I watched Life of Pi at an afternoon show. Late into the night the images lingered — soul-filling, unshakeable and surreal. The sense of being one with the sea I felt through the 3-D glasses stayed on, strong. Brilliant cinematography and the power of Ang Lee’s direction sucked you into the frames and kept you there. In Life of Pi , Lee brings back that essential of cinema — the montage, he gives his audiences a ringside view of natural wonders — violent sea-storms juxtaposed with the deep calmness of the night sea. Choosing flawlessly what should get a third dimension, what should jump off the screen and what should stay put, Lee takes you into an immersive world of flora, fauna, flying fish, meerkats, lightning, thunder, crashing waves, rain, and calm. Alexis Rockman’s psychedelic paintings add to the digital imaging. Some of the ocean creatures are real, others “freaky biological fantasies” painted by him. Rockman used gouache on black paper. The art inspired the hallucinatory trip, the “tiger vision” in the movie. The art will be on display at SoHo in September, 2013.
The Life of Pi can be written in a short sentence: Shipwreck, boy adrift at sea on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for co-passenger. Both survive. But that’s the plot without the extraordinary use of technology. Remember, 3-D isn’t new for movies. Finding Nemo took us underwater, Rise of the Guardians embedded us in fearful clashes, Wreck it Ralph involved us in arcade games, Tintin had performance capture, but these were animated movies. Lee uses computer graphics imagery (CGI) to tell the story of real people.
Lee used eight soundstages in Taiwan to give life to Yann Martel’s book. He signed in actors known and unknown for the parts, but the one character that steals the show is the Bengal tiger Richard Parker — it is a computer-generated wonder.
Real tigers were used for a handful of scenes, but Richard Parker is mostly a digital creation, a remarkably realistic piece of computer animation that blends seamlessly into live action, its character and actions enhanced by the boy who had to do his part of engaging with the predator without the creature in front of him. The interaction is fearsome and hilarious. It is the best use of the features of 3-D. Yes, the 3-D effect seems unfinished and patchy at times, the size-proportion to perspective isn’t always perfect, but that is minor compared to the awesome world of visual wonders Lee creates.
The confidence to go ahead no doubt came from advances in CGI technology. But even with that, creating the Bengal tiger was painstaking work. “It’s still handcraft. There’s no button to push. The tiger here’s not a program to make an animal look real,” Lee said. “Every frame is a labor of love. Some shots took three months, some six months.” Initially, filmmakers brought four tigers and a hyena to the set for study and reference shots for computer images. A 7-year-old 450-pound Bengal tiger named King was their model for Richard Parker. The tiger took a year to create and looks so authentic that the filmmakers had to prove to the government that it was computer-generated and “getting it unhealthy was all our doing,” according to visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhoffer. “They wanted to know no tiger was harmed. It was actually a compliment.”
For the water shots, Lee oversaw the production of the largest self-generating wave tank ever designed and built for a movie. Built on the site of a former airport in his hometown of Taichung, Taiwan, the tank had a capacity of 1.7 million gallons. For Lee it was vital to have scenes shot in which he could control the elements and the waves. But he also wanted to show the ocean scenes without what he calls the “bathtub effect.” The 3-D equipment fogged up at night, the sinking of the boat took 77 days to perfect. Lee joked that he felt the same as Pi who cried to god when hit by the storm.