For production sound mixer Drew Kunin, working on director Ang Lee‘s Life Of Pi was anything but business as usual.
To tell the story of a young castaway that survives a cross-ocean journey in a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger, Kunin had to travel to exotic locations in India as well as to Taiwan, but that was not unusual for the veteran production sound mixer who had done most of Lee’s movies, as well as a host of other productions around the world.
While in Taiwan the production was headquartered in an abandoned airport and shooting in several different large airplane hangers. In one hanger they had constructed a large water tank for the scenes in the lifeboat. It was the tank that gave him the most trouble. Not only were the wind and wave machines extremely loud, recording inside a hanger gave everything an unwanted reverb. So to get the dialog recordings as close to the performance they had just shot in terms of feel and emotion, they also constructed an ADR stage nearby to capture Suraj Sharma‘s vocals, the first-time actor playing Pi. That was the unusual part.
As Kunin explained it, “Because of all the physical effect machinery, we had to loop most of Suraj’s dialog because we felt that we should do it at the time he was really feeling those scenes, as opposed to months later when he was no longer in the state of mind that he had been in while shooting.”
They also had four real tigers on set, all good at performing different things. One was trained with treats like a dog, and very docile when the trainer was there. The other three were trained through intimidation, and those were very hard to get near. Furthermore, they seemed to think the windsock zeppelin on the microphone was another animal and got very angry whenever Kunin approached them with it. He admitted, “There is something about a real tiger’s roar that goes directly to your cerebral cortex and makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”
He was able to use the reaction to the microphone to great effect, especially with the alpha male tiger named King, but although he did extensive recordings of them, little of it was usable due to the reverb of the hangers in which the tigers were enclosed. It obviously was not a good idea to try to get them inside the ADR stage. It’s worth noting that the boy and the tiger were never in the boat at the same time, and amazingly, most of the shots of the tiger were computer generated visual effects shots. Only the shot of the tiger jumping into the water to go after the boy, and a few others were real tigers.
Kunin’s association with Lee goes back to Ice Storm, and he feels they have a shorthand for communicating, which makes the association so successful. As he tells it, “Over the years we’ve spent a lot of time in each other’s company, and especially because the Chinese films Crouching Tiger and Love, Caution were so long, that those films cemented our relationship. A lot of people think that Ang is relatively soft spoken and non-communicative. But he knows what he wants, and I’m able to get that for him.”