Many of the spectacular visuals in “Life of Pi” take place in the middle of the
ocean, yet special effects coordinator Donald R. Elliott did most of his work
on dry land in an abandoned Taiwan airport hangar, which housed the largest
self-generating wave tank ever constructed for a movie.
Measuring 230 feet by 99 feet, and with a capacity of 1.7 million gallons, the
tank allowed for a range of water textures and also served as the stage for a
pair of action-filled, big-water sequences – both pivotal to the story – that
were engineered by Elliott and his crew of 25.
In the first, the sinking of the Tsimtsum, the doomed freighter with Pi (Suraj
Sharma) and his family aboard is being tossed about by giant waves from a
severe nighttime weather system with strong winds and torrential rain. Director
Ang Lee pressed for realism.
“He wanted the real kind of motion that a ship would make (in that situation),”
says Elliott, who has more than 40 films to his credit, including Lee’s 2003
comicbook superhero pic, “The Incredible Hulk.”
Later, adrift in a small lifeboat, Pi and his companion (a Bengal tiger, added
by visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer and his team) encounter the
massive “storm of God,” which becomes a spiritual experience for Pi.
“For the wrath that rolls over him, we had the boat on a gimbal that rocked and
spun – we called it the rotisserie – so that we could get the shots of Suraj
inside the boat tipping back and forth,” says Elliott, who adds that while the
giant wave tank allowed for a measure of control, the production still
stretched his talents.
“The choreography of all the pieces of equipment to get the water, the boat,
the kid and the tiger out in the middle of the tank was a big deal,” he says.
“No matter what the shots are on the water, they’re always tougher. Being in
the water presents its own challenges.”