Tuesday night, the Visual Effects Society will honor director Ang Lee with its Visionary Award at the 11th annual VES Awards at the Beverly Hilton. It's an apt tribute, given the tremendous tech accomplishments of "Life of Pi" as both a groundbreaking 3-D experience and for the riveting performance of Rhythm & Hues' CG Bengal tiger, Richard Parker. In fact, "Life of Pi" has turned out to be this year's "Hugo" in terms of Oscar craft prestige (while also nabbing a best picture nomination for good measure): it's the frontrunner for both the VFX and cinematography Oscars.
My initial reaction to seeing "Life of Pi" was to call it the "2001" of 3-D movies in the way it explores space dimensionally. Lee found new ways to be 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.
"Six to nine months before seeing 'Avatar,' I had this dream about doing it in 3-D [using the Cameron | Pace stereo rig and the Arri Alexa camera]," Lee recalls. "I thought it was a pretty impossible movie to make, but I did have an idea for the ocean part. If I could have the audience have a taste of awe and something very unusual and spiritual, then it would be worth it."
Pi's journey about God, faith, and survival became a four-year journey for Lee, who's gotten closer in touch with his own spirituality and has become a more abstract director. Indeed, according to Lee, the use of 3-D became a visual metaphor for Pi itself. "I think basically it's about why we exist. Story has meaning but where's God in the abstract sense? What is your relationship with God with your inner self and that tiger?"
Lee claims the volume and depth 3-D gives to the face is a language by itself. He noticed when viewing 2-D and 3-D side by side that he had to reduce the actions of his young and inexperienced actor, Suraj Sharma. His acting needed to be toned down and more subtle (he instructed him to watch the neo-realist masterpiece, "The Bicycle Thieves"). "The 3-D picks up so much more information and sometimes in a close-up you almost want them to act with their thoughts. I think that's a great advantage dramatically."
And while Richard Parker was a great photorealistic feat (Rhythm & Hues' greatest technical challenge was created a new skin simulation system), Lee greatest concern was not anthropomorphizing the tiger. "We used a real tiger to raise the standard and also when we couldn't make the shot we shot tons of references so we were copying the tiger very carefully to make sure that he behaved like a real tiger," Lee says. "But it was quite a compliment when the Indian government was concerned that we were harming a real tiger and Rhythm & Hues had to show them what we did with the animation to assure them."
However, it was the water that was the most daunting part of the production, particularly in 3-D because of the polarization. Then again, the upside was invaluable: it provided the most immersive 3-D potential. "I did it for practical reasons: I didn't have a big movie star and water has to be really effective, it has to be a character by itself, very expressive and it reflects Pi's moods on his lonely journey and you have to externalize his internal feelings. We really went way out, creating a new wave tank in Taiwan with a team of experts that's elongated, and we showed different patterns and wave lengths and sizes of waves, dissolving from one shot to another so we could keep the shape without having the water bounce back from the wall. It was hair-raising for a long while because this had never been done before."
Some of Lee's favorite moments are still shots of the water as a mirror when the golden sunlight refracts on it. He calls it God's point of view because you miniaturize a lot of the separation from the two lenses and it's very humbling. Combined with over the shoulder shots, you get closer to Pi through his point of view. Other times, Lee pulls Pi back out of the screen toward us so we're on his side psychologically.
I asked Lee what he thought of ILM's brilliantly photoreal Hulk in the Oscar-contending "The Avengers," given that he experimented with the Marvel superhero at ILM in the 2003 movie, "The Hulk," which was criticized for being too cartoony. "The Hulk was the most fun thing in the whole movie," the director admits. "Maybe I gave too much thought about the green creature. Right now, the comic book movie has become a genre after 'Spider-Man.' When I was making it, I don't think it was a genre yet. I treated it like a psychological drama. When it came out, it wasn't perceived very well but I had a blast making that movie."
In assessing the VFX Oscar race, though, "Pi's" greatest competition might actually come from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," considering how Weta Digital retooled the incredible Gollum from the inside out and integrated CG Trolls live on stage with the other actors using the simulcam technique developed for "Avatar." In addition, Weta developed a new slave motion control system to handle forced perspective more dynamically in 3-D when shooting Gandalf with the more diminutive Middle-earth characters.
Then there's "Prometheus," which contains great aliens (also from Weta) along with planet environments, space shots, and space ships from MPC, as well the surprising entry, "Snow White and the Huntsman," which benefitted from Rhythm & Hues' Miyazaki-inspired Stag and The Mill's fluid sim work on the Mirror Man.
Still, "Pi" has history on its side in terms of being a best picture nominee (witness "Hugo," "Avatar" and "Lord of the Rings"), which gives it a great advantage for winning the VFX Oscar. Thus, the story of Pi and Richard Parker is all about drama and emotion, and when you can summon that kind of performance from a CG tiger on golden-lit, ethereal water, that's hard to beat.