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Immersed in Movies: A CG Tiger to Die for in 'Life of Pi' (VIDEO)

Photo of Bill Desowitz 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.
"The Life of Pi"
"The Life of Pi"

"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.

This article is related to: Life of Pi, VFX, Immersed In Movies, Ang Lee, Interviews, Interviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.