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‘Noah’ FX master created effects of biblical proportions

For Ben Snow, visual effects supervisor for Industrial Light & Magic, working on “Noah,” Darren Aronofsky’s epic feature film starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Anthony Hopkins, was an undertaking of well, biblical proportions.

Snow, whose special effects wizardry also includes films such as “Twister,” “Deep Impact,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and more, “Noah” was a somewhat unique experience.

Ben Snow

Ben Snow

” ‘Noah’ was an interesting project,” Snow said in a recent interview. “When [director/co-writer] Darren [Aronofsky] sent us the script he sent us an almost illustrated script. There was a whole bunch of inspirational imagery. Every couple of pages you’d get content relevant to work he was trying to create [visually], and imagery he was interested in using. It was unique to read that. … And he and his [co-writer Ari Handel] really researched a lot of the biblical history and surrounding historical stuff that would pertain [to the film’s story]. They had thought about the attitudes and personalities [of the characters] so we [as visual effects experts] had great insight into all that, which is somewhat unique for a [project].”

“Noah” arrived on a special Blu-ray combo pack (featuring more than an hour of behind-the-scenes special features), DVD and VOD late last month from Paramount Home Media Distribution. The special features offer a glimpse at Snow’s world of special effects, some never before seen on film.
NOAH cover

Q. So on what did you base your idea for the ark?
Ben Snow: You start to think of what the ark would look like from children’s storybooks, but one of the reasons you sign on to do a film with Darren is the hope there would be something different. So with the ark, we didn’t want any pre-conceptions. Interestingly, though, with the deluge, the flood itself, I’ve done a lot of work with water, so I had some strong ideas. There was a rich history of biblical paintings [depicting] the deluge. There were certain things we found in reading the Scriptures about the waters of the earth rising, as well as the rain. That all brought some strong images to mind.

Q. What about those giant stone Watchers?
A. We’d done some speculative design work on them. They were like giants with multiple arms. We sat down and talked about large creatures in films from the last 10 to 20 years [such as “The Transformers” films]. We had a particular one we liked [from “Snow White and the Huntsman”], that I thought was particularly nicely done. But Darren wanted something that was quite unique from anything else.

Q. In essence you gave them personalities.
A. Yes. Why did they feel the way they did? They were these divine creatures who were elegant and graceful and they came to earth and got trapped in these stone bodies. … We looked at videos of people with severe leg injuries and how they overcame them. The goal was to try and reflect some of that struggle and triumph [in the Watchers].

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Q. Which special effect was the most challenging to create and execute?
A. Floating under water, that was a unique thing. Creatively, the biggest challenge were the Watchers. How they moved, how they talked, how they looked. Technically, positioning the animals was an enormous challenge. There are so many of them! We had 13,000 separate animals, two by two; every pair was different. A lot of them were hand-animated. Darren’s idea of a “big shot” is not really epic unless its 20 seconds; nowadays five seconds is the average and in action films it’s maybe three seconds. The sheer organization of that one shot of them all entering the ark — they’re not real, and in reality all these animals would not work together. There are computer programs for crowd simulators, where you have these hordes of humans for big battle scenes and so forth. We actually ended up using the software in the end.

This one scene from "Noah" required the film's special effects team to animate 13,000 animals, two-by-two. | PARAMOUNT PICTURES

This one scene from “Noah” required the film’s special effects team to animate 13,000 animals, two-by-two. | PARAMOUNT PICTURES

Q. Did CGI play a big role in the effect?
A. There’s lots of CGI in the film but what we tried to do was ground everything in real photography. We shot a lot of stuff on location in Iceland and the Icelandic landscapes are stunning and arid and that sort of thing. The film is not clear about where it’s set, so we had to suggest a pre-flood Earth. We added stars to the skies, little elements such as that. We had giant water towers on the film set to do water dumps down the front of the ark. And of course the front of the ark was really built, and the interior was built three stories high. I’ve worked on films such as “King Kong” where we built the first story of buildings [and effects created the rest]. We talked of using more green screen but I actually wanted less.

Q. Do you have a favorite among the films you’e worked on, in terms of visual effects?
A. For me it’s about mixing it up. I always like to try something new and challenging which is why it was great to get the opportunity to do “Noah.” I enjoy working on the “Iron Man” films. “Star Wars” was incredible, a dream come true. I’m currently working on the new “Avengers” film. … Even if you’re working on something you’re familiar with, you always try to bring something new and unique to it.