Cinematographer Matthew Libatique Talks Ark and Arcs in ‘Noah’

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique Talks Ark and Arcs in 'Noah'
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique Talks Ark and Arcs 'Noah'

Darren Aronofsky has always been drawn to the mystical, and “Noah” is even ballsier than “Pi” or “The Fountain.” Of course, it’s divisive as environmental allegory and the conflict between religion and science. But I think it’s a powerful evocation of creation and destruction, love and beauty, and the difficulty of raising a family. Talk about survival and rebirth: It’s the ultimate road movie, according to cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who’s shot every Aronofsky movie but “The Wrestler” because of a temporary rift.

In terms of lighting, though, there can be no doubt that “Noah” is a gorgeous, if eccentric, work with its desert vistas and lush, geothermal forests (shot on film and mostly in Iceland). It’s extremely painterly.

“Darren and I have evolved visually and after ‘The Fountain’ he gravitated toward naturalism,” Libatique suggests. “We kept that motif with ‘Black Swan’ and now with ‘Noah.’ Each section is rooted in naturalism, including the fantastical elements. But I like to think that the CG elements in the film [including the deluge and the rock creatures known as The Watchers from Industrial Light & Magic] are motivated by the live-action and that the live-action is inspired by naturalism. I think that’s where it integrates well.”

But for the first time, Libatique had little reference material to draw on aesthetically. Sure, they studied “The Zohar” (the mystical Jewish commentary on creation known as “The Kabbalah”), and when it came to the crucial lighting of the Ark, he relied heavily on atmosphere and common sense.

“It was all motivated by what I was seeing in pre-production about how [the Ark] was being built. And I just focused on the naturalism — how does the light look like it was motivated by the furnace? I wanted to make sure narratively that people weren’t taken away by the look of the movie. I wanted the photography to sink in to all the technical aspects and I didn’t want it to stand out.

“It’s all about the relationship between the light and the dark and how you build contrast. The Ark was inherently dark, deep and cavernous so the faces would pop out. In other scenes when, for example, we get into the 100 days, and they start opening the ceiling so they could get air and they could see the sky, it graduates into something else and you see more of the Ark and their faces go into darkness more. And it’s getting a balance between the face and the background. 

“I shot tests and it’s so odd because it was such a simple approach to keep things natural. And I wasn’t striving for anything specific, look wise, but I think the film does have one. It’s something that happened by keeping each section atmospherically correct.”

The other big challenge was the battle sequence (shot night for day) during Hurricane Sandy in August in New York “The battle scene was lit with 17 32,000-watt balloons in the air rigged to 3 100-foot rain bars pouring rain down in these planting fields of Long Island.”

Libatique reveals that Aronofsky explored different points of view for the first time. For example, Ray Winstone’s Tubal-Cain nemesis is wicked yet pragmatic whereas Russell Crowe’s Noah starts out as compassionate and righteous but winds up going over the edge because of his survivor’s guilt. And for that, the lighting had to be more neutral to let the performances guide the scene.

“I’m very proud of him. I think he stepped out of his comfort zone to make the film and he’s capable of much more in the future. And I think it shows his maturation with the arcs of many characters instead of just one. And photographically I think the film works and it’s what Darren wanted.”

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