A long article about the special effects and special camera work in Darren Aronofsky’s films – I’m excerpting the portions that have to do with Noah. If you’re interested, read the rest on the DGA site.
Last year, on the fabled Gold Coast of Long Island, sat a movie prop of biblical proportions. Or close enough.
“There are lots of different kinds of cubits,” director Darren Aronofsky explains, referring to the ancient measurement described in the Bible, and by which one can size up the one-third of a very big boat that was built for Noah, his upcoming epic about the man who saved mankind and the animal kingdom from the mother of all floods. “There’s an Egyptian cubit, a Roman cubit, a Hebrew cubit. We got a general sense of what the cubit is and we were pretty spot on to the measurements and the descriptions in the Bible of what the Ark looked like—75 feet-by-55 feet-by-450 feet, something like that. But don’t quote me.”
It was a pretty special effect, conjured up by a director who’s been striving to create special effects even before he had the technologies available, or the money to buy them. In Pi (1998), his debut feature about a pill-popping math genius caught between the Talmud and a hard place, the manipulation of the 16 mm black-and-white images and the measured, rhythmic intercutting of druggy set pieces, caused the film to burst out of the pack when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Aronofsky received the Directing Award, and his technique got a label.
The shifts that Aronofsky and his team—notably, Libatique and production designer Mark Friedberg—have experienced on Noah are tectonic. And yet he says he feels that “if anything, the director has more control over everything. Increasingly, the images are coming out of a computer, but that means you can change anything and have more control.”
As one might expect, there are major CG effects in Noah. “There are fantastical creatures, fantastical events,” says Aronofsky. “There’s a huge deluge. What you’re photographing is often not the thing that will appear on screen—that’s the underpinning. There will be a huge amount of visual architecture placed on top of that, and that sort of makes it a different job. Sometimes only the actor’s face will be in the final image.”
It’s a different kind of filmmaking, he says—to imagine what something might become—and “have faith that your collaborators are going to breathe life into what you aren’t photographing. You have to trust that down the road things are going to come alive.” To ensure that they do, he says, required a huge amount of preparation.
There are no live animals on Noah, which was shot in New York and Iceland; everything living that’s non-human is rendered digitally. “We had to create an entire animal kingdom,” says Aronofsky. “All the animals in the movie are slightly tweaked; I didn’t want the clichéd polar bear, elephant, and lion walking onto the Ark; I didn’t want the shot of a giraffe’s head looking over the rail. I wanted to respect the storyline and think what would have been involved if it all really happened.”
In collaboration with Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), “We basically went through the animal kingdom and pinpointed the body types we wanted: some pachyderms, some rodents, reptiles, and the bird kingdom. We chose the species and they were brought to life with different furs and colors. We didn’t want anything fully recognizable but not completely absurd either.”
Around the time of this interview, Aronofsky was told by ILM that they had just done the most complicated rendering in the company’s history involving the animals on the Ark.
“It was a nice badge of honor,” he smiled. “I don’t think it’s the most incredible shot, but I think because of all the hair on the animals it was incredibly complicated for them. They said, ‘We can only render it two or three more times so make sure those are exactly right because they take so long and are so complex.’”
The decision not to use real animals was easy. “I think we’ve learned from people who have done it before that that’s a really bad move,” he says. “Politically it’s not a great thing to work with live animals and that’s becoming more apparent to people as time goes by, but also, technically, it would have been extremely difficult. And we’ve learned from lots of other films how hard it is to bring different kinds of animals together.” (As in clashing species or animals that might decide to eat their co-stars.)