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Immersed in Movies: Ang Lee Talks 'Life of Pi' VFX and 3-D

Thompson on Hollywood By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood February 4, 2013 at 3:35PM

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.
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'Life of Pi'
'Life of Pi'

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."

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


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Thompson on Hollywood

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.