God is the holy grail of special effects. Sure, CGI wizards have mastered creating miracles from the diminutive; it’s one thing to make Yoda or Gollum unlikely world beaters.
But when you’re talking about the Almighty, the effects have got to be, well, mighty.
For more than half a century in cinema, though, divine miracles haven’t looked so divine, the Rapture not so rapturous (at least on screen). The Ten Commandments may have boasted a cast of thousands; they still flocked through sets of Styrofoam.
But digital advancements have written a new testament to visual effects. And with filmmakers tithing millions to render 40-day floods, parting seas and frog-filled plagues, studios are making a renewed push to capture public dollars—and awards gold.
Leading the revival is Paramount’s Noah, which already reached the masses to the tune of $362 million worldwide since its spring debut. And December marks Fox’s unveiling of Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott’s take on a defiant Moses (Christian Bale) who embarks on a revolt of 400,000 slaves against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton).
Both movies feature the spectacle requisite to a nine-digit tentpole release: digital sound and pyrotechnics, gravity-defying stunt work, monstrous sets (and the occasional monster).
But they take wholly different approaches to their biblical narratives: Noah posits a world of fantastic phenomena; Exodus ponders whether divine legend sprang from the natural world.
For Noah, VFX supervisor Ben Snow took his cues from two orders on high: the book of Genesis and Darren Aronofsky.
The Bible part was pretty straightforward. The flood narrative takes up only three chapters of Genesis but gets specific about the boat: It’s to be 450 feet long, 50 feet wide and 30 feet high, with three decks and a side entrance.
Aronofsky’s vision was less detailed. The director, whose visual feasts include Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, was not a fan of classic sword-and-sandal filmmaking.
“Part of the challenge was meeting Darren’s vision of visual fury,” Snow says. “From the start, he said, ‘I don’t want to make your father’s Bible movie. I want to reinvent the Bible movie for the modern audience.’ He didn’t want Noah on a boat with two giraffes sticking out the back. He wanted to tweak the world, which gives you a lot of room to get creative.”
For Noah, Aronofsky and Snow combed over dozens of religious paintings to get a sense of the iconography of the period. “It’s not like other special effects, because most people already have their own visions of what things should look like,” Snow says. Religious-themed films require “an integration of faith you don’t have to worry about in other movies.”
So Snow began by establishing a historical foundation from which audiences could leap, employing sets so large they would have made Cecil B. DeMille proud. Noah’s ark, for instance, ran more than 70 feet long and stood three stories high. “It gave us an anchor,” Snow says. “To give it that huge scale, you could take real, physical sets and extend it with computer graphics.” Of which there is a deluge: more than 1,000 scenes with digital effects, including pairing 13,800 animals (many of them imaginary). Snow worked with Industrial Light & Magic, which helped create Noah’s Walkers—fallen CGI angels formed from cooling lava. To make the creatures’ movements realistic, Snow and Aronofsky studied footage of real ballet dancers from the director’s Oscar-winning drama Black Swan.
Snow and ILM also teamed for the movie’s requisite-but-critical water scenes. “We created this great effect of geysers from the ground shooting water that meets rain falling to Earth,” says Snow, currently overseeing special effects on the Avengers sequel. “That’s the thrill: to create something you’ve never done, or something people have never seen.”
If Noah leans to the fantastic, Exodus tilts toward the factual. Visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang says he wanted to capture the grand scale of the adventures of Moses. But “the main thing is to be true to the historic period,” he says. “No one really knows what Egypt in 1300 B.C. looked like. So you have to imagine what existing architecture would be like, and hopefully (the film) strikes a little subconscious chord inside you, that you know this.”
Audiences will certainly know the disasters that strike Egypt in Exodus, which wonders whether the Bible’s greatest tales were borne of very real causes. Could the Red Sea have been parted by a tsunami’s receding tides? The plagues by an ecological infestation?
“Ridley wanted to convey the sense that everything could be natural phenomenon, like an eclipse or tsunami,” Chiang says. “Not just someone waving a stick at the sea.”
Which meant the crew had to create its own natural disasters, such as having a casting call for 400 frogs that would be spread on set, then embellished through CGI to make them number in the tens of thousands.
“What I discovered is if you put 400 frogs on the ground, it actually looks like nothing,” Chiang says. “But it gave us a live model to digitally create frogs that would make up a surge several feet thick.”
Still, Chiang says, 400 frogs looks a lot more daunting when you’re trying to corral them. “In between every take, we had to pick up and return every frog,” says Chiang, who’s also been VFX supervisor on such films as Godzilla and The Bourne Ultimatum. “So the animal wranglers, camera crews, Ridley, everyone spent hours picking up frogs.”
Chiang, too, believes in the physical component of visual effects, namely sizable sets that “lead the eye to a much bigger set” on green screen. The film’s main square, which features a Ramses statue and a gallows pole, extended more than 200 square yards. The goal, Chiang says, was to express not only the grandeur of the Egyptian square, but the immensity of the problem the city faced.
Chiang says one of his primary objectives was to convey the economic trials looming over the Egyptians. “We wanted to give justice to what was, essentially, an immense slave problem,” he says. “You have 400,000 slaves building cities. We had to give a sense of the scale of that.”
But such are the demands of today’s visual effects, where spectacle often comes from the ordinary. Like frogs. “To see a giant robot is no longer special, it’s the norm,” Chiang says. “Seeing a building collapse isn’t special. But we have a chance to convey the world of Cleopatra and the Ten Commandments in a way that hasn’t been seen. So you have to check everything. Not only for scale and grandeur. To find that special effect in the simplest of things.”