ILM’s “Noah” & the Making of V7’s Animated Growth

When Industrial Light and Magic approached us about growing a small sapling into a massive forest for a key scene in the film Noah, needless to say, we were excited to help bring this vision to life. We were especially thrilled that this collaboration ultimately led to the development of the new Animated Growth feature, now available to users of SpeedTree® Cinema 7.

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We recently asked Jerome Platteaux, Digital Environments Artist at ILM, to offer his views on how this collaboration led to the development of a dramatic scene in Noah. Jerome shared some of the backstory behind this visualization of a mystical seed growing into a large, mature forest within a matter of seconds . . .

“Darren Aronofsky had filmed plates for the forest growth sequence on Long Island, New York. Those plates represented the wider environment where we had to integrate our digital forest. Darren was very specific on how the forest should grow. It had to follow a particular path at a defined rate. He also wanted all the trees to grow at different speeds. Some were fast and jittery while others were slow and smooth. It was all about variations.”

Platteaux explained why he initially turned to IDV and SpeedTree to help realize Aronofsky’s ambitious vision for this scene…

“SpeedTree has been successfully used on a number of projects here at ILM. I personally used it in creating the red forest on ‘Star Trek Into Darkness.’ We knew we could create photorealistic trees with SpeedTree, so instead of reinventing the wheel in another package, or spending a huge amount of development time, we decided to use SpeedTree and build on top of our past experience. It was this thinking that guided us to the collaboration with IDV on the development of tools to animate the growth of the trees directly within the software itself.”

Our development and collaboration process moved ahead rapidly, according to Platteaux . . .

“After an initial meeting where we explained what was needed to accomplish the growing forest shot on ‘Noah,’ IDV’s development team came back to us with a prototype fairly quickly.

I was sending feedback every couple of days and IDV would follow up by sending an updated version of SpeedTree with new features and extra bells and whistles implemented. For instance, I needed to check the look of the animation for our high-resolution trees, so I asked if they could create a movie exporter from the animation tab and a week later it was an option. The IDV team was very responsive and it was a great collaboration which allowed us to work more efficiently.”

Platteaux also commented on the challenge of rendering dozens of trees with wind and varied growth speeds for each tree . . .

“The pipeline looked incredibly complex, but in actuality it was a succession of simple tasks. Once the methodology was in place and we had settled on a look, I spent most of my time adjusting the speed of the forest expansion and working on the animation of the individual trees. This is what was particularly heavy on disk space. For instance, some of our trees comprised up to two millions polygons. For the render, I wrote a script that, on the fly, would send an empty scene to the farm to create the forest, while intelligently optimizing and populating each frame with trees.

I remember there was a point when we wanted to add wind to the trees; I wondered if it would be too much to ask. A short time later I received a reply that simply said, ‘Will do’– That was a big relief.”

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This unique collaboration with ILM led to development of the Animated Growth feature, which now allows any SpeedTree Cinema 7 user to animate rapidly growing foliage for projects both large and small. We’ve already seen this new feature used for the small screen by Digital Domain and Ingenuity Engine.

We’re grateful to ILM for inspiring the development of a powerful new animation tool and thrilled that SpeedTree made a key contribution to such a memorable scene in Noah. As Jerome Platteaux points out . . .

“A 100 year old tree growing from sapling to full size in 3 seconds obviously would have been impossible to film as a time lapse effect given our production schedule, so SpeedTree was a key piece of software in allowing us to realize Darren’s vision.”

All images © Copyright 2014 Paramount Pictures. Courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic.