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"Deconstructing Pi" Reveals a Bold New Perspective on an Oscar-Winning Epic

How long would it take a single computer to render all of the visual effects shots in “Life of Pi,” the Oscar-winning 2012 movie? About 1,633 years, believe it or not. That was just one of the revelations at the Academy event “Deconstructing Pi” on Monday, May 6, 2013, at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, where a sold-out crowd found out how cinematic wizards brought to life the unforgettable adventure of a boy adrift on the ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

John Bailey, an Academy governor representing the Cinematographers Branch, welcomed the audience after an introductory video showing the previsualization, or “previs,” for the film’s “God Storm” sequence in which Pi is hurled into a turbulent sea and submits completely to a higher power.

This previs version was generated with computers to lay out the visual paths of each shot, indicating how the stereoscopic flow and compositions would work in the final cut (which was also shown). Bailey noted how the use of stereoscopic photography has evolved considerably since he first experienced it in a theater screening of the Vincent Price film “House of Wax” (1953).

The host for the evening, Academy governor Bill Kroyer from the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch, showed the evolution of the 3D format through still images and a few props – including a Victorian-era stereoscope and a vintage View-Master, much to the audience’s delight. He also invited attendees to check out a display in the lobby containing artifacts from the production of the film, including precision mapped and stereoscopically paired lenses, a camera agnostic 3D sled and one of the underwater camera systems used to capture the film’s many underwater shots.

The amount of detail and precision required in cinematic 3D today is truly at the cutting edge of technology, and the evening’s guests bore that out as they each described their contributions to the film. “It’s gonna be really hard!” was the initial reaction of the first speaker, Oscar-nominated editor Tim Squyres, who has edited all but one of director Ang Lee’s films since his debut feature, “The Wedding Banquet” (1993).

“Life of Pi” required a tiger that looked absolutely real and blended seamlessly with the live animal used on the set, Squyres recalled. Furthermore, he felt that it was important for the film’s visual beauty to complement the emotional and spiritual aspects of the story, which originated as a bestselling 2001 novel by Yann Martel. Squyers explained that the film’s aesthetic had to be achieved with a delicate use of stereoscopic photography that wouldn’t strain viewers’ eyes. He went on to demonstrate format principles such as “IO” (shorthand for interocular distance),the distance between the human eyes that causes slight perspective differences in left eye/right eye images of an object, enabling depth perception; and convergence, the point at which the left eye/left eye images seem to come together, locating the object in space.

Speaking next was Brad Alexander, a partner and senior previsualization supervisor at HALON Entertainment. Some of the rare material he unveiled included early conceptual 3D shot designs for the film, which were done in the anaglyph (red and blue) stereoscopic format because sophisticated 3D monitors weren’t readily available. He also showed how elements like the ocean environment, the figure of Pi himself, and important props like the lifeboat and raft were created via computer in rough form for what could be considered digital storyboards. The HALON team created a “stereo script” for the film, determining whether each shot would work in both 3D and 2D projection. One example included the film’s spectacular shipwreck scene, which was shown both in previs and final forms (with Pi suspended underwater, watching, as the ship plunges into the deep). From start to finish, the previs process for the film took an astonishing two years and four months.

A different perspective on “Life of Pi” was given by cinematographer Claudio Miranda, who has shot such films as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), “Tron: Legacy” (2010) and “Oblivion” (2013), and who won his first Oscar for “Life of Pi.” He had to be especially concerned with the presentation of light in the film, equipping the watery set with different lighting setups to accommodate effects ranging from sunrise to blazing high noon to sunset. He also had to keep in mind the pacing of stereoscopic shots from 1 to 5, with 5 being the most aggressive (and most sparingly used, to avoid tiring audiences’ eyes).

One highlight of the evening was Miranda explaining how a scene during Pi’s opening narration about his parents used natural candlelight – a feat made possible by placing 20,000 candles in and around the water. In this case, Miranda’s fondness for low light was not too difficult to accommodate, because his digital cameras didn’t require the kind of high-powered overhead lighting that traditional film cameras would have needed under those circumstances. It resulted in beautifully layered compositions that could never have been achieved in 3D just a few years ago.

Special effects technician and coordinator Donald R. Elliott, who won an Oscar for Visual Effects for “Life of Pi,” also explored the combination of the physical and the digital when he unveiled images of the huge water tank constructed for the film’s production in Taiwan. In order to create natural-looking ocean waves rather than artificial “bathtub” splashing, the crew had to utilize wave generators on one end of the tank and a reef-like pile of heavy wave-breakers at the other to create water movement that would look convincing on camera. They also constructed multiple versions of Pi’s lifeboat, including one with a pair of cages covering half of the structure for certain shots. One cage was for the real tiger playing Richard Parker, and the other for the tiger’s trainer.

Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer, who delivered the acceptance speech for the film’s Oscar-winning visual effects team at the 85th Academy Awards in February, confessed he wasn’t a big fan of 3D going into the film. He had previously won an Oscar for “The Golden Compass” (2007) and had been nominated for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (2005), but “Pi” was the project that finally made him a believer in the format’s possibilities. Westenhofer explained the ways 3D requires increased precision and extra prep work, such as pinpointing which established 2D cinema tools – matte paintings and shots of water splashing close to the camera were two examples – wouldn’t work in 3D. He also played some revealing production footage of “convergence maps” with red and blue overlays that helped the crew identify possible alignment issues or imperfections in the stereoscopic compositions. These maps enabled the team to be extremely specific when they addressed challenges like blending the tank water with CGI oceans, which could be digitally graded with additional color timing and lighting to not only create the illusion of a larger environment, but also to convey the mood that director Ang Lee desired. “I look at what we pulled off,” Westenhofer mused, “and I’m not quite sure how we did it.”

Westenhofer also addressed a topic many audience members were looking forward to: the creation of the digital Richard Parker, a photorealistic tiger unlike any CG animal to date. It took more than a year for the effects team to build the virtual Bengal tiger, which featured over 10 million hairs and would take up to 30 hours to render in a single frame. Westenhofer’s earlier experience on “Narnia” came in handy when they used the digital Aslan character in a test to see how it would look in 3D; the test proved that a big cat could indeed come to life in the format. In the end, “Life of Pi” featured 690 effects shots out of a total of 960 shots for the entire film, with up 260 terabytes of hard disk space used at the peak of production.

Further animal-creation insights were offered by the final guest of the evening, Oscar-winning character animator Erik-Jan De Boer. Using test footage and fascinating test shots, he covered some of the 560 different animals created for the film in addition to Richard Parker himself. They included a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and of course, scores of meerkats that occupied an entire island. Some of the animation exercises were rotoscoped (traced as line drawings) from footage of real tigers, coming shockingly close to the real thing, but with enhanced lighting and detailing to show off muscles and skin. The sense of the animal’s weight was conveyed using such touches as showing toes and claws flexing as its paws contacted the ground. The entire tiger had to be built in stages from a skeleton, adding layers of muscle, subcutaneous tissue, skin, and finally fur. Most amusingly, De Boer also demonstrated via photos how a blue stuffed animal was used on set to stand in for the tiger in scenes with Pi actor Suraj Sharma. Sharma, it was revealed, could not swim when he started the film, and ended up being able to propel himself underwater for more than a minute as various shots demanded.

The entire panel was gathered onstage for a brief wrap-up, with Squyres getting the biggest gasp when he explained that editing the film required him to wear 3D glasses almost all day for two years. How did he cope? “A lot of Advil!” He also echoed one of the remarks Westenhofer made at the start of production, which served as a perfect summary for the whole ambitious adventure: “We’ll know how to make this movie when we finish it.”

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