The Brilliant Digital Effects of “Life of Pi”

Telling the tale of a boy lost at sea with a tiger, hyena, zebra and orangutan requires some serious technical wizardry. This in depth article from FX Guide goes into detail about how animators and artists approached this gigantic task to make the beautiful jaw-dropping scenes of Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi”

Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer, from Rhythm & Hues, recalls when Life of Pi director Ang Lee visited his office in August 2009 and asked whether a digital character looked better or worse in stereo. “We all kind of said, ‘We don’t know so why don’t we give it a shot?’”

That request set the wheels in motion to re-create the events of the novel by Yann Martel, in which an Indian boy Pi becomes stuck on a life raft in the middle of the Pacific ocean with a tiger, hyena, zebra and orangutan after the tragic sinking of their ship. Several visual effects companies brought to life the digital oceans, environments and animals required to tell this incredible story.

The ocean as a character

“The challenge for us was how to portray an ocean that’s as much a character as possible,” says Westenhofer. “This is the first film in a while that’s right there in the ocean non-stop for over 3/5th of the running time, so we had to find a why to deal with the ocean and the animals.” Along with Rhythm & Hues, MPC contributed key water simulation shots, including dramatic sequences of the ship sinking and for a sequence dubbed ‘The Storm of God’.

In order to establish just what role the ocean would play and how that would look, a great deal of research was undertaken. “We went out on a Coast Guard cutter off Taiwan to fairly rough seas,” says Westenhofer. “That was really great reference. We found that you could get swells that were 14 second periods and you could have long wave lengths but with huge volumes of water that will raise six or seven feet at a time.”

The research informed a bluescreen-surrounded tank setup in Taiwan that was 75 by 30 meters and three meters deep. To aid tracking, a painted grid half a meter in size was painted on a splashguard surrounding the tank. “We also placed a wave break at one end with tetrapod constructs piled up that helped kill the waves bouncing back,” explains Westenhofer. “We had a theme park company build a series of 12 caissons – large pistons that could suck water in and pump it out at varying rates, with varying wave patterns. The best we got was a four foot swell on 12 second periods.”

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