Tiger, stars, 3-D challenges for Ang Lee in 'Life of Pi'
“Life of Pi,” Yann Martel's 2001 bestseller about a teenage boy drifting at sea in a tiny lifeboat alongside a tiger, zebra, hyena and orangutan, is an inherently challenging novel to adapt for the big screen. It requires its director to mimic the experience of floating, post-shipwreck, on the vast Pacific Ocean and to tell a story steeped in internal psychological struggle.
Then, there's the matter of dealing with two things most filmmakers are cautioned to avoid: young actors and potentially untameable animals.
Clearly, none of this was too daunting for filmmaker Ang Lee, the soft-spoken Academy Award winner responsible for the elegant reserve of “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” After signing on to the project in 2009, Lee added extra challenges to the adaptation process, opting to shoot the film in 3-D with an unknown (newbie thespian Suraj Sharma) as his protagonist. The film opened Wednesday.
At this point, it's worth noting that Sharma — who, as Pi, lives for an extended period of time on the open water — had no idea how to swim when filming started.
“There's one minute alone, underwater, where he has to hold his breath for at least a minute and a half,” Lee says via telephone about his young star. “And I tested him and it was only 15 seconds.”
The director laughs about this now, noting that Sharma is “physically very agile” and was a quick study in the art of treading water. (For the record, the 19-year-old can now swim just fine.) Lee gets more serious when discussing the other issues he confronted; for example, while discussing his adjustment to 3-D — a medium in which the director had never worked until “Life of Pi” — he uses the word “confusing” three times and “elusive” twice.
“Three years back, I didn't know what it was,” he says. “I just imagined that with a new medium, maybe, just maybe, it opened up new chances. And, as I got into it, I found this is truly a new cinematic language. It's confusing, because we're not used to it.”
If Lee was confused, it doesn't show onscreen. Like other acclaimed directors who have recently taken the multidimensional cinematic approach — Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders and Ridley Scott among them — Lee's use of 3-D comes across less as a gimmick and more of an organic element, one that effectively emphasizes the sudden horrors of Pi's increasingly dangerous situation and the surreality of a life adrift at sea.
At this point, readers of “Life of Pi” may be wondering how Lee managed to throw a SAG-card carrying human being into a glorified dinghy alongside those aforementioned creatures.
The short answer is CGI. The longer answer is that, particularly for the Bengal tiger with the unusual, personifying name Richard Parker, a combination of real animal footage, computer-generated images and scenes shot in a huge water tank in front of a green screen were seamlessly blended.
The result is that the starving, desperate Pi and the ferocious predator from his family zoo really do seem to come in close physical contact as they spar over personal space.
Lee says he spent months supervising the evolving work of the CGI wizards to make sure everything turned out just right, another aspect of the job that made this a more methodical endeavor than his previous work.
“I got very technical on the movie ‘Hulk,' “ he says, “but I think, by percentage and probably degree of difficulty, yeah, this is my most technical” film.
On “Life of Pi,” even some of the more traditional elements of cinema presented hiccups.
Throughout the film, there are numerous scenes in which the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells a writer the story of his perilous adventure. That writer was originally played by Tobey Maguire, who previously worked with Lee on 1997's “The Ice Storm.” After shooting all of that footage, Lee decided he needed to recast the role with a lesser-known performer because Maguire's presence was distracting in a field of mostly non-boldfaced actors. The scribe is played in the final cut by Rafe Spall.
“With somebody like Tobey,” Lee explains diplomatically, “I think I underestimated his star power. I knew Tobey when he was young, and he's a great talent, so I forgot how powerful he is as a star now.”
Despite the issues involving his cast — both humans and the computer-generated members — Lee says he's game to attempt a similarly ambitious film in the future, particularly in 3-D.
“If it's an independent, smaller movie, I won't do it because it is not possible,” he explains. “You want it to work for you, not you to work for it. But if budget allows and it's a reasonable budget, I would do it again, because I am curious to find out what it really is, to find new film languages.”
“(In) 2-D,” he laughs, “everyone knows everything.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Penguins confident Pouliot will be healthy, ready for camp
- Former longtime Steelers publicist Kiely dies
- Ukraine conflict, disappointing earnings reports weigh on stocks
- FSU star QB Winston working to improve on, off field
- Penn State football team savors cultural experience
- Trio holds up Penn couple at gunpoint in home
- Facebook fans fancy ‘I’m So Greensburg’
- Judge reaffirms Texas’ ‘Robin Hood’ system of school funding unconstitutional
- Not to be left behind, speedy Steelers are on the fast track in NFL
- Pirates’ Cole growing in 1st full season
- Parents sue Penn Hills School District, allege assault by teacher