An All-new Noah
ILM pushes limits to fulfill director Darren Aronofsky’s vision of the biblical classic. By Bill Desowitz
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.