INTERVIEW: Ben Snow, NOAH’s VFX Supervisor and Oscar Contender

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Ben Snow is a four-time Oscar nominee and best known for his work on Pearl Harbor, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Avengers: Age of Ultron just to name a few films in his impressive resume.  I got a chance to speak with the Industrial Light and Magic artist about his work on Darren Aronofsky‘s abstract retelling of the Noah tale (not to mention some Star Wars and Age of Ultron talk towards the end!).  Be sure to catch-up on Award Circuit’s other interviews with Noah‘s creative team:  Christina Lule’s interview with Best Original Song contender Patti Smith and Michael Balderson’s interview with cinematographer Matthew Libatique.

Ben Snow, alongside Dan Schrecker, Marc Chu, and Oscar-winner Burt Dalton are in contention for Best Visual Effects for their work on Noah.  Below is an edited version of our conversation:

Sam Coffey: What was the most difficult challenge of working on Noah.

Ben Snow: Technically speaking, the deluge battle was a big challenge.  You’re trying to stay true to the source material, but also try to reinvent it for a modern audience.  The filmmakers wanted to depict the Waters of the Earth bursting out of the ground, as described in the Bible, which isn’t normally shown in Noah stories.  Just coming up with the set of tools and tweaking the tools we did have to bring a flood sequence that hit the audience’s idea when they think of the deluge. That was a big and exciting challenge.

SC: The film definitely felt Biblical in scale, but it also felt different that the Bible tales we usually get.  It feels both pre-man and post-man at the same time.

BS: Yes!  That was definitely something that Darren  Aronofsky threw down as almost a challenge to us.  It was creatively a very demanding project, just collaborating with him because he was really pushing for something unique and different visually with the story.  That made it really fun to do because there was such a variety of things with Noah’s visions and everything else.  Darren wanted to make it very different from what we know from the typical Noah story.
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SC: That’s very clear in Darren’s vision of the Noah story.  Perhaps no more so than with the animals.  I like how it wasn’t just elephants, giraffes, and lions walking side-by-side and single file.

BC: Yeah! Those were sort of banned.  Originally we were worried of designing a bunch of animals with variations of each.  Darren said “I don’t want a lion, I don’t want a giraffe sticking out of the top of the arc.  We looked at extinct animals.  We looked at Victorian illustrations of animals, you know, where they’ve heard of hunting a platypus but weren’t quite sure what they looked like.  We were trying to keep to a realistic animals tool kit.  Actually that’s what we did; we made a tool kit with all sorts of animals parts based on what we were observing with real mammals, reptiles, and birds.  We went to the Museum of Natural History and spent hours there just looking for the base essence of these animals: how do we get natural mammal colors, and the more vibrant colorings on reptiles and birds.

SC: The lack of identifiable animals and the prominence of more exotic animals really reinforces the idea that we’re in some primordial or far distant time/place.

BC: Yea!  You know, we filmed it Iceland which is a very different-looking landscape.  On top of that, we added celestial elements to the skies.  Creatively, we didn’t want to show much vegetation until the forest erupts from the ground.  Work was done on the landscape to suggest a pre-history to it to reinforce the idea of an anti-diluvian landscape.  It’s not clear if it’s Earth or some other space body.  When we were working on this, we covered up the Earth and looked to the Pangaea-map of the world.  I think all these elements gave the film a more fantastical nature.

SC: Those elements definitely added a fantastical vibe to the film.  I wanted to follow-up on the celestial elements you were talking about.  When I saw Noah, the daylight stars really stuck out to me in a subtle way, giving me a sense that we were drastically removed from modern-day Earth.

BC: The daylight celestial stars were there from the beginning.  When Darren sent us the script–which was almost an animated script–had celestial stars.  We have these fantastical creatures, The Watchers, in the film, too.  We wanted to create an environment where something like The Watchers wouldn’t seem out of place.  So the celestial elements definitely not only helped with that, but also placed the story in some far off place.  Because with all the crap in our atmosphere, this daylight visibility had to be far removed from today’s humans.  Also, the galaxy was younger and more intense, thus brighter than it is today.

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SC: I’m glad you bring up The Watchers.  They were definitely a major visual element and the most brazen design choice.  How did you guys create those things–they’re so cool.

BC: The Watchers were something that Darren was very particular about.  He wanted to do something that was different from standard creatures.  He wanted to give them an agelessness.  We did a LOT of art exploration.  We started at a more conventional look, much more like their design in Darren’s comic book version of Noah.  They started more like giants.  But Darren wanted something different in the way they moved.  He had this idea that these were elegant, divine beings made of light that are encrusted and constrained by earth.  We started with the idea of disabled people and how they conquer their physical limitations to move about.  Darren got some of the dancers who worked on Black Swan to shoot some motion capture for The Watchers.  We did things like tie yoga blocks to their feet and constrained them in different ways and really put a lot of work in exploring the motion.  At the same time, we did a lot of artwork exploring all sorts of different concepts.  We have hundreds and hundred of different takes on The Watchers.  But Darren felt they were too conventional. Mark Friedberg, Noah’s production designer, and a Sam Messer, a sculptor from New York, came up with this design made up of stones and wax.  Darren loved it.  Of course, we visual effects guys were like “whoa, how do we do this.”  So we started taking photos of some rocks in Iceland…and eventually it came together as these weird creatures.  Even how they sounded–we placed pebbles on speakers to design a rocky sound, we didn’t want them to have lips, etc.  There was a lot of creative exploration that went into The Watchers.  It was quite a journey and a very creatively challenging thing to do.

SC: From a design standpoint, I really think The Watchers were a success.  Visually speaking, The Watchers certainly look like these cursed creatures, tied to the earth and damned for all time.

BC: Yea, so The Watchers are cursed, and that was prevalent in the research we did before we started designing.  These creatures are cursed, and therefore very bitter.  And being bitter, this has to influence the way The Watchers move and speak.  That’s why they hobble and are doubled over.  The idea is, during the climactic battle, they become freer.  They’re more powerful, they stand up straighter, they become more ominous.  It’s great to express the characters’ arc through physicality.

SC: That’s so true.  I remember cheering and feeling for The Watchers when they were breaking free of their earthly bonds.  We’d grown to care for them as much as we’d grown to care for Noah and his family.  Now I have to ask you: how much practice effects went into the making of this film?

BS: It was a big mix!  With the deluge, I worked with the special effects coordinator, Burt Dalton, and we were in complete agreement that we wanted to do a lot of the effects practically.  There was a great collaboration between the visual effects, practical effects, and the director of photography, Matthew Libatique.  We decided to shoot the deluge battle at night.  Burt made these giant rain towers–the largest towers that have ever been.  We had practical rain, bursts of rain, water canons, large gallons of dump tanks to wash stunt men down.  These practical effects have us a good anchor for our visual effects work.

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SC: Was there a lot of practical/visual blend post-flood and with the use of the arc?

BS: It’s funny, because you go into these things talking about using both practical and visual effects.  You start talking about building an arc the side of a football field inside a massive tank with hydraulic movers to make the arc look like it’s floating.  Of course all the budgeting and filmmaking realities come into play.  You find out the water tank will only cover the section immediately around the family and 3 feet around that–so you know you’re going to need a lot of CG.  We had 3 practical sets for the ramp of the arc–in Long Island and an indoor version.  We researched how the arc should look–Darren was very clear that he wanted to stick to the Biblical description.  He didn’t want it to be a cruise ship.  We worked out how much balance you would need–only about a third of the arc would be floating above water at any point.  The third set was the top of the arc.  We used real water an CG water to extend photography on a blue screen set piece.  The idea is to blend the two techniques so that the audience isn’t picky about it.  By using real water as much as we can, it keeps us honest on the CG side with VFX water–we have a standard.  Same thing with the extras, we had real stunt performers falling when they were hit by water, but we could use that standard to add more.

SC: Were there other visual elements in the film that were fun to work on?

BS: Yes!  There were a lot of one-off moments in the film, that weren’t large set pieces.  Moments like Noah’s visions, Noah under water, etc.  When Noah was under water, we actually submerged Russell Crowe and had stunt actors in the foreground, while helped us add CG bodies in the background.  Also, when Anthony Hopkins made the wall of fire–that was a fun moment artistically to decide how we wanted that fire effect to look.  Also, the eruption of the forest was so interesting.  We had software we use for tree growth, but we had to go to the developer and said “listen, we need these trees to grow, like a miracle.”  We tweaked with the software to make it align with Darren’s vision.

SC: So it sounds like there was a lot of practical and visual effect blending.  In fact, I didn’t even notice that any of the people during the battles were digitally composed.  Is that a compliment to a visual effects designer?

BS: It is a compliment!  It’s what we aim to do.  It’s funny, because the biggest honor is to not have your work noticed.  Our ego says “we want to have some cool stuff that will make people go ‘wow.'”  But the idea is that it’s got to be for the right reasons.  We had nearly 100 amazing extras on the film for the battle sequences.  From those extras, we were able to digitally compose hundreds of more fighters.  When Darren saw it, he couldn’t even tell where the extras ended and the CG began.

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SC: Okay, two final questions.  I see you worked on Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.  Can you tell me how cool it was to work on Star Wars?

BS: It was a dream come true.  I did the clone war battle and the sequence in the droid factory.  It was so great.  Number one: Dennis Muren [6-time Oscar winner and VFX mastermind], who really inspired me to get into visual effects.  He was my partner and mentor on my battle sequence.  Number two, of course: working with George Lucas.  He created this universe.  Having someone like George is great because if you have a question for why or what something should look like, George is there with a full answer because he made it all up to begin with.  Just like with Noah, where our research and the backstory helped so much to inspire us in the visual effects.  In Star Wars, having the consistency with the universe and the world was so nice.  And of course, you’re working on the Clone Wars, something you’ve been reading about for 20 years!

SC: And you got to help with Yoda wielding a lightsaber!  Doesn’t get much cooler than that.

BS: That was one of the funnest sequences in the film.  It’s funny, because it was quite controversial here.  Some people actually talked to George and tried to change it.  But I was on board.  I mean, Dracula vs. Yoda, it doesn’t get any better than that!  Sign me up.  In the end, I think Pablo Helman, who oversaw that sequence, did a great job.

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SC: Finally, I know you’re working on Avengers: Age of Ultron.  How’s that going?

BS: Fantastic.  I worked on the Iron Man films.  You’ve probably seen the trailer.  We’re very excited about the reaction the trailer has gotten.  But personally, it’s like a bit of a coming home.  I was there when Marvel Studios first started.  We’re working it out together.  I’m really enjoying being a part of that family and working with these fun characters.

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And so concludes my interview with Noah‘s visual effects supervisor, Ben Snow.  Hope you readers enjoyed it as much as I did!  Noah currently is predicted to land a nomination for Best Visual Effects according to Clayton and myself.  The film is available on Blu Ray and DVD.