The old adage about never working with animals or on water applies double in VFX work. Ang Lee’s Life Of Pie – water, animals, animals in water – was a challenge tackled over two years of toil, technical innovation and computers so powerful they make the grid in Tron look like your old Atari. Lee demanded that each of the movie’s 700-odd effects shots was grounded in something real, as the film's VFX Supervisor, MPC’s Guillaume Rocheron tells us. The result is a game-changer: a five-star, ocean-going spectacular. Rocheron took us through six 'before' and 'after' shots and explained six keys steps to achieve the film's astonishing visuals.
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Several filmmakers tried and failed to realise Yann Martel's vision on the big screen since Life Of Pi was first published back in 2001. The story of Piscine 'Pi' Molitor and his shipwreck with an orang-utan, a hyena, a wounded zebra and a Bengali tiger named Richard Parker stumped first M. Night Shyamalan, then Alfonso Cuarón. As the movie's VFX Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron explains, modern visual effects have finally made it possible for Ang Lee to succeed where those two were foiled.
"The technology didn't exist to make this film [in the early noughties], and if they had tried it would have been incredibly expensive. Titanic was a very expensive movie to make and you can count open ocean in minutes in that movie - Life Of Pi is on the water for more than an hour. That's the major difference: the technology wasn't ready to show oceans like this then."
Rocheron, working out of MPC's Vancouver base, was responsible for the film's two set-piece storm sequences. The first is seen below, a cyclone that leads to the sinking of the Tsimtsum, the freighter transporting Pi and his family from Pondicherry to Canada, and is followed by an even more cataclysmic tempest known as 'The Storm of God'. The VFX man and his team started work plotting their shots before Lee went anywhere near a camera or the film's specially-constructed wave tank in Taiwan. A year of pre-viz lay ahead.
"We needed to make sure Ang had the flexibility to design his shots [and] there was a lot of preparation involved. Pi was a very technical shoot – one shot required 1½ billion water droplets to be simulated – and the technology needed to simulate oceans is very complex. Everything was shot in the tank or against blue screen so we needed to know where each shot would be, where the sun would be, the composition and the angles, so when filming started [cinematographer] Claudio Miranda knew where to put the camera and where to place the lights."
Despite Life Of Pi's many fantastical ingredients, including an island with enough mystery meerkats to launch its own insurance company, Ang Lee insisted that all its elements were grounded in reality. The need to cleave close to the natural world for inspiration provided its VFX crews with a challenge that sent them scurrying to some unusual places. Dossiers of photos, or 'references', assembled during the research process were a handy go-to guide for complex CG shots.
"Everything we did had to be based on something real, so to recreate the freighter Tsimtsum, we used 1960s freighter designs and blueprints. We also went down to Vancouver harbour and shot thousands of photos of ships to get details of hulls and portholes. We also did a cyberscan of Suraj (Sharma) using hundreds of photos, so we could build a visual version of him for the shots Ang couldn't get in the tank."
Working alongside effects house Rhythm & Hues, and to a lesser degree, BUF, Look FX, Crazy Horse, Lola FX and Legacy Effects, Rocheron's team spent two years putting together what would eventually comprise 12 minutes of digital ocean. The 110 effects shots MPC completed in that time required a deep understanding of the behaviour of oceans. "This isn't the first time we've simulated an ocean", explains Rocheron, "but normally it's like throwing a ball into a bathtub and hoping the splash hits". Not this time.
"There aren't any shots in this sequence that aren't done on purpose, so when a wave hits the Tsimtsum, it's to get a particular feeling into a shot. Ang would say: 'I want to see the black ocean and then that big splash hitting the side of the Tsimtsum'. There's a performance in what the ocean is doing and how it triggers events. Nature is stronger than everything else, and this drives both the camera and Pi's action on the lifeboat."
The two **storm sequences – one set in the dead of night, the other in broad daylight – saw Ang Lee diverge slightly from his naturalist approach to crank up the sheer malevolence of the ocean. His effects wizards delivered visuals that aped the vast size and scope of Pacific storms, but made nature's force a little darker and a little more emotive. In 3D, they practically leave you wringing out your clothes.
"Waves in Pacific storms are 40 feet high and 80 feet long – they hit every ten to 12 seconds – and there's spray and white water caused by the wind. But Ang told us multiple times that he needed the ocean surface to be scary and very dark [during the sinking sequence], so we removed the white water to make the ocean as black as possible. It's a bit different from reality, but it's the emotion of what Ang wanted. The Storm of God was even bigger and it's in full daylight so it's not about a black ocean. Instead, [we added] spray and mist to make it look very, very crazy. We took reality and amped it up."
Although Ang Lee isn't a director you'd immediately associate with effects-heavy filmmaking, Hulk and some Taking Woodstock CG shots aside, Rocheron credits him with putting the VFX process front and centre on his call-sheet. Alongside the movie's VFX head Bill Westenhofer, Rocheron was also a regular at the film's Taiwanese wave tank where he'd meet with the director and report on the status of particular shots.
"Ten years ago VFX would involve a couple of shots designed to do a very specific thing in the film, without every being integrated into the filmmaking process. Here, Ang made visual effects part of his daily routine. Bill (Westenhofer) would present the work to him, we'd be there too, and we'd get feedback from Ang straight away with his editor, Tim Squyres, there too. Filmmaker, editorial and visual effects all in one room trying to get the movie made. I hope things evolve that way because visual effects is part of the filmmaking process."