There’s a very quiet turning point in Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s take on Yann Martel’s novel, in which the film’s protagonist, Piscine Patel–affectionately called Pi, is submerged underwater during a horrific storm. He watches the ocean freighter he was just on slowly sink to the lowest depths of the ocean, ripping his family away from him. Life as he knows it is gone. It’s a surprisingly calm scene, a stark contrast from the turbulent waters above witnessed seconds before. It’s a scene that–even in a film with a $150 million budget–highlights Ang Lee’s main skill: Evoking cool emotion surrounded by implied chaos. It’s a skill he’s proved internationally since Pushing Hands in 1992 and in the United States with Sense and Sensibility in 1995.
“In the end, it’s story and character development that speak for themselves,” Ang Lee says about his work. “I usually do well on big productions because things go quicker on set and it’s a little easier because there’s a lot more help.” It’s surprising to hear this coming from a director who has worked mostly on a number of smaller features sprinkled with blockbusters like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Hulk (his only film that has been critically panned) in between. “Smaller production requires more discipline and restraint, you have to make the days, and you don’t have the freedom to afford everything you need,” he explains.
Still, after shooting in Pondicherry, India in a 200,000-square-foot studio with a crew of almost 600 for Life of Pi, Lee did find dark days and lost moments as the production moved to Taiwan. The world’s largest self-generating wave tank was created for a journey aboard a lifeboat with Pi and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. “The visual effects weren’t so bad and the things I learned from The Hulk were very useful,” he says. “But dealing with water on the set and having the hours pass by was very stressful and there were times where it was just so hopeless in the water tank that I didn’t want to deal with it.”
The tank was also complicated by the fact that this was Lee’s first foray into 3-D filmmaking, a process which the film’s distributor–20th Century Fox–has embraced since James Cameron’s Avatar, along with motion capture techniques. “The 3-D cameras were cumbersome,” Lee says. It was a trial and error process due to the camera’s weight, combined with the limitations of the tank. “I think it will be a legitimate artistic form once it gets cheaper and a lot of younger filmmakers embrace it and try out a new style. It’s just more elusive to me. No one is really familiar with it and technically we did many things that the special effects guys had never done before.” Shooting digitally was also an adjustment. “The colors and how you treat light, they’re quite different and they have a different look,” he says.
In the case of both this film and The Hulk, Lee’s biggest production experiences, he pre-visualizes scenes, something he calls, “the biggest adjustment.” Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was also pre-visualized to a certain extent, but in a less formal way. “It was very much improv,” he says. “It was a big guerrilla film that was very low tech compared to these two.” Still, he says that something like The Hulk was not necessarily harder than Crouching Tiger. “In China at that time, making that movie was really hard and the martial arts choreography took me two months to become aware of what I was doing,” he explains. His film before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was Ride with the Devil, something he calls his first real action film. “That’s when I think I started to want to move toward action and bigger productions,” he says. “I think of action pretty fast and it took me only two weeks of action to adapt.”
The payoff of action and martial arts choreography came when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning four–including Best Foreign Language Film. Crouching Tiger grossed $128 million in the United States, making it the highest grossing foreign language film of all time. He later went on to receive an Academy Award for Best Director with the less frenetic Brokeback Mountain. It’s speculated that Life of Pi will also rack up nominations, particularly for its technical achievements.
“3-D is a film language that’s not established, but when looking at the water I don’t think we could have pulled this movie off in 2-D or at least thinking in 2-D,” he says. “The book made me want to do this movie and I feel like I’m quite loyal to it,” he says with a pause. “I hope I did it justice.”
[Images: Twentieth Century Fox]