot from start to finish utilizing them. Layout supervisor Damon O’Beirne offers, “Animatics basically allowed us to build a scene in the computer in 3D. What’s great about them is you can play back a scene in real time, which provided us a great template for the action. There are a number of big action sequences in ‘Sinbad,’ and working with animatics gave us the opportunity to explore the best camera angles to drive those sequences and to create a strong cinematic style for the movie. With animatics, we can even shoot coverage, which enabled us to give extra scenes to the editor, who can then pick and choose.”

Editor Tom Finan adds, “It helped a great deal. In the past, we cut from storyboard sketches. But now, with animatics, you can see camera moves in advance and even how the characters move within a shot, which you couldn’t get with storyboards. Being able to edit from moving images is much more like cutting live action.”

Innovations in animation have been coming so rapidly that filmmakers have been able, in essence, to “put the cart before the horse” with regard to technology. Jeffrey Katzenberg attests, “Unlike any movie I’ve worked on before, on ‘Sinbad’ the technology had to catch up with our ambition for the film, as opposed to the other way around.”

Johnson agrees, “‘Sinbad’ was more than three years in the making, and when you’re planning something that far ahead of its release, you have to take a leap of faith that, with moviemaking advances, we would be able to do what we had only imagined. We didn’t know how we were going to do it, but we knew we had the time and some incredibly talented people to figure out how to pull it off.”