By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 23, 2012 at 1:58PM
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.