How ILM brought Noah's Ark to the big screen

Hollywood has a tradition of bringing new levels of visual effects technology to the interpretation and retelling of particular Biblical stories. Writer-director Darren Aronofsky's new film Noah offers an inventive and expansive interpretation of one of the most well-known and enduring Biblical stories about faith and belief.

For the movie, Aronofsky engaged Industrial Light and Magic, a studio founded by George Lucas with its share of experience dreaming up images of forces beyond human understanding.

Like many large-scaled visual effects movies, the project was more marathon than sprint, with ILM commencing its earliest development work in August 2011. "It was like an art project," Ben Snow, the film's VFX supervisor, begins by saying.

Building the ark

ILM's contribution to the film's dynamic set piece sequences includes those showing a forest being born, animals boarding the ark and the realisation of the ark itself.

VFX supervisor Ben explains that the challenges of bringing the story to life was a test and a validation of the studio's creative spirit: "Darren's original brief was that he was really adamant that he didn't want the effects to date. Darren was pretty straight with us."

ILM was the main vendor on Noah, tasked with the creation of the digital animals, the creation of the ark, digital foliage and more

"He said: 'We plan to reinvent the Bible story for a new generation that's closer to Avatar'," Ben continues.

"He didn't want the animals to be quite real; more fantastical. He sent us an ideas book, and photography by Botenski: industrial landscapes, different animals, some art and costumes. He definitely invited and expected input from us. He wanted ideas and argument from us. He wanted to make it an art project. It's a film that has some supernatural or divine attributes."


For the movie, Maya software was fundamental to the work and the project also utilised SpeedTree modeling and render software for its key sequence of earthly transformation.

A still from a featurette showing ILM's VFX work on the movie

Katana software was used for extensive lighting and rendering work. As Ben Snow notes a creative focus for the studio's work was "coming up with a form of divine energy or divine light".

In January 2012, ILM began further conceptual work developing the previs work on the film's battle sequences and the showcase sequence showing the flood.

Making a connection between his work on Noah and his career at ILM, Ben notes, "I've been working with this stuff since Deep Impact. You want a good plan of shot design. With the water we'd talk about what it should be. In previs we were able to throw ideas into the mix. Our water tools, texture affection, simulating debris and foam, have gone from strength to strength."

Ben says that the recent work on Battlefield Earth and Pacific Rim meant they really understood the science and artistry of water simulations

Ben cites recent examples of Battlefield Earth and Pacific Rim. "We knew that the key to water simulation is to get the reality of science and artistry." Intriguingly, in using contemporary technology to visualise images from an ancient story.

Ben makes the point that: "Throughout the film when we shoot earth from space, we looked at antediluvian, ancient versions of the earth, we created a younger version of the galaxy and we added celestial skies. Essentially, up until the point of a forest erupting, furnishing wood for the ark, during Noah's journey, the first half of the film it was all of these divine skies and that extended to the fauna and vestiges of civilisation."

The movie is certainly not recognisable as that of the Noah we all learnt about in school, but with the help of ILM, the age-old story has been reinvented and updated, and ILM's work should be applauded.

Words: James Clarke