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A crowd of computer-generated animals line up to board the ark in the movie Noah.


No Real Animals Aboard Hollywood Noah's Ark

Are we at a tipping point in the use of wildlife in the movies?

One of the requisite qualities for any director undertaking the epic Old Testament tale of Noah's ark—and burning through $120 million of studio money in the process—is a God complex. In Noah, which opens nationwide March 28, director Darren Aronofsky actually revises God's creations.

According to the Book of Genesis, the God of Abraham commanded that Noah's ark be filled with "two of every kind" of animal, bird, and creature that moves along the ground. But Aronofsky had a different idea about how the animals boarding the ark two by two should look. He created his own computer-generated imagery (CGI) of the animal kingdom, featuring creatures "slightly tweaked" so they don't resemble anything alive in the jungle today.

To be fair, there is nothing in the Ten Commandments—either Moses' or Cecil B. DeMille's—that says: Thou shalt not tweak. But Aronofsky's decision to create a wild kingdom all his own, then destroy it, may represent a tipping point in the way animals are used in movies and television. For reasons both political and practical, there are no live lions or tigers or bears in this Hollywood version of Noah's ark. Great and small, every animal in this picture—with the exception of some doves, a raven, and Russell Crowe, who plays the 600-year-old skipper of the ark—is the creation of a CGI artist at Industrial Light & Magic, a visual effects company.

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Chance, a former pet, worked with Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, prompting PETA to create a petition that garnered 40,000 signatures.

The Pitfalls of Using Live Animals

"Politically it's not a great thing to work with live animals and that's becoming more apparent to people as time goes by," Aronofsky explained in an interview with the quarterly journal of the Directors Guild of America. The politics of using animal actors grew much more complicated following an expose in the Hollywood Reporter last November, in which an intercepted e-mail from the American Humane Association monitor assigned to the Life of Pi set gave the impression that one of the Bengal tigers appearing in the film nearly drowned while shooting a scene in a huge water tank. The article quoted the AHA representative's admission that, instead of protecting the tiger, she attempted to cover up the incident.

But the AHA denied the Hollywood Reporter's charges and awarded Pi its coveted seal of approval. "The animal did not nearly drown," says Karen Rosa, senior adviser for the American Humane Association film and TV unit in Los Angeles. "There were safety precautions in place, and the animal was pulled out of the water unharmed."

The incident was the second recent blow to the credibility of the Humane Association, which was appointed guardian of animal actors by the Screen Actors Guild after two horses were pushed over a cliff to their deaths on the 1939 western Jesse James. The organization was also criticized last year for allegedly employing an on-set monitor who had no primate experience to oversee Leonardo DiCaprio's dance scene with a chimpanzee in The Wolf of Wall Street.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) rebuked DiCaprio for his movie monkey business and mobilized members to produce 40,000 signatures on a petition taking the actor to task for working with Chance, a 4-year-old chimpanzee. Chance was prepared for his star turn by the Rosaire family of Sarasota, Florida, which has trained circus animals for generations. (A photograph of Chance is featured in National Geographic's April cover story about exotic pets.)

"What's the line where use becomes abuse?" asks author Peter Laufer, whose book No Animals Were Harmed borrows the AHA's sought-after certification slogan. "And what's a wild animal? Here's a chimpanzee that's captive bred for sale. Is that a wild animal, or something else?"

Another reason film directors may choose to avoid working with live animals is that protecting the welfare of the wild animals on a film or TV set can be a time-consuming, and expensive, undertaking. "Technically, it would have been extremely difficult," Aronofsky told the Directors Guild. Animal actors cannot be counted on to perform the same scene over and over again, so an entire menagerie of look-alikes frequently is needed for a single movie.

To make Life of Pi, the filmmakers brought in four Bengal tigers, and finally settled on a 7-year-old tiger named King as the "reference" animal for his computerized counterpart. "They're very moody," says director Carroll Ballard, who has worked extensively with wild animals in his films, including four cheetahs for his 2005 film, Duma. "They get tired doing the same thing after a while, so you bring out another one."

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Some of the shots of the realistic CGI tiger in Life of Pi took six months to create. But having a boy in a lifeboat with a live tiger—even a well-trained one—wasn't an option.

When CGI Rivals the Real Thing

Computer-generated animals have come a long way from the low-res petting zoos of early computer programs to the pixel-perfect renderings allowed by massive server farms. Upon seeing the computer-created tiger in Life of Pi, New York Times critic A. O. Scott purred at its vividness. "His eyes, his fur, the rippling of his muscles and the skeleton beneath his skin," Scott wrote, "all of it is so perfectly rendered that you will swear that Richard Parker is real."

Although creating computer-generated imagery sounds like a highly automated process, some of the tiger shots in Life of Pi took up to six months to create, according to director Ang Lee. That was necessary because having a boy in a lifeboat with a live tiger—even a well-trained one—wasn't an option.

Despite the move toward CGI wildlife, few people in Hollywood expect live animals to be completely replaced by digital ones, except in special circumstances, such as the cavalcade needed for Paramount's potential biblical blockbuster, Noah.

"Real animals have an emotional impact that absolutely cannot be replaced," says the AHA's Rosa. "We advocate the use of CGI because it's very good at mitigating jeopardy to animals. But it's costly, and filmmakers are still using it selectively. I don't think it's going to replace the Lassies or the Benjis of the world."

It certainly didn't replace the very real tiger that startled Zach Galifianakis's character—and the audience—in the 2009 comedy The Hangover. The big cat in the bathroom was such a ridiculous visual non sequitur that it made audiences laugh. "We lust after the real factor. We want to know that it could be dangerous," says Laufer. "It's an ego point: 'This film was made with a real tiger,' and that will be on the billboard."

Of course, as actors, some animals stink. "Highly trained animals tend to look a bit phony. They're usually trained with buzzers and bells, and they're always looking for the little goody," says director Ballard, who fired the trained wolves he initially hired for the Disney adventure film Never Cry Wolf. "I ended up replacing all the trained wolves with wild wolves, which we found in animal shelters after they had been hit by cars. Their acting was so much more natural. If you wanted them to howl, you just started howling."

That's why Ballard doesn't expect CGI to make wild animals extinct on movie sets anytime soon. "I think the new technology is great," he says, "but I also think whenever you want to have personality in an animal, you're going to want to have the real animal."

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