The American Society of Cinematographers

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Matthew Libatique, ASC reteams with director Darren Aronofsky on the Biblical drama Noah.

Photos by Niko Tavernise, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

In Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, gone is the plainly “righteous and whole-hearted” man who walked with God. As played by Russell Crowe, this Noah is haunted by nightmarish visions of the destruction of humanity. After deciphering his visions with the help of Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), Noah and his wife, Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and children begin construction on a massive ark in which they and others hope to survive the imminent flood. Meanwhile, the Watchers, a tribe led by Tubal Cain (Ray Winstone), are determined to survive judgment at all costs.

“What I liked about the script was its ambiguity,” observes Matthew Libatique, ASC, who also collaborated with Aronofsky on Pi (AC April ’98), Requiem for a Dream (AC Oct. ’00), The Fountain (AC Nov. ’06) and Black Swan (AC Dec. ’10). “I don’t know whether Noah is a hero or an anti-hero, and I think a lot of viewers will sympathize with Tubal Cain. Something about Cain speaks to who we are as humans.”

Libatique recently invited AC to the DI suite at Technicolor-PostWorks New York as he and colorist Tim Stipan put the final touches on Noah, and the cinematographer discussed the project during breaks from that work.

American Cinematographer: With the exception of The Wrestler, you’ve shot every one of Aronofsky’s features. What has changed, and what has stayed the same?

Matthew Libatique, ASC: I know I’m always going to stay true to how Darren works, which is largely single camera and with motivated camera moves. We were handheld on Noah, but it wasn’t like we were floating from character to character in a vérité style. I think we’ve matured as filmmakers and can focus on what’s important, which is subjectivity and storytelling. We don’t use zooms when we work together, and we used Zeiss Ultra Primes on this film because they have a lot of options in the range Darren likes to use. We mostly used the 24mm, the 50mm and the 85mm — something wide, medium and long.

A handheld camera seems like an unusual approach for an epic set in that era.

Libatique: Darren is very particular about the camera. He wants something very controlled that also moves fluidly and naturally. If the camera can move with the actor’s performance without a device like a crane or dolly, that’s what we do. Because we were going handheld, I wanted a lightweight camera, so I chose the Arri LT. I love it because it’s simple to use in the elements, which were, of course, extreme. We could be in 30-mph winds, 20°F or 70°F and not have to worry about electronics or cables.

What are some things that differentiate Noah from your other collaborations?

Libatique: Darren doesn’t usually work outside, so Iceland presented a strange situation for him because we had to worry about weather and light. We were fortunate in that there were a lot of opportunities for overcast light, which is very favorable for photographing faces. When we did have sunlight with more than one person in the scene, we tried to block to backlight the actors. As long as their faces were in a similar realm, I could match them using a polarizer to mitigate some of the sunshine when it popped out, or to create more reflectivity on a face when the sunlight disappeared. Another challenge was fighting the urge to make every image beautiful. The story begins in a land devoid of trees and water — a barren, otherworldly place. There was some moss, but depending on the light, it sometimes just looked like part of the ground, not necessarily a living thing.

What was your approach to lighting in general?

Libatique: I try to keep things as naturalistic as possible, so I don’t typically light day exteriors unless it’s something I feel I can control. Fighting nature to mimic nature is such a large undertaking. We were very fortunate to shoot in Iceland in July, when the sun would just hang at the horizon for four hours starting around 9 p.m. We were able to shoot a seven-shot scene when the light was low. Rarely do I get to assess a situation like that without feeling complete and utter panic! Even after the sun goes down, the sky never gets dark — it stays this deep blue. If we were artificially creating daylight, then I’d ask my gaffer, John Velez, to bounce the most powerful light sources we could find, 18K Arrimax HMIs, off the softest material we could find, unbleached muslin or UltraBounce. We would also use 4-by-4-foot pieces of milk Plexiglas as sun catchers to help bring out the actors’ eyes. Often, our lighting was simply handheld disks made of beadboard and covered with unbleached muslin. I found that this gave the passive return of light a color consistent with the surroundings.

What were some of the ways in which you used Iceland’s natural terrain to create the story’s environment?

Libatique: We started out not too far from the volcano that erupted, in the southeast part of the country, and then we spent some time in the north. The only thing that kept us from shooting everywhere in Iceland was that we had a company of 300 people to move around. The Watchers’ land is a combination of lava fields of different ages. We traveled to the north to shoot plates on young, scorched land, and then we shot our night-exterior scenes with principal talent in the older lava fields of the south. We did our one night exterior in Iceland, the scene in which Noah and his family are captured by the Watchers and put in a pit. Our pit was about 40 feet deep on one rock face and 20 feet deep on the other. We had a couple of 18Ks on Condors for separation, but we lit the scene predominantly with daylight-balanced Lumapanels [28 4-foot T8 fluorescent globes]. They were the only lights I could see working because I didn’t want to use a lot of hard backlight; I just needed some soft definition for the actors.  

Methuselah’s mountain and cave were also natural locations. In the film, the mountain is a symbol of life. It’s green and lush, and at its base are black gravel and decrepit lava. The cave was underground, and our production designer, Mark Friedberg, made it more accommodating for shooting by creating navigable walkways out of the rocks that were there. I knew we could work with natural light because there was a giant aperture in the roof of the cave. We put a 30-by-30 frame of Full Grid over it, and above that we had four Arrimax 18K Pars spaced out evenly to cover different angles.

How did you handle the transition from a barren landscape to a forest on the edge of the desert?

Libatique: Noah plants a seed from Eden that was given to him by Methuselah, and the very next morning, water starts gushing out of the ground in front of Methuselah’s mountain, and trees start popping up. We shot all the exterior growing material on a large plot of land at the Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay, Long Island. In addition to all the beautiful plants and trees, the location had a giant, open field that could accommodate the portion of the ark we built practically, which was about one-third of it.


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