The Production Builds An Ark
Right out of the gate on "Noah," Darren Aronofsky made a key decision: he
would build from scratch an actual Ark, honoring scriptural references to it and
hewing to the most authentic measurements for what Noah was written to have
built. He knew that a CGI Ark would be far simpler, but Aronofsky felt it could
never give audiences the thrill of experiencing just how massive Noah's project
was, just how striking the Ark would have appeared to the local populace and
just how precarious a proposition it really was, though Noah was unwavering in
The remarkable Ark seen in "Noah" might surprise many who have more
frequently seen it depicted as a rudimentary ship. Aronofsky's
biblically-detailed research, however, took him in another direction. "Our idea
was to always go back to what it says in the Bible -- which basically describes
a rectangle, a box," Aronofsky explains. The Genesis account provided detailed
specifications for the dimensions of the Ark - this is one of the few places in
the text where incredible direction is given. Aronofsky adhered closely to this
text, using it as a blueprint for the craft seen in the film. "All the
renditions we've seen for the last hundred years have been ships, but
realistically, the Ark didn't need a keel because it didn't have to navigate. It
just had to survive the flood. So we went to the Bible, and we built it to the
actual scope that's described - which is pretty impressively sized."
For centuries, searches have been conducted to find remnants of the Ark in
the mountains shared by Turkey and Armenia, but only a handful of re-creations
to scale have been attempted. Crafting something akin to the real thing was both
educational and created an inimitable atmosphere for cast and crew. "The cast
could touch the walls and really climb on it," Aronofsky notes. "And we all
learned a lot from seeing how an Ark might actually have been put together."
To design and build the Ark, Aronofsky collaborated closely with production
designer Mark Friedberg, a recent Emmy Award winner for HBO's "Mildred Pierce."
Friedberg began the process more than a year before production, focusing first
on proportions. "In Genesis the dimensions of the ark are laid out as 30 cubits
high, by 50 cubits wide, by 300 cubits long," he describes. "But there are
Egyptian cubits and Venetian cubits - so we had to go deep into history to try
to figure it out."
The production designer kept in mind that Noah didn't have the luxury of time
to create something beautiful for the ages - he needed something that could
quickly be up to the job, even if that job was sacred. "The building of this Ark
was done in desperation," Friedberg observes. "So it's not a piece of cabinetry;
it's not a fine, seafaring craft. It's a functional object. It's there to keep
the animals floating as the world fills with water. It does not need to steer,
because where would you go if the world is all water?"
While function was key, Aronofsky and Friedberg were also inspired by art -
especially the raw, apocalyptic vision of German artist Anselm Keifer, whose
symbolist paintings and sculptures incorporate materials such as straw, ash and
salt. "Kiefer spoke to me because his work is about desperation, about beauty
and brutality," recalls Friedberg.
Taking cues from Keifer, Friedberg continues: "Darren and I felt the craft of
this Ark would be very rough, rugged and handmade, and that the wood would not
be sawed but snapped, and broken, and attached with straps. I think that's what
gives the Ark its vitality, the sense that doom is impending, and that this
object is the result of people working quickly, working roughly, to do what they
could to make something that might survive."
Finding the right materials alone was a challenge. In the Bible, Noah is
instructed to use gopher wood, a mysterious genus unknown to modern man. "We
couldn't quite find that here on Long Island," Friedberg laughs. "But what we
most wanted was for this Ark to be seemingly made of the forest that it was
built within. So we used a steel frame, wood flooring and then created the big
timbers for the ark carved from foam."
Once the designs were completed, construction began in the Planting Fields
Arboretum State Park in Oyster Bay, Long Island. In a grassy field normally used
for event parking, the team erected the Ark over five months. Friedberg's crew
of hundreds built 170 feet, or about a third of the Ark, while the rest was
completed by the visual effects team in post-production. Meanwhile, a second Ark
was constructed inside Brooklyn's vacant Marcy Armory - once a storehouse for
National Guard munitions - for interior scenes.
During the building, Friedberg was thrilled to bring in a pair of artists who
were another major influence on the Ark's design: the Starn Brothers, the New
York-based sculptors who created "Big Bambu," a complex structure formed from
thousands of bamboo poles, atop the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Originally, Friedberg called them to see if they knew anyone expert in working
with bamboo to create the scaffolding of the Ark.
"Instead, they volunteered," Friedberg recalls. "So Doug and Mike Starn came
out and built this remarkable five-story bamboo structure themselves. It added a
lot of creative life to the film and aesthetically, it's a great counterpoint to
the monolithic quality of the Ark."
The Ark's interior was laid out on three levels, as written in Genesis. "The
bottom level is the tallest Mammal Deck for the mammoths, elephants, giraffes
and giant beasts. Reptiles and insects live in the middle level, which is only
eight feet tall, and at the very top is the twelve foot Avian Deck, where the
family lives with all the birds," Friedberg describes.
Rather than building each of the three levels of the ark side-by-side, as
would normally be done on a stage, Aronofsky had them authentically built one
atop the other, to further add to the visual dynamism. "It allowed us to connect
the levels visually, so you can watch as the characters move up and down through
the levels," explains Friedberg.
Later, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, an Academy Award nominee for his
work on "Black Swan," made utmost use of the three-story structure, his camera
often moving through the Ark with the characters.
Lighting the interior of the ark was another quandary for the filmmakers, as
Genesis only mentions one window in the massive craft. After much discussion,
the decision was made to build a huge furnace in the center of the Ark. "The
furnace becomes a major light source during the forty days and forty nights
where there's really no exposure to the outside world," says Friedberg. "So the
furnace gives us light, it gives our characters heat, and allows us to cut away
the center section of the ark so we can always feel the scale."
When cast and crew first saw what Mark Friedberg created their jaws dropped.
"I don't care if they made a hundred movies before, people had just never seen
anything like it. The scale and the magnitude of it, and the originality of it
was shocking," says Handel.
Adds Aronofsky: "The detail inside was even more incredible because we had
built the three floors of the ark. It was by far the biggest set built in New
York in a very long time because movies don't really build things like this
anymore. So it was pretty exciting."
The actors felt awed, and also transported. "The first time I saw the Ark it
was an experience. Mark did an amazing job," says Russell Crowe.
Adds Douglas Booth: "For us to be able to have this incredible set was an
amazing thing. Darren wanted it to be raw and visceral - and we could feel it,
we could smell it. Everything seemed real."
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