Cinematography, VFX wins prove time was right for 'unfilmable' pic

Cinematography and visual effects Oscar wins for “Life of Pi” vindicate the patience and perseverance of filmmakers who were told for years that Yann Martel’s 2001 novel was unfilmable.

One of the two main characters is a tiger, and the story took place on a boat endlessly adrift at sea. 20th Century Fox knew it needed top-shelf VFX to make the project work — technology that hadn’t been invented until the last couple of years.

From a technical standpoint, the time was right: Claudio Miranda won for cinematography, his first; visual effects honors went to Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott. The pic has earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office and more than $465 million overseas.

But it was a long time in the making.

“It’s a large-scale epic adventure (and) truly very difficult to do, and probably not possible to do, until we had the latest technology available today,” Fox 2000 prexy Elizabeth Gabler told Variety in June.

And so the project waited. And waited. A decade passed. Directors came and went before Ang Lee came on board. And even after he did, Gabler even suggested he take the project elsewhere.

But both Gabler and Lee wanted to make the film, despite the studio’s concerns. Lee went so far as to build production facilities in his native Taiwan, which included a huge water tank (246 feet by 114 feet) that allowed him to control the rhythm, shape, size and length of the waves in his metaphysical extravaganza.

The project also had a champion in former 20th Century Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman, who left the studio last year, just before “Pi” was released. Lee has praised the use of real tigers to help as a reference point for his animators, who had to create CGI versions of the animal to accompany lead actor Suraj Sharma — who’d never acted before — in the boat. The result? A film given real and figurative life by its 3D technology.

“Pi’s” success is yet another reminder of the VFX shop that helped in the film’s success. In the days leading up to Oscar, El Segundo-based Rhythm and Hues filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and laid off more than a third of its staff. But the film is also a reminder of how far the work of the VFX industry has come, and what it has allowed filmmakers to achieve.

Westenhofer noted the Rhythm and Hues bankruptcy in his acceptance speech before being cut short by music from “The Good, the Bad and Ugly” for exceeding the time limit.

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