Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s new film, Life of Pi, is a visually stunning high-seas adventure fable about a teenage boy from India who is stranded on a small boat with a ferocious Bengal tiger as his only companion. Most of this unusual survival story, shot in cutting-edge stereoscopic 3D by director of photography Claudio Miranda, takes place on a vast ocean.
But the extended ocean sequences were not in fact filmed anywhere near a natural body of water. Instead an enormous 300x100x10 foot, 1.7 million gallon wave-generating tank, the largest ever made for a motion picture, was built near an abandoned airport facility in Taiwan. There was also a smaller but much deeper tank used for some dramatic underwater scenes, most notably when the steamship Pi is traveling on with his family sinks.
Filming at sea has always been a tough task for cinematographers, because of unpredictable conditions and changing weather. The tank gave Miranda the ability to control the lighting and change the look of the ocean and the sky from bright day to sunset to night and from mirror-still to stormy. Miranda’s cinematography was in turn skillfully augmented by visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer and his team who worked closely with the DP, especially when it came to matching lighting.
“The water scenes were really difficult,” Miranda said. “The challenge was in how to keep them visually interesting and that meant being able to also change the weather.” He devised a system to adjust the lighting for each scene as much as possible. A grid was built above the tank with large lights installed. It could also be draped with hundreds of feet of silks or dark rags to alter the illumination and reflections. In addition, a gate was built on one side of the tank, which could be opened in order to capture natural light and natural sunsets.
Miranda utilized a Spidercam, most frequently used in sports events, which could hover over the water in the tank and dexterously move up and down, in and out and in circles. He shot digitally and chose the ARRI Alexa as his main camera “because of the superior way it handled highlights and reflections on water without feeling electronic.”
Lee had already done months of preliminary work on Pi when Miranda took a meeting with the director in 2008. Lee, at that time, already had the idea of shooting the movie in 3D even before James Cameron’s groundbreaking Avatar was released. The DP had been the cinematographer on The Curious Adventures of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher, which employed lots of CGI and was the first digitally-lensed film to be nominated for a best cinematography Oscar (along with nominations from the American Society of Cinematographers and England’s BAFTA). And he had also filmed TRON: Legacy, hailed for its expert use of 3D. “I get a lot of movies figuring out hard tasks,” he noted. “Those credits and my experience with 3D I think were what got me the job on Pi.”
Lee expressed some trepidation about using 3D, based on movies he had recently seen, according to the DP. Miranda explained the 3D was bad because of how the filmmakers handled the shooting and framing. “The studio was also very afraid of making the audience seasick with so much time on the ocean in the movie, so I did a couple of days of nausea tests,” he said. Lots of details like this were handled in a long prep, which also included extensive previz.
The most charismatic character in the movie may be the tiger in the boat with Pi, who has the unusual name Richard Parker. The totally convincing Bengal was mainly created with CGI but there were also four real tigers used, accounting for about 10 percent of the action, including jumping into the water. What was it like filming a live tiger? “They’re pretty amazing, they can move from a to b in the blink of an eye,” Miranda said. “They’re frightening beasts.”
The first third of Pi takes place in Pondicherry, a former French colony on India’s east coast, where Pi grows up in a family that has a zoo, including the tiger that will eventually wind up with him in the boat. Lee decided he wanted to film there because of the atmosphere of the location. Miranda, who came up as a gaffer working with Fincher on films like Fight Club, used his lighting expertise to great effect. In one striking night-time scene, a statue of the Hindu god Vishnu is floating in a large reflecting pool, surrounded by 50,000 flickering candles. “I love real light,” he said.
Miranda’s takeaway from filming Pi: “If you have bad thoughts about 3D, this film will hopefully alleviate those feelings. I think Ang made a magical and immersive movie, the kind that audiences haven’t experienced before.”
The DP most recently finished working on Oblivion, a sci-fi movie starring Tom Cruise. It reunited him with Joseph Kosinski, who directed TRON: Legacy and will be released in 2013.