How ‘Life of Pi’ Animators Visualized Ang Lee’s Blank Slate

At TheWrap's Oscars screening, the effects and animation supervisors on "Life of Pi" said director Ang Lee gave them free rein to create the story's virtual effects

"Life of Pi" is a movie that has the proverbial cast of thousands… of animals, that is. In one shot set on the ocean, there are 40,000 flying fish. In another one set on a floating island, there are 60,000 meerkats. And not one of them was living and breathing, of course.

“No real meerkats were used,” senior animation supervisor Erik-Jan De Boer told the audience at an effects-themed Q&A following TheWrap’s screening of the movie at the Landmark Theatre on Monday night. “Except of course we went to meerkat sanctuaries and zoos to shoot a lot of reference footage…”

“And the two of us watched every episode of 'Meerkat Manor,'” interrupted visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer. “We were gonna watch one, but it gets addictive.”

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That was about all the time these two had to indulge in reality TV during the long gestation and post-production of Pi, which establishes a new benchmark for awe-inspiring digital trickery — particularly in 3D, or “stereo,” as Westenhofer and De Boer refer to the effects-complicating process.

“In total,” De Boer told TheWrap's editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman, “we animated 580 animals in about 290 shots for the movie, which includes a giraffe, a fox, a fish, and of course the hyena and orangutan.” Not to mention the little matter of the tiger, “Richard Parker,” whose appearances as one of the movie’s co-leads are 15 percent real, 85 percent digital.

That’s not including the aforementioned meerkat and flying fish extras, brought to life via a software program appropriately titled Massive. (If only it had been around in Cecil B. DeMille’s day.)

“The flying fish sequence is where we start to take some artistic liberties, since Pi’s telling you a tale," said Westenhofer. "Maybe there were a thousand flying fish in reality, or even a hundred, but you’re seeing his mind’s eye, which saw this multitude, so we have 40,000 in one particular spot. The Massive software is almost artificial intelligence, where you write a little program that’s the brain for each individual fish, and it decides if it’s going to hop out of the water, and how long it’s going to fly; if it sees someone in its path, it does avoidance.”

But before any of that was animated, there was the live-action filming that took place on a 70 meter-by-30 meter wave tank that director Ang Lee had specially built for the film. And there, said Westenhofer, “you had (star) Suraj Sharma on a boat with two guys in rubber rafts just chucking rubber fish at him as hard as they possibly can. It’s a good mixture of the low-tech and the high-tech.”

Of course, it wasn’t fish but previous experience with big cats that got Rhythm & Hues the assignment from Lee to go from lions to tigers and Pi. “He knew we had done the lion in the first Narnia movie. He asked, ‘Does a digital character look more or less real in 3D?’ We looked at each other and thought that was a pretty good question.” As well as a leading one, since Lee had already made the decision at that point, in 2009, to shoot in 3D. “We took one of the shots and rendered it in stereo and said ‘Yeah, it gives it a little more presence and makes it more real.’” Good answer! “That was the start of our relationship with him.”

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Although "Life of Pi" doesn’t exactly go for documentary-style realism, every effort was made to keep the tiger’s actions and reactions to what experts and trainers told them a creature would really do in those situations. Not having him spout any Aslan-style aphorisms was a nice start on that de-anthropomorphizing.

“We always strive for photorealism,” said De Boer—even when they’re working on a Narnia or Cats and Dogs. “Motion-wise we strive for perfect physicality and try to get that animal to behave as characteristically as possible — and then we always have to make them talk or dance or do something really weird, and the realism goes out the window and everybody knows that we were there. For me what was really cool about this movie is not only do we stick with the real animal but we also have to intercut it with a live-action animal, so that made the challenge for us that much bigger.”

Added Westenhofer, “We told the crew we wanted to work ourselves out of any recognition by making it look as real as possible.”

It was at least as big of a challenge, as far as Westenhofer was concerned, to make the digital waves match or amplify the real tank waves—and to create the film’s skies completely from scratch. “There’s not many films where we spend this much time on the water. I think 'Old Man and the Sea' harkens back! But even with 'Titanic,' you’ll see the water and then go inside.” For much of "Life of Pi," “inside” amounts to a few furtive peeks under a tarp.

Hence what, on a project like this, becomes a fine line where digital effects providers are also, to some extent, taking over the role of cinematography and art direction. Going to work on filling up these blue-screen shots, the Rhythm & Hues people might well have been humming Bruce Springsteen’s “Empty Sky” to themselves.

“What I’m absolutely most proud of is with these visual effects is that we were given a blank slate for a lot of these shots,” Westenhofer told the audience. “We were given a boat in front of a blue screen, and it was the visual effects team who really were a lot of the creative innovators on the movie. Certainly it was Ang’s vision we were creating. But we’d start a shot, and though Ang absolutely knows what he wants, his communication is sometimes not as specific as you want. Instead of saying ‘I want a three-quarters cloudy sky with yellow over here and some blue,’ he’d say ‘I want a pensive sky.’ Or, ‘I want it to be operatic.’ So it would be our job to go translate that, and the team did a great job of supplying that.

"And Claudio Miranda did an awesome, awesome job on the cinematography, but a lot of the cinematography on the ocean is digital effects.”