Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) is going big – as in, literally Biblical – next year with Noah, a big-budget retelling of the Noah’s ark story that will include phantasmagorical imagery and apocalyptic visual inspired by the artwork contained within the original graphic novel that Aronofsky co-wrote alongside Ari Handel (his collaborator on both the comic book and movie version of The Fountain).

However, in case you’re expecting to see Noah (portrayed by a bearded Russell Crowe) guiding a bunch of adorable critters and familiar four-legged beasts onto a majestic ark – constructed to shelter them and Noah’s family from an impending catastrophic flood – think again. In fact, Aronofsky has revealed that his movie will feature CGI animals that look unlike any living creatures in the world today, which required the most complicated digital effect shots ever produced by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) in order to achieve.

Aronofsky was interviewed for the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Quarterly (hat tip to Indiewire) about his career in general, in particular where it concerned his approach to cinematography and camera work. In the interview, the filmmaker talked about his different photography experiences over the years – from having a shoestring budget to shoot his feature debut Pi to manipulating tangible images in order to produce the space effects featured in The Fountain – before he went on to address the challenge of shooting Noah extensively on natural locations around Iceland (while keeping in mind that he would be adding on several digital elements to the footage during post-production):

“There are fantastical creatures, fantastical events [in ‘Noah’]. 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.”

Only an actor’s face appearing in the final shot? That’s a challenge that someone like director Alfonso Cuarón can surely relate to, after his work on his envelope-pushing 3D outer-space survival drama Gravity. Fortunately, just as Cuarón had strong acting talent in Sandra Bullock and George Clooney to keep the human element alive and well in his CGI-heavy project, Aronofsky has people like Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson and Anthony Hopkins to help ensure that his own extravagant piece of cinema has a healthy pulse.

Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone in ‘Gravity’

However, although Aronofsky and ILM didn’t have to produce a whole new digital environment for his actors and actresses to appear in (a la Gravity), Noah will feature a collection of CGI animals designed and engineered specifically for this rendition of the well-known religious story:

“We had to create an entire animal kingdom. 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.”

It seems that the computer-generated animals in Noah required the most complicated rendering out of any CGI characters that ILM has produced to date (or so Aronofsky was told by people who work for the effects house) – which is all the more impressive, when you consider what films ILM has worked on before.

Richard Parker the (not real) tiger in ‘Life of Pi’

In fact, the way that Aronofsky describes them, it sounds as though the creatures in Noah could give the photo-realistic characters designed by WETA over the years – be they the Na’vi in Avatar, Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Caesar the chimp in Rise of the Planet of the Apes – a run for their money (when it comes to how expressive and “real” they are):

“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.’”

Finally, much like the decision was made by director Ang Lee to not use real tigers (save for a few shots) to portray Richard Parker in Life of Pi (which features visual effects by Rhythm & Hues) – partly because of the challenges that come with having real animals on set (a lesson that Lee found out about the hard way, after he decided to include real sheep in his 1995 Sense & Sensibility movie adaptation) – Aronofsky refrained from mixing actual beasts in with his cast. Moreover, he told the DGA Quarterly that his decision to not feature living and breathing non-human mammals in Noah was an easy one:

“I think we’ve learned from people who have done it before that that’s a really bad move. 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.)

Are you excited to see the fantastical creatures that board the ark in Noah? Would you have preferred it that the film instead feature more familiar animals (be they CGI or real)?

Noah opens in theaters on March 28th, 2014.

Source: DGA Quarterly [via Indiewire]