As final Oscar ballots are cast–the deadline is February 19 at 5 pm–Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” has turned out to be a stronger contender (and box office juggernaut, at close to $600 million worldwide) than many had expected. Nominated for eleven Oscars, among the categories the movie is favored to win are best director, cinematography, visual effects and editing. Lee has won one Oscar to Steven Spielberg’s two; they are the only two directors nominated for both the DGA and Oscar. With “Argo”‘s Ben Affleck out of the director Oscar race, Lee could beat Spielberg, mainly because “Pi” has been winning more advance awards and the Taiwan-born filmmaker is so respected for his range of skills. (See Lee on Nightline below and our interview, here.)
Some weeks back I moderated a lively DGA panel with cinematographer Claudio Miranda (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), producer David Womark, VFX animator and supervisor Erik Jan De Boer, visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer (of beleaguered Rhythm & Hues) and Lee’s long-time editor Tim Squyres.
Anne Thompson: 3-D was an important component on this movie. How much was 3-D was part of your work in the past and what challenges did it present here?
David Womark: You’re a director and you have this book to adapt that has all these complexities–water, animals, first time actor who had to lose weight to do the movie, filming in Taiwan–all these challenges. It’s been a four year journey for Ang and a two or three year journey for most of us up here. That’s what made the process so special–he generated that. He took the risk himself.
Claudio Miranda: I shot “Tron,” so I had a little 3-D experience. Even on that movie, we had to find out what makes good 3-D, what makes bad 3-D. I took those rules and played around with them, and some of those rules may work for some but not all things. I shot some test footage off the Venice pier to look at the ocean in 3-D, and you felt when you were looking at it that it wasn’t just this thing sitting on the screen. I felt like it was water, and it was just amazing. Even the weather, getting the storm in it–and I’ve seen this movie in 3-D and 2-D. One expert started playing with the 3-D in the previz (previsualization), and at some point he called us all into the room. He had lined up a shot in 3-D that was an over-shoulder of Pi in the raft, and in the background there was the lifeboat with the tiger. He had taken Pi and the raft and pulled them a little bit out of the screen, and he turns to us in the room and goes, two for one. We all kind of looked at each other and didn’t get exactly what he was saying. And he said, ‘well, I have an over-the-shoulder shot, but I also have a new kind of POV because Pi’s in the foreground and in focus.’ And I think Ang dealt with the 3-D in that kind of abstract way. So a lot of the decisions that were made with the 3-D, he thought of it not just technically, but emotionally.
Tim Squyres: We decided very early on–I’d done a lot of films in 2-D but none in 3-D before–that in cutting the film, we would just do everything in 3-D. Usually, when you edit, you’re looking at your Avid and wondering what it’s going to look like on the big screen, and you have a lot of experience doing that. But since we’d done 3-D, we didn’t want to cut it in 3-D and imagine the 2-D. So we cut it, from the first day of assembly, only ever working in 3-D. In fact, our cutting room in New York, where we worked for about 10 months, we had a good size 11.5 inch screen with a good sound system, and that’s what I edited on. We cut it thinking, this was a 3-D movie. I didn’t even see it in 2-D– I still don’t think I’ve ever seen it in 2D!
Bill Westenhofer: It all started when Ang came to us literally in week one and said, ‘here’s the budget, there’s a digital character, will it look less real in 3-D’? And we all thought, ‘that’s a great question–we have no idea.’ So we went back and took a shot from the first ‘Narnia’ of the lion, and we rendered it in two ways. And without improving any detail whatsoever, it actually gave more presence, it looked more real. From the visual effects standpoint in 3-D, you have to spend a lot more time. All the tricks you’re used to doing of shooting elements and putting splashes from generic shots, you can’t do anymore, because it has to be perfectly filmed in the right place. You have to do a lot of things with old CGI simulations that you wouldn’t do otherwise. Blue screens have to be perfect–if the edges are just a little off, you see this weird squishing on the sides. So it does take a lot of extra time in 3-D.
AT: But it also takes a lot more juice, doesn’t it? Is there some “Citizen Kane” warehouse where all of this computing happens?
BW: In fact, thanks to Mr. Lee, we developed on this film something called Cave which, in Taiwan, he was filming with just that. It’s a huge render farm. We needed that because, when our digital supervisor added up how many hours we would have needed had a single computer rendered the whole thing, it would have taken 1,683 years to do this render.
AT: You also had some kind of global cloud?
BW: Yeah. Cave stands for Cloud Computing for Animation in Visual Effects, and it’s basically a render farm shared by our offices. We have one in Los Angeles, two in India, one in Vancouver and another one opening in Taiwan. We now all share those same render resources. From a logistics standpoint, one of the hardest things is having enough computing power and air-conditioning and all that. Having this really opens up what we can do with the computing resources.
AT: The animation on this with Richard Parker and the zebra and the orangutan are really amazing. How many animals did you have to animate in 3-D?
Erik Jan De Boer: It’s something like 16-18 species that we animated. I think in total we did five main hero/keyframe animals for the project. From a 3-D point of view, if it looks good in the left eye, it also looks good in the right eye. So besides the posing and those obvious staging issues, the 3-D wasn’t really a complication for animation except for those shots where you had a lot of contact with the live-action. So when the tiger ends up on Pi’s lap, we had done a shot like that before, but the 3-D made it a lot trickier, because all those little tricks you can do don’t work.
AT: Well, tell us exactly how you did that shot.
EDB: I don’t know if I can say—it takes so much away from it. I think they were shot on a dry boat in a parking lot in Taiwan against a blue screen. And I wasn’t there. I think I was shooting live-action footage of the tigers.
BW: What we should mention to everybody is that when they see the tiger in the movie, under 10 percent of the shots are live-action. Eighty-four percent of the tiger is digital, 84 percent of the rain is digital, all of the orangutan.
AT: So the real tiger shots would be in the boat from a fair distance with an oar in between?
BW: The whole discussion of using a real tiger was actually thoroughly considered. Because it does make our work more challenging. But actually it was that very reason that we decided to push what we did with it. Selfishly, I wanted to set the bar as high as possible so that there was no way anyone was cheating. We pushed our artists to deliver something as green-screen as we’d ever gotten before. And also, having a real tiger there gave us incredible access for reference, and it’s that attention to detail which really made a difference in how the tiger is in the film.
DW: And it helped us in terms of efficiency, which is strange. In our case, the fishing scene had all these references that could give Ang and the team something to work on.
CM: The other thing is, for instance, in the scene where he trains the tiger with the stick, the way we shot that was we had a general idea what was going to happen. But first they shot the tiger—there’s 10 real tiger shots in that scene. That scene is about half real/half CG. So we would shoot it with the real tigers, and the real tigers did stuff that we never would have anticipated. There’s that shot where the tiger’s sharpening its claws on the bench. That wasn’t scripted–that’s just something the tiger did. I sat with the tiger trainer and he explained that that’s a nervous tiger saying, ‘see, I’m not nervous.’ That kind of behavior was very interesting, so we shot that first, planned it all, and then, three weeks later, shot it in CG.
DW: That was one of the real advantages–having a tiger trainer there. Our trainer had worked with tigers for 30 years, and he had an insight into their thought processes and manners that we consulted him on. A lot of details–the tiger trying to prove he’s not scared, for instance–came from him. In the shot when Pi pulls the tiger into his lap, he told us that while tigers are aggressive animals, he had an experience with one that was older and sick, and said that in that moment, on her deathbed, she craved comfort and nuzzling.
AT: This movie is one of the most beautiful movies ever made. It’s just stunningly gorgeous and beautiful. Some of it is your cinematography, some of it is the incredible production design, some of it is done in the digital world. Could you give me a sense of how you worked to balance and blend what you did and what the vusual effects artists did–some of the shots that came from you and were enhanced by them?
CM: In a shot like the golden shot, that has a little bit of heightened reality as far as lighting, Bill and I talked a lot. We talked about skies and looked at pictures, and when I started the day, Ang says, ‘what time is it?’ And I say, ‘it’s six o’clock in the morning,’ and we’d talk about what time it was and how it should feel. There’s different things in the film that are very beautiful–the golden tone is very beautiful. It’s also a beautiful shot because of the flatness of Richard Parker and Pi. It’s not spectacular lighting, but there’s something really fantastic about how new it is.
AT: So in the scene with the pool, where you have the father swimming in the pool and it beautifully matches the sky, how did you get that shot? It’s stunning.
CM: Ang wanted to reshoot it. [Laugher]
AT: That’s another question. How demanding a taskmaster was Ang Lee?
DW: When we started doing research with the book, we stumbled upon this Hitchcock movie, “Lifeboat.” And I found a documentary with Hitchcock talking about it and showed it to Ang, and it was basically Hitchcock saying,’ I’ve got a lifeboat, black and white film, eight people–I’m fucked.’ And Ang really took that to heart. He went through it and really knew what was going on, so when we all arrived he would say, ‘the wind is 22 miles an hour, it’s 3:30 in the afternoon.’ Ang thought through a lot of these broad strokes in previz to make sure you felt the passage of time in the journey. He’s very detailed.
AT: What wcomplicated about doing that shot?
CM: It was complicated because of the water elements. It was hard, but it was probably harder for Bill than me.
BW: Ang wanted this crystal clear water and the feeling that he’s swimming through sky. We had a special tank built and all these filters, and we shot the thing, but it wasn’t quite as clear as he wanted it. I knew when he said he wanted him to be swimming through sky that we had to take the surface of the water and replace it with a cloudscape.
AT: So what is the most difficult, challenging visual effects problem? Is it the ship going down, is it the thousands of flying fish, is it the whale?
BW: Technically the hardest was the tiger in the boat, and the storm with all the water work. All of them had significant challenges–the whole ocean sequence, doing a full ocean simulation, that can take weeks to do. From our standpoint, having fur is hard enough, having water is just as hard, and when you combine the two, the interaction makes you wonder what drives what. The water drives what the animation can do but the water has to react to the animation and the fur reacts to that. So it’s just this round and round process.
AT: Well, Erik, talk about Richard Parker. He’s a character that you have to animate and show him reacting. It sounds like maybe one of the most difficult things you’ve ever had to do.
EDB: Actually, no. We’ve always been trying for photorealistic performances with our characters. Once we have that perfectly integrated into the plane, we have to make it dance or talk and anthropomorphize that. In this, we just had this beautiful challenge of matching this CG character to a real tiger, and keep his behavior truthfully characteristic. It was a really fun challenge. We could have rotoscoped this, and had the tigers perform for the camera angle, so it was pure keyframe animation. What was really cool is that you could tell our team had a lot of experience to do this kind of work. We had 47 animators, four teams, four supervisors in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Los Angeles.
AT: So you learned more about observing that behavior and getting that exactly right?
EDB: Right. It was really about trying to stay as close as possible to the animal. We would go back into the live action shot and look at what the tiger is doing in the surrounding live action shot. We would put that into our animation and the look of our tiger to make sure we had a seamless integration.
BW: One of the trickiest things was that when you’re animating something, even if you’re absolutely intent on making it animalistic and real, it’s hard to not subconsciously anthropomorphize things. That’s another thing where the reference really paid off. Not only did the reference inspire us, it showed us how the tiger would respond to things. We did try to convey some subtleties that are true to an animal. A tiger, when he comes out and sees he’s in the middle of the ocean, would be as freaked out as a person, but a tiger’s going to show that in a different way from a person. That’s where you have to do a lot of study so that you’re not taking the easy route and saying, ‘here’s how a person gets scared’ and doing a tiger version of that.
DW: It was important not to anthropomorphize the tiger. When he says, ‘storm, Richard Parker,’ we didn’t want him to react the way a human would. It’s an animal, and we were very careful to try to keep that.
AT: What did Ang tell you he wanted–how he would he communicate to you?
BW: He would talk about the skies and he would talk about the time of day, but quite often, the kind of description I would be handed was, ‘I want an operatic sky.’ So we had to interpret what operatic or melancholy or pensive means. At the end of the day, that was one of the most rewarding parts for all of us. Ang definitely has a vision and knows what he wants, but he takes advantage of what the rest of us can bring to the project. The first thing he said to the visual effects crew when he got back to Taiwan and was talking about the logistics of shooting was, I want to make art with you. That was the line that really struck home to me, and it was the theme we carried through the entire post-production process.
AT: Tim, this project has an unusual narrative with disparate threads that come together at different times. What were you working with?
TS: Technically? Well, we didn’t shoot a single shot in the ocean, except when he’s landing on the beach. Everything else is in a wave tank. And there’s no tiger. So right away, the first day I get the stuff, I’m cutting plates and matching, but wherever there was animation from previz, we had to have them take the animation out and give that to us on green. So we dropped the tiger in right away, because otherwise, what are you looking at? And we quickly, sometimes just us in editorial, put in backgrounds from our library of skies and oceans and things, so we’d put in backgrounds. On the more complicated tracking shots, we had the company who did the previz deal with it. By the time we screened the assembly, there were only about four shots where we could see the walls of the wave tank, and all the animals were there. Because otherwise, you’re just cutting from plates to plates and you’re not telling the story. There were a number of shots that didn’t exist, because there was no photography involved at all. There, where I had previz, I would use that.
AT: One of the challenges in the screenplay is the end and the whole question of the two stories and the narration and how they’re balanced together. Did you have trouble with that? Was it a debate to get that exactly the way it should be?
TS: To get it to where it is in the finished film, yes, we went through a lot of changes. There was never any thought of removing that, even though a couple of people suggested just doing the tiger story. But we just wouldn’t have made the movie if that’s what we were going to do. The way the book ends is with an idea, which is not the way to usually end a movie. You don’t usually end a movie with ‘here’s something to think about.’ You want people to feel something. So trying to not compromise on the idea of something to think about but also getting emotion in as well was a challenge. To kind of end a movie on a philosophical, theological point is a curious thing to do. But that’s what we were going to do. We went through a number of iterations trying to get that right.
AT: How did you figure out what was working emotionally? How as an editor do you test whether it’s working the way you want it to work?
TS: One way is to show it to audiences. If you think something’s really funny and nobody laughs, you learn something. But that’s one of the hard things in editing. When I get the scene, for a one minute scene, I’ll get an hour of stuff. I’ve got to put it together. And you see things in there that strike you when you first watch it. They strike you emotionally. And it’s hard to hang onto that when you’ve seen it three hundred times. It’s really hard at some point to connect to it the way an audience will. It helps when you show it to people for the first time. And you talk to them afterwards. We had a bunch of meetings in New York before we came out here to finish it, and we’d have long conversations with people afterwards to find out what people got out of the movie. It was very helpful to hear people talk. Some things we were worried about, everybody got. And other things didn’t work at all. It’s easy to get caught up in the technical stuff and the structure, but keeping the audience emotionally involved is the hardest part.
AT: It must have been very difficult when Ang had to replace Tobey Maguire on the film.
DW: I think the main issue, as Ang put it together–and Tim can elaborate–he felt having somebody who was recognized as a movie star in the role took away from the flow of the piece. I think that was a tough decision artistically and emotionally for him.
TS: You mentioned earlier about getting the end of the movie right, and we had to substantially change it. We had to reshoot it anyway, so it’s not like we reshot it because Tobey didn’t work. We had to go in and make a lot of changes anyway. As part of that process, we looked at all the things that weren’t working right in that sequence, and one of them was that some people found Tobey was a distraction just because he’s Tobey.
DW: It’s a role that doesn’t really have a huge arc, so when you put that kind of personality in there, you set up expectations. I think that’s something Ang reconsidered.
AT: Of all the things you all did on this movie, what are you absolutely proudest of?
CM: I love the big pool with all the candles. We were scouting and I said, ‘we’ll need to have 50,000 lit at the same time.’ And the art department got over 120,000 candles, and everyone was lighting them. It was a great moment–David was lighting, I was lighting. Everyone was there with lighters and we would shoot these cameras for a frame or send them out. But that was the major source for that scene, and I think it looked fantastic.
TS: I’m going to go with the opening credits. I did that in about four hours. A bunch was shot in pre-production, and some were shot right at the end, so I just ignored it for a long time. Then I thought, ‘OK, it’s time to do the credits,’ and I put them together really fast, and thought, ‘that’s a first pass for now.’ I called my staff in and played it for them, and they were like, ‘wow, that’s really good.’ It was a different song, but it was similar. I had three days of dailies piled up so I thought, ‘I’ll just ignore that and work on other stuff.’ And then it just stayed exactly like that for months, and we tweaked it a little bit, but it came together really fast and I think it puts you in the mood to enjoy the movie.
BW: Certainly the visual effects gets the most attention for the technological things that we create, but the sentiment that Ang shared with me was the idea that this was really a chance for visual effects to create art and to show that a visual effects team can contribute to an aesthetic in a picture. That’s something I’m really proud of.
AT: And what are some of the sequences that your team created on your own?
BW: A lot of the stuff in the ocean, we used a little bit of the tank but all the skies and the sunsets are ours. Ang would give us direction–the sky reflects the water, the whale, the jellyfish–any ocean scene you look at was ours to create beyond the lighting and the time of day.
EDB: I think for me it’s the teamwork. If you wonder why the credits are so long, it was because we had over 400 people work on this. We literally had people painting tiger nails all the way up to people looking out to our render farms. And then realizing that we somehow managed to get all those skills and talents together and make one animal, it was really cool.
BW: What was great working with them was that our direction to these guys was always emotional. It’s about Richard Parker feeling some way–he needs to be more hesitant, he needs to be more angry. We would rarely get into more technical stuff; we gave emotional direction and they would translate that into pixels. It was fantastic.
Audience question: The book has spiritual aspects. In Ang’s vision and direction to you, how was that spirituality to be conveyed? How did he talk about it?
DW: One of the things Ang did was work with Suraj, since he’d never acted before. He called it the Ang Lee boot camp because it involves both physical, spiritual and emotional training, whether it was doing yoga or reading all these books from the 70s. He took Suraj on his own kind of journey. I think working with Ang in general, the vibe leads you to look for things that have some kind of higher intelligence to them. One of the things he did was to accept the complexity of the story and the animation. We didn’t even talk about the crazy wave tank and the lighting and putting the cameras in the water. He wanted to do this all without a lot of cuts. A lot of the design of the movie was already in his head. The flow of the movie really illustrates those ideas as well.
TS: He never had to say, make the scene a little more spiritual. That sense of the spirituality in the story, everybody knew it was there in every department. It just informed everything. I had a clear sense of what the movie should feel like emotionally. By the way, it’s a strong spiritual sense but it’s not a clear spiritual sense. People interpret it a lot of ways and that’s important–we wanted the ambiguity that people find in the book in the movie as well. The scene in the morning when the world is finally calm and it’s beautiful, we talked about what that sky would look like and we spent a long time pestering Bill about that sky to get the right sort of magic. That sense of spirituality came into everybody’s work because we knew it was supposed to be there.
CM: Ang also felt that the entire process of making the film was parallel to Pi’s journey. He really thinks like that, and when you have a director that feels that way, it informs the audience for everybody.
Q: Suraj, the guy who played Pi, it was his first acting job?
TS: Yep. And he couldn’t swim!
Q: How did you find him? And how did you make him feel comfortable enough to do the acting?
DW: Ang thought it was important to find someone that wasn’t too tall, even though Suraj was a little taller than what he wanted. Most importantly, he wanted someone who looked 16 and had the innocence. Without that element you can’t green light the movie. You don’t really have a movie! The search that Ang went through with his long-time casting director Avy Kaufman involved four or five thousand kids in six or seven different casting offices–London, Vancouver, Montreal, New York, LA. Ang was always hoping to find somebody that was born in and grew up in India. He narrowed it down to 10 people. Ang tells the story that when Suraj did his initial rehearsals, he kept his glasses on. Each time, Suraj would make each pass and each cut. I was there in the background on the day Suraj performed for Ang and Avy and Ang immediately felt, somewhere, deeply, ‘he’s the guy.’ Suraj had to read the four pages in the hospital bed as part of his audition, and he was so good at the performance that we referenced video tapes of that audition during the takes! It was one of those moments that just happened.
Q: When you find yourself overwhelmed as you make the film, do you have any tricks to find objectivity and approach your craft with fresh eyes?
BW: I do occasionally resort to my two boys. I show them stuff, especially my youngest, who’ll tell me when something stinks. For instance, I was there with Ang and my boys watching the flying fish sequence, and there was a question whether one fish’s tail should stick out into the edge, and everyone in the room said it was great but Thomas was like, ‘well, not so much.’ We kept it as is but it does help to get other opinions. There is an arc when you start a project and you look at stuff. One of the big unknowns for me was how to blend the digital water in 3-D and I knew that we would figure out a way, but I had to pretty much say, ‘we’re good, we’ll get it’ and then trust that we would.
DW: It is hard because in our case we figured out that we couldn’t just build a wave tank, we had to build a swell tank. Because in the middle of the ocean, there’s no beach. I give Bill a lot of credit too. Ang would turn to me and say, ‘you know, I hope later on we’ll get it.’
AT: Was there some sequence that you were never able to get right and Ang was just bugging you about it?
BW: Some took a lot longer than others, but we’re all happy with what we got.
TS: Yeah. Some sequences happened later in the processes than the others–the second storm was one of the very last things that we did. That was a struggle because it came last.
Q: Can you talk more about the spiritual ambiguity, especially at the end. Do you find that some of the earlier cuts had a more specific interpretation?
TS: The biggest issue we had that made us change the ending is that we weren’t pointing enough at making people think about what the relationship between the two stories was. It wasn’t clear that these were variations on the same idea–and all that that means. When you watch a movie or read a book, you don’t think about whether something is true. You know it’s not; it’s a movie. So we had to bring up the idea of, we don’t believe you or this story you just told. Initially we hadn’t done that strongly enough. And those things combined to make people not think enough about the ending. It wasn’t so much that we were saying too much of either this or that, but that we weren’t saying ‘pay attention’ hard enough.
DW: Ang always mentioned that for him, thematically, the movie is really about the power of storytelling. And he’s said that when you’re done watching the movie, it’s yours. Do with it what you want. That ambiguity was a goal.
TS: Pi didn’t ask the writer which story he believed. He asked which story you prefer.