Don't be surprised if Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is right up there competing for the VFX Oscar with "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" and all the other prestigious front runners. It's that good. In fact, Richard Parker, the integral tiger, is arguably the best photorealistic CG animal ever created. What a performance: the way he interacts with Suraj Sharma's Pi in such close proximity on a lifeboat. The tiger exhibits such believable expression and nuance; he uses the space underneath the tarp first as shelter and then to observe and control his turf. It's truly an amazing character arc, bolstered by the most spiritual and dimensional use of 3-D yet, which only enhances its Oscar chances. (See VFX featurette on creating Richard Parker below.)
Credit Rhythm & Hues, which masterfully surpasses the regal Aslan lion from "The Chronicles of Narnia." But first the director had to be convinced that a CG animal would work in 3-D, so he asked Rhythm & Hues to make a simple render test of Aslan without sweetening the animation. "He wanted to know if Aslan would be more or less real in 3-D," suggests Bill Westenhofer, visual effects supervisor at Rhythm & Hues. "We followed his instructions and it looked real — the 3-D gave it a little more presence and you could see more detail and it helped the believability."
But then having a real tiger for reference makes all the difference. And once Lee caught a glimpse of trainer Terry Le Portier's ornery King, he knew he'd found his Richard Parker. "I had conversations with Ang about using a real tiger," Westenhofer continues. "I wanted to set the bar where there was no way we could cheat. I saw the wisdom of that when we were building the model of the CG tiger during pre-production and ran some tests. I think if we didn't have the real one to hold our feet to the fire it wouldn't have been as good.
"The other real advantage is that there is no way we would've ever gotten the reference that we had on set with us. One day one we took one of the lifeboats and put it on a gimbal in the tiger compound and put the blue screens up right away. We even put a fake camera they could rehearse with. All it took to film was to replace the camera with a real one."
Yet even with the best of intentions it's hard not to anthropomorphize the animation. It's too tempting to hold the tiger's gaze longer than necessary, for instance. Then you lose some of the essential animal qualities. But with so much reference at their disposal, Westenhofer and his animation team usually found something representative to convey. Still, nearly 90% of the tiger is CG in "Life of Pi."
"Certainly you'd have some happy accidents with the tiger making a twitch that you might not have thought of, but it kept us honest with the performance," he continues. "From a technological standpoint, the biggest change to our animation system was the skin simulation. Tigers are really a solid mass with loose skin hanging off it. They've got muscle that you can see coming through but they've got a lot of drapery of this loose skin hanging on top, so we had to make a multi-pass skin solve that first would stick to the muscles and slide over that and then another skin element would hang from that.
"I would say, though, that for animation it was more performance improvements. Even after getting approval on a shot from Ang, we'd still work another two or three weeks on the tiniest little nuances. We could see the pinky toe fire rotating his hand and you could feel the tension go up through the arm and passing up through the shoulder and film him rolling over just as he shifts. Ang trusted us. He'd see it as a render, but it was important to get that approval first so we didn't spend two weeks working on nuances that get washed away by him saying the tiger's gotta get up a lot earlier."
Lee's mantra was that he wanted the shot to look like he was seeing it for the first time. However, sometimes the director's instructions were overly enigmatic. For example, he would tell Westenhofer that he wanted the clouds to be melancholy, and it would be up to the supervisor to interpret what that meant. Lee's also demanded that the water serve as a character, which was code for the water and skies setting the mood for each scene.
Therefore, getting the water just right was also essential, since most of the movie takes place on water. "We spent about as much time working on the water tools as we did building the tiger," Westenhofer admits. "We would enhance the ocean to get what Ang wanted by increasing the swells or some event in the background. Then we'd marry the fine details together with little wind ripples. The ability to put wind patterns in with the fluid dynamic system was time consuming."
As with everything else on "Life of Pi," the extra effort enhances the believability of the ordeal, no matter how fantastical it seems.