"Life of Pi" was like two journeys in one for cinematographer Claudio Miranda: an opportunity to expand the 3-D experience beyond what he achieved on "Tron Legacy," and to convey a soft golden hour magical feel that surpasses the otherworldly "Benjamin Button." The result certainly sets "Life of Pi" apart from the other best picture Oscar nominees: it's the "2001: A Space Odyssey" of 3-D movies.
"It's a movie about derailing you and making your own choices of what's real, and there are a lot of interesting, little weird things," Miranda suggests. "Ang [Lee] and I went swimming in the phosphorescent ocean to get inspired. I looked at paintings for the warm orange light on the ocean — surreal god moments. But not everything is pretty; I tried to break things up. The two storms at sea are different in tone with the last one more desaturated. And India was great to shoot in as well. My favorite scene is probably the candlelit [temple float festival] where the art department got more than 120,000 candles and we worked all night to scatter them around.
"'But Tron' is probably the reason I was on this movie. Even before 'Avatar,' Ang wanted to shoot this in 3-D and make this a new visual language. I wanted to push the 3-D in terms of I/O [interocular distance] and staging. There's something different when you're on the ocean: it's more immersive. And you can make the boat miniature to give you the feeling that this is a small boat in the ocean. I've always been a big 3-D fan, and I watched a ton of 3-D movies and learned some critical lessons from the bad ones."
What both Miranda and Lee learned was a revelation in the aesthetic opportunities of exploring space dimensionally. You can be more dramatically expressive as well as immersive, alternating shots that are deep and in front of the screen, while playing with multiple imagery and aspect ratios to overlap time and space. Invariably, we become more active participants with both subjective and objective points of view to choose from, sometimes even simultaneously. That's why Lee decided to shoot longer takes in both India and on the ocean with Pi (Suraj Sharma) and Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger.
But of course the ocean and sky were CG (a character unto itself), as was Richard Parker (a marvel of animation), thanks to the Oscar-nominated VFX from Rhythm & Hues. "I was there for two and a half months (at an abandoned airport in Taichung that was converted in a huge wave tank and stages) and had to serve many different lighting and wave conditions," Miranda continues. "Ang was into researching waves and identified the way the oceans rolled and how you'd try to get this big surge. I think we got like 10 different looks in that tank. Phosphorescence to moonlight to storm one to storm two to beautiful sunset to harsh top light to not always beautiful light. And all the different wave movements and those were the hardest. We were tuning the tank from the very beginning putting these little tetra pod wave breakers to stop echoes."
Miranda chose the Arri Alexa digital camera for "Life of Pi" because it was the best at capturing the crucial highlights of the ocean and it produced imagery that looked natural and film-like. He also used a Spydercam in combination with a large gimbal and rotator on top, especially for the Storm of God sequence in which Pi and Richard Parker hide under the lifeboat's canvas.
In fact, Miranda never saw the completely rendered Bengal tiger until preparing the DI in post-production. Thus, even though he worked with Rhythm & Hues on matching his intricate on set lighting, there was a certain amount of faith that Richard Parker would look and move believably. But he had to see the soul in his eyes before he knew for sure.
"The first thing I saw was the tiger under the canopy and I knew he looked great," the cinematographer affirms. "And I think the best CG tiger shot is when he sits on Pi's lap looking so emaciated. The boy says, 'We're dying, Richard Parker.' The lighting is almost banal — it's just calm and still. I love the sadness. In fact, India thought that we were hurting a real tiger and initially banned the movie. So Rhythm & Hues put together a little making of and sent it to the India commission and explained what they had done."
Next up for Miranda: Brad Bird's secretive sci-fi movie, "1952" (December 19, 2014), starring George Clooney. "It has these different places and the juxtaposition of a couple of them can be very interesting," he teases.
Another challenging cinematic journey we can look forward to shot by Miranda.
"Alone with a Tiger" clip: