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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.
'Life of Pi'
'Life of Pi'

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.

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

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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.