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Oscar Effects: How Life Of Pi caught a digital tiger by the tail

As in previous years, five films are nominated for an Academy Award in the “Visual Effects” category and they each offer a nice look at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams can pull off on the big screen. In recognition of these five films and one of our favorite Oscar categories, we’re putting the spotlight on one “Visual Effects” nominee each day leading up to Sunday’s broadcast.Previously, we looked at The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Avengers, and Snow White and the Huntsman. Now we turn our attention to Life Of Pi, director Ang Lee’s impressive adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel about a young boy who survives a shipwreck only to be stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

Director Ang Lee first appeared on the radar of mainstream American audiences with his fantastic 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which showcased his flair for amazing visuals and eye-popping sequences that tested the limits of what was thought possible in the medium. With Life of Pi, Lee accomplishes a similar feat by not only bringing a story many thought unfilmable to the big screen, but also crafting a truly unique storytelling experience that blurs the line between reality and fantasy.

While Life of Pi is filled with memorable set pieces – from the wreck that leaves main character Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel alone on the ocean to a magical island filled with meerkats – the most prominent of the film’s visual-effects triumphs is Richard Parker, the tiger who becomes Pi’s only companion on the journey. A blend of visual effects and a quartet of actual Bengal tigers that performed in scenes that didn’t require human actors, Richard Parker is the showpiece of the film that has left audiences wondering exactly where the real tiger ends and his computer-generated counterpart begins.

life of pi 03According to Life of Pi visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer, almost 86-percent of the scenes featuring Richard Parker use a computer-generated tiger, with the remaining scenes using one of the real tigers – usually when the story calls for the tiger to be in a completely different location (i.e., the water) from teenage actor Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi. In order to accomplish this, Lee and effects studio Rhythm & Hues needed to invest more than the usual time in the previsualization stage of production, mapping out every detail of where the tiger would be in each scene and exactly what he’d be doing.

For the effects team, the key to fueling Richard Parker’s on-screen performance was letting the real tiger feed the digital version.

“The hardest [scenes to film] were when the tiger was in water and especially in the storm …”

“We used [real tigers] for single shots, where it was just the tiger in the frame, and they’re doing something that didn’t have to be all that specific in the action that we were after,” Westenhofer told The New York Times. “By doing that, it set our bar high for CGI. We couldn’t cheat at all. It pushed the artists to go and deliver something that’s never been done before, something as photo-real as anyone has ever done with an animal.”

Lee, Sharma, and the effects team also spent considerable time studying real-world tigers in order to determine how they might react to situations presented in Life of Pi. While this was new ground to cover for Lee and Sharma, Rhythm & Hues found themselves in somewhat familiar territory, having provided the visual effects that brought the great lion Aslan to life in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Still, the need to create both a believable tiger and that tiger’s reactions to being in such an extreme, unusual environment presented some unique challenges.

“The hardest [scenes to film] were when the tiger was in water and especially in the storm, when the boat’s splashing around,” Westenhofer told The Los Angeles Times. “The water work and having to have water interact with hair and vice versa was, from a science standpoint, this cyclic pipeline of each affects the other. And the tiger’s being done in one software package, the water’s being done with another. We’ve got to get them all to talk to each other and to interact. They were by far the longest shots in production and the hardest that we did.”

life of pi 01In addition to the live tigers and pre-vis treatments that had actors performing with invisible co-stars, scenes occasionally called for help from blue-suited crew members standing in for Richard Parker. In one particular scene that has Pi warding off Richard Parker with a long pole, animation director Erik De Boer played the role of tiger and batted away the stick to provoke a reaction from Sharma.

Elements like the tiger’s eyes also presented an interesting challenge for the effects team, who studied hours upon hours of footage of real tigers, as well as getting up close and personal with the on-set tigers.

“With tigers, the eyes don’t rotate in the socket nearly as much as with a primate, for example, so we found at first that when we tried to stick at this too closely, it looked bad,” Westenhofer told Bleeding Cool. “But nothing is ever as simple as that, and they do roll around some, so it came down to studying this.”

And all of that studying appears to have paid off for the Life of Pi team, as the film nabbed not one but 11 Oscar nominations for everything from cinematography and sound editing to the coveted “Best Picture” nod. But if Westenhofer and his team do indeed find their name called during the “Visual Effects” category, it would seem that they owe quite a bit of thanks to a certain four-legged member of the film’s cast that probably won’t be joining them on the stage – unless he find his way there digitally, of course.

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