Ang Lee’s (李安) Life of Pi hit Taiwan theaters Nov. 21. Adapted from Yann Martel’s international bestseller of the same name, the movie is an adventure tale of a boy who miraculously survives months at sea in the company of a Bengal tiger.
Lee, whose repertoire of films includes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (臥虎藏龍), Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution (色,戒) and Taking Woodstock, returned to Taiwan on Nov. 9 to commemorate the building of the VFX Center, a new high-end filmmaking studio, in Kaohsiung’s Pier 2 district that did much of the film’s eye-catching visuals.
Life of Pi gives life
Prashant Buyyala, managing director of Rhythm & Hues (R&H), the company operating the center which also has facilities in India, Malaysia, Canada and the US, said that Lee’s vision and the movie were the primary reasons why they set it up in Taiwan.
“R&H will train new talent and provide opportunities for the next generation of Taiwanese artists to work on major Hollywood films without having to leave home.” This translates to future creation of 200 jobs for digital artists in Taiwan, he added.
Life of Pi took four years to produce, with 70 percent of it filmed in Taiwan, and involved construction in a former Taichung airport of a 1.7-million-gallon water tank complete with wave machine to simulate being lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The film’s production employed over 14,000 people in several countries. Locals and expats who vied nationwide to be extras in the film were paid about NT$3,000 per day.
“I wondered why we didn’t have such a company in Taiwan. If Malaysia and India can do this, why not Taiwan? So I helped (R&H) set one up,” said the Oscar-winning Lee.
In a forum with Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊), the film’s now 18-year-old lead star Suraj Sharma and R&H executives, Ang said he chose the special effects company because of its track record.
“They’re the best at visual effects,” he said, adding, “I only work with the best companies.”
Setting up the film studio in Taiwan, he said, “is also good stimulus to drive us to be [more] innovative. It’s an issue that needs examination and reflection. The filmmaking industry needs a comprehensive supply chain. That is what is lacking in Taiwan. We need to elevate the infrastructure in Taiwan and equip young people with knowledge,” Lee said.
Initially, Lee had to convince 20th Century Fox executives to support his vision for the film. Fox eventually sign off on the massive US$120 million production costs — a large portion spent on its special effects, using not only the best in CGI (computer generated imagery) but also 3D technology.
R&H collected over 400 hours of stock footage — including thousands of still photos — of animals in Taiwan, France and at an animal trainer’s ranch in Los Angeles. Animators then pored over this material to study every detail regarding “the texture of the animals,” so as to achieve the highest degree of realism.
Although a number of shots in the film use real animals, Berger specified that state-of-the-art animation technologies such as the Cameron Pace System helped capture much of the tiger’s movement, “down to the 10,000 hairs of the tiger … every splay of a paw.”
When asked about the most difficult moment making Life of Pi, Berger said, “Every day is equally different as the day preceding it. It’s not like you’re a painter, where you decide to paint something and do it. It’s like building a skyscraper, involving thousands of people.”