In "Noah," an epic cinematic depiction of the Biblical story, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky achieved something that not too long ago would've have impossible to convincingly convey on film: depicting the scope and diversity of the vast animal menagerie assembled by Noah to survive the world-spanning flood through the use of computer generated effects, without putting a single animal performer in harm's way.
As a result of the increasingly sophisticated visual effects, Aronofsky saw success creatively and commercially ("Noah" scored a colossal worldwide box office total of nearly $360 million) and now for his conscience and compassion: on Nov. 21 the Humane Society of the United States honors the filmmaker with its inaugural Human Filmmaker Award at its "To the Rescue! New York 2014" gala.
“When I started working on ‘Noah,’ an early question was how to express the vastness and complexity of the animal kingdom on the big screen," said Aronofsky, whose prior films include "Black Swan," "The Wrestler" with Mickey Rourke and "The Fountain" with Hugh Jackman. "It was quickly apparent that working with live animals would be dangerous for them. It was also morally ambiguous considering we were making a film about the first naturalist, Noah, who saved and cared for all the varied species on the planet."
"Luckily, CGI has evolved to a point where filmmakers can do almost anything and bring any creature to life," he added. "I was happy with the results, and I encourage other filmmakers to look at digital solutions before enlisting live animals.”
Earlier in the year in an interview with the Humane Society's magazine All Animals, Aronofsky also described the practical and creative challenges that would have been posed by using live animals on the production and how they intertwined with ethical issues. "It’s just a very unrealistic thing to do practically as well as not fitting my vision for the film," he said. "It’s just very hard to work with exotic animals. I did it on "The Fountain," and I didn’t know what was involved. We shot in Montreal, and the monkeys came across the country in cages by road. The conditions of how they traveled and their living conditions were pretty tough. I just remember being very disturbed by it."
CG technology, he says, provided a far more acceptable option, having advanced to a point where filmmakers could achieve the level of realism required to make the Biblical tale come vividly to life. "None of this was possible when we first started making movies," Aronfsky told All Animals. "I don't think there was one digital shot in my first two movies. We did some manipulations with early digital work, but it was just starting, so everything’s changed. I mean we were making films without cell phones when I began and just starting to cut digitally. Anything's possible now—that’s the amazing thing. And I think you move a lot quicker and a lot better in a digital universe."
"When we first heard about Noah prior to it going into production, we were of course very interested to find out a little bit more about the project, because the story of Noah's Ark is about animals," Michelle Cho, Vice President of the Los Angeles office for The Humane Society of the United States, tells NotImpossibleNow. "We contacted Darren's production company Protozoa just to learn a little bit more about it and much to our surprise they confirmed that they would not be using any exotic animal actors."
The organization would subsequently partner with the film's studio, Paramount Pictures, to actively promote the theatrical release, and soon zeroed in on Aronofsky as the type of forward-thinking filmmaker they wanted to honor for his efforts depicting animals in entertainment without endangering them. "Thankfully, we're living in this day and age has evolved to the point where filmmakers can do just about anything to bring a creature to life," says Cho. "And I think the box office results confirm that you can indeed have an incredibly successful film making animals a huge cornerstone in entertainment without ever harming a hair on their head."
"Darren has such a deep fondness and respect for the environment and all its inhabitants, including humans and animals, and I've learned so much from him in the short amount of time that I've spent with him," she adds. "It's so wonderful that a filmmaker of his caliber takes this kind of genuine interest and implements the protections deserved into all of his projects.
"We are celebrating our 60 anniversary this year and we are really putting a spotlight on people and projects who have propelled animal welfare into mainstream society," says Cho. "Meeting Darren and interviewing him and hearing from his own mouth why he made the moral decision not to use exotic animal actors was so moving to us that we couldn't think of anyone more deserving of an award like this. That led to us presenting him with the inaugural Humane Filmmaker Award."
Cho says the use of animals in entertainment has become one of the hottest of hot-button issues, facing not just the industry but society at large. "We're seeing an upward trend," she reveals. "We're seeing more and more technology being developed so we can move away from animal actors, and at the same time we're also seeing documentaries like "Blackfish" that are so powerful that the public is very much drawn toward learning about various species. I think that this is all happening at such a wonderful time in society, and we'll very soon see an increasing shift in eliminating the use of especially exotic animals from entertainment whatsoever."
"The best way to prevent way to prevent animals from being killed or injured on film or TV sets is to not use them at all," she adds. "Darren and so many others are now proving more and more that they can brave ways to tell stories about animals without even using them. Filmmakers have the opportunity to save money and provide greater artistic control. Things like CGI, animatronics, the use of stock footage, filming existing events, filming animals in their natural habitats are all terrific ways to keep animals involved in people's projects without hiring animal actors."
Photo Credit: All above images from Berlin, Rejkavik, Madrid and London premieres of Noah provided courtesy of Getty Images/Image.net