An All-new Noah

ILM pushes lim­its to ful­fill di­rec­tor Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s vi­sion of the bi­b­li­cal clas­sic. By Bill De­sowitz

Animation Magazine - - Visual Effects -

For all of the pre-re­lease con­tro­versy sur­round­ing Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s am­bi­tious Noah, star­ring Rus­sell Crowe as a proto-en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist who suf­fers “sur­vivor’s guilt” af­ter the del­uge, let’s not lose sight of In­dus­trial Light & Magic’s tremen­dous VFX ac­com­plish­ments. In­deed, Noah turned out to be a daunt­ing an­i­ma­tion and ren­der­ing chal­lenge, con­sid­er­ing the fur and scope.

One shot, in par­tic­u­lar, of the an­i­mals fil­ing into the Ark and go­ing to sleep, is the big­gest ren­der­ing ac­com­plish­ment in ILM his­tory: 1,300 plus to­tal ren­der passes, which would’ve taken nearly 40 years to do on a sin­gle pro­ces­sor.

“Dar­ren wanted to rein­vent the bi­b­li­cal epic — he didn’t want the typ­i­cal an­i­mals as­so­ci­ated with Noah’s Ark,” says ILM VFX su­per­vi­sor Ben Snow. “And in try­ing to be orig­i­nal, that per­me­ated ev­ery­thing. Dar­ren sent us a book of ref­er­ence im­agery with es­says by screen­writer Ari Han­del and this was a thought­ful ap­proach that tried to be rel­e­vant and dif­fer­ent from the ’50s bi­b­li­cal films.

“We ini­tially talked about de­sign­ing many dif­fer­ent kinds of an­i­mals but it was most im­por­tant to de­pict them in pairs. We looked at ex­tinct an­i­mals, we looked at an­i­mals from people’s imag­i­na­tions and we looked at fan­tas­ti­cal an­i­mals. And then we went through a whole lot of real an­i­mals and came up with binders of an­i­mals for Dar­ren to se­lect.”

ILM couldn’t use a kan­ga­roo, for ex­am­ple, but they could use a less com­mon mar­su­pial. They could use a wilde­beest but not a ze­bra. They had a great time with an­cient horses and added some pachy­derms so there was some­thing that looked fa­mil­iar to the au­di­ence. “But then we looked at a prim­i­tive form of the pachy­derm that had the tusks com­ing out of the lower jaw,” Snow says. “Es­sen­tially, we were try­ing to es­tab­lish­ing a world that ex­isted be­fore the Earth was flooded, so it’s not go­ing to be the same as the world we rec­og­nize to­day. This even im­pacted the land­scapes and skies, which look like an older civ­i­liza­tion.”

Aronof­sky’s ap­proach was founded on a real­is­tic, gritty style yet there is still a sense of the fan­tas­ti­cal as well. The an­i­mals are mostly fea­tured in large crowd shots of thou­sands fil­ing into the Ark, but try­ing to sug­gest a va­ri­ety of mam­mals was tricky. At one point, Snow went to the Nat­u­ral Mu­seum of His­tory to look

at the col­ors and dis­cov­ered that there isn’t much vari­a­tion be­yond ba­sic browns, blacks and whites.

“How do we an­i­mate all of these an­i­mals and how do we dis­tin­guish them? We came up with the Zoo Project, which tries to break down groups of an­i­mals and fig­ure out what they have in com­mon,” Snow says. “For ex­am­ple, heads, claws or hooves? Does the foot go down on the ground or does the an­i­mal have a tail? Our crea­ture team sat down and came up with half a dozen base an­i­mals, which shared phys­i­o­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics. The idea was that they could share a rig and a topol­ogy so we could then trans­port ma­te­ri­als and fur maps and tex­tures be­tween the an­i­mals and lever­age an­i­ma­tion across an­i­mals even though in­di­vid­ual an­i­mals might look very dif­fer­ent. This al­lowed them to rapidly build 100 dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions to sug­gest they had ev­ery an­i­mal in the world.”

In­ter­est­ingly, this was the first film on which ILM used the pop­u­lar Mas­sive crowd soft­ware and it worked well for crowd scenes but was trick­ier when deal­ing with hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent types of an­i­mals, all dif­fer­ent sizes, and sit­u­a­tions where you’ve got pachy­derms next to ro­dents, and the prox­im­ity rules get com­pli­cated so they don’t run into one an­other. And Aronof­sky wanted them in pairs, of course, so they had to make sure the an­i­mals didn’t want them to wan­der off from one an­other.

“We built an un­der­ly­ing rig that al­lowed the skin to de­form,” Snow says. “It had mus­cles, we did sim­u­la­tions, and one of the ad­van­tages of our zoo tech­nol­ogy was that the an­i­ma­tor would an­i­mate a base type, and we then ap­plied that to the other types; then the sim­u­la­tion team would run a sim­u­la­tion on that and bake that out and so the sim­u­la­tion was able to run along with the an­i­ma­tion. Once we blocked out these gi­ant shots with all the an­i­mals, we’d go back in and do hero an­i­ma­tion to add eye blinks, ear flicks and head toss­ing. I think we had to cre­ate more an­i­ma­tion vari­a­tion than we an­tic­i­pated and a lot on top to avoid rep­e­ti­tion and ro­botic move­ment.”

For the big ren­der­ing spec­ta­cle in the Ark, ILM made an in­te­rior Ark set cov­er­ing the first third. The shot shows the ar­rival of the an­i­mals and go­ing to sleep and the ex­tent of the Ark. They did a ca­ble cam shot on the set in Brook­lyn. And in digi-matte, they made a big ex­ten­sion of that. They ad­di­tion­ally shot a plate with Crowe and the fam­ily and com­bined that with ex­te­rior plate ma­te­rial shot on the ex­te­rior Ark set in Long Is­land.

“We started with a Mas­sive sim and then built all the ge­om­e­try of the Ark in­te­rior, tweaked that and then iden­ti­fied a group that would be­come hero an­i­ma­tion and handed that off to the an­i­ma­tion team. Then on top of that, be­cause the an­i­mals sit down and go to sleep, they also an­i­mated them cir­cling and look­ing for a space. Then the com­pos­i­tors laid in sleep-in­duc­ing smoke. It ended up be­ing more than 2,000 ren­ders with hair and we ran 250 Mas­sive sim­u­la­tions for big an­i­mal shots.”

Then there was the wa­ter — the big­gest del­uge in VFX his­tory, ac­cord­ing to Snow. ILM was able to com­bine the com­plex­ity of Bat­tle­ship wa­ter (us­ing the Physbam en­gine) with the speed of Pa­cific Rim wa­ter (us­ing the more heav­ily GL-based en­gine).

“Wa­ters from the earth erupt, and that was im­por­tant to Dar­ren,” Snow says. “So you have large waves push­ing de­bris ahead of them, smash­ing through the for­est as they go, and then break­ing out into this clear­ing and in­ter- act­ing with gey­sers. And we cut to a shot of the scaf­fold­ing col­laps­ing, which was a rigid sim, and even­tu­ally go­ing un­der wa­ter. But we wouldn’t have been able to it­er­ate shot af­ter shot and show it Dar­ren for his com­ments and ap­proval with­out some of the tools de­vel­oped on Pa­cific Rim.”

But it’s fit­ting: ir­reg­u­lar VFX for an ir­reg­u­lar ver­sion of the iconic bi­b­li­cal tale. Visit the on­line Ark Ex­pe­ri­ence to in­ter­ac­tively ex­plore the three decks of Noah’s ark: http://www.noah­movie.com/theark/ Bill De­sowitz is owner of Im­mersed in Movies (www. billdes­owitz.com), au­thor of James Bond Un­masked (www.james­bon­dun­masked.com) and a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to Thomp­son on Hol­ly­wood and An­i­ma­tion Scoop at Indiewire.

Ben Snow

ILM used crowd sim­u­la­tions to en­sure the hordes of an­i­mals were con­vinc­ing in Noah.

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