Madurai boys talk about their experience of working in the Oscar winner Life of Pi

Madurai has had its share in this year’s Oscars. A group of animation and computer graphic artists who were involved in the making of Oscar winner Life of Pi, have done the city proud.

Life of Pi competed with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Marvel's The Avengers, Prometheus and Snow White and the Huntsman in the best visual effects category.

Working under the supervision of Bill Westenhofer and Erik Jan DeBoer, for the Rhythm & Hues Studio in Hyderabad, the team including Amarnath P.R., J. Arvind and J. Surendran Chinnakonda from Madurai recreated the tiger, boat and ocean through computer graphics.

“It was one of the toughest assignments we had,” says Amarnath, team leader and technical director, compositing. “Making the tiger look real was not easy by any means. Every single strand of hair had to be recreated and perfect,” he says.

Life of Pi presented challenges that included creating digital oceans, virtual environments and realizing incredible lead characters like Richard Parker, the magnificent digital tiger, all in stereo 3D. This task was undertaken by the company’s artists based in Los Angeles, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kuala Lumpur, Vancouver and Taiwan. “More than 300 of Rhythm & Hues digital artists were based in Asia and were involved in all stages of the production, from research and development along with stereo quality control, modelling, pre-lighting, texturing, background preparation/ rotoscopy, animation, cloth and fur simulation, water simulation, lighting and final compositing,” he says.

Amarnath led a team of 25 artists for almost a year in this project. “Being a 3D movie, Life of Pi was shot with two different cameras. Every department had to work twice as there were two different background footages, one for the left eye and the other for the right eye,” he says.

Their work became tedious as the stereo quality control department had to deal with the colour and orientation differences between the left and right footages.

“The quality control department’s job was to match the colour of one footage with the other. For a shot to be perfect in stereo, both the left and right cameras needed to output exactly the same image with a little offset only in the X axis. The main job was to align any mismatch,” he explains.

The task was quite daunting as it was one of the most photo-realistic shows undertaken by the studio and compositing a lot of shots was quite tedious. “The sea extensions were in particular very challenging,” says Amarnath. “The aim was to make the water look as realistic as possible. Blending the ocean created by computer graphics with the tank water in stereo was quite a harrowing task. It involved the artists checking every shot in 3D multiple times a day. Underwater sequences were again very tricky and the artists saw a lot of reference videos to study the movement of fishes, caustics on fish bodies at various depths, the detritus in water and refractions of sunlight,” he says.

Rhythm and Hues Studio is known for their works in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Mr Popper's Penguins and The Hunger Games, and it has also won two Oscars to its credit for The Golden Compass and Babe.

“There were almost 30 artists from Tamil Nadu who worked in this project from Hyderabad,” says T. Elam Parithi from Karaikudi.

A compositing technical director, Elam Parithi was part of the Rhythm and Hues team for Snow White and the Huntsman, The Golden Compass (2007) and Babe (1995).

“It is a great day for all the artists at Rhythm & Hues and a true testament of talent. It is a celebration for the entire visual effects industry as well,” says Amarnath.

THE TEAM: Members hailing from Tamil Nadu who worked in Life of Pi and Snow White and the Huntsman:

N. Mukesh Kumar (Chennai), T. Elam Parithi (Karaikudi), V. Kamalakkannan (Pattukottai), D. Venuprasath (Dharmapuri), Amarnath P.R. (Madurai), S.Radhakrishnan (Pondicherry), G. Ginesh (Kanchipuram), S. Srikanth (Salem), R. Siddharth (Aathoor), M Karthick (Aranthangi), B. Arun (Chennai), A. Charles (Chennai), S. Vinoth Kumar (Chennai), A.Sivakumar (Sivakasi), A. KishoreKumar (Pudukkottai), R.Srinivasan (Tiruttani), T. Avish (Chennai), J. Rajeev (Thoothukudi), J. Aravind (Madruai), S. Sibi Chakravarthi (Kumarapalayam), J.Surendran Chinnakonda (Madurai), A.Mohammed Anuz (Paramakudi), A. Balaji (Kumbakonam), S. Senthil Velan (Chennai), K.Mustafa Jaheed (Erode), N.Naven kumar Chinnathadagam (Coimbatore), R. Yogaraj (Neyveli).

THE WORK FLOW: First the footage is scanned and then passed as a background plate. Then the BG plate is passed to the tracking department. (They will do the camera tracking and will do the match move for particular objects or characters). The background and preparation department will do the cleaning up of unwanted elements in the shot. Intensive rotoscopy for set extensions and character integration is done in the tank area. Simultaneously, animators will work on to create the tiger model. Then secondary animation is done. The lighting department will use the information and match the proper light environment to that of the tiger. And they also add the tiger’s texture from the texture department. Finally, the compositing department matches all the computer graphic elements with the real scanned footage to achieve photo realistic frame. They also combine the Ocean special effects elements with the tank water.