‘Evan Almighty’ production designer Linda DeScenna: I built the ark


“Evan Almighty,” a sequel of sorts to the 2003 hit film, “Bruce Almighty,” is a comic updating of the biblical story. In it, God (Morgan Freeman, reprising his role) orders newly elected U.S. Rep. Evan Baxter (Steve Carell) to build an ark and fill it with animals.”

Director Tom Shadyac wanted the ark to be as biblically authentic as possible, within the strictures of the film’s budget and shooting schedule. The Book of Genesis describes the ark as 300 cubits long (approximately 450 feet), 50 cubits wide (about 75 feet) and 30 cubits high (45 feet). It consisted of three decks, with a large door/ramp on one side of the hull, through which people and animals boarded the boat.

“We actually only built half an ark,” said Linda DeScenna, the film’s production designer. “While the second and third levels of the ark were added digitally … we built [a good part] of the bottom portion, from the ground up to the first deck. We built a 220-foot section of the hull to the right of the ramp [i.e., toward the ship’s bow]. The bow itself was constructed of Styrofoam.”

“The bow was not a computer-generated image,” she said. “It took four days to move all the foam sections into place. To the left of the ramp we built out only 15 feet. They added the rest of the hull — all the way to the stern — in the computer.”

The ark was erected — using cedar instead of the “gopher wood” mentioned in the Bible — on a parcel of land that borders Virginia’s magnificent Shenandoah National Park. Its final dimensions were 260 feet long, 80 feet wide and 59 feet high, although it looks almost twice that size on screen, thanks to the magic of digital technology.

Interiors of the ark, as well as scenes that took place on its deck, were filmed on three soundstages at Universal Pictures. But the exterior construction was all done in Virginia. Obviously, it had to mirror the story line on a quotidian basis. The camera would roll as the film’s characters “built” the ark using hollow, lightweight pieces of wood. After filming wrapped each day, the construction crew would replace the hollow boards with steel-reinforced pieces of wood.

DeScenna praises the production’s “amazing” construction, art and visual effects departments. They didn’t get the go-ahead to start building the sets until mid-February, yet everything was ready by the film’s April start date. And that’s nothing short of miraculous.

Jean Oppenheimer writes for American Cinematographer magazine, The New York Times Syndicate and the New Times Corp., as well as serving as a film critic on “Film Week” on KPCC-FM. 89.3.