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Vfx team dares to take tiger by the tail

Eye on the Oscars: Below the Line

Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer was no stranger to animal-oriented projects when he came aboard Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” to realize a digital photorealistic tiger.

However, the film presented challenges beyond merely creating the beast. In “Pi,” the tiger, oddly named Richard Parker, is one of the two main characters. He and Pi Patel, played by Suraj Sharma, are castaways who survive 227 days on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean.

Westenhofer began his work by bringing four real tigers to Taiwan, where the film was partly shot, in order to obtain very precise animation references with the goal of making the animal as real-looking as possible.

According to Westenhofer, even the most skilled animators in the world need visual references. “A tiger is a solid mass of muscle with a loose bag of skin surrounding it, like a cloth that is draped over it,” he says. “We really studied the tiny nuances such as the shoulder ripple that occurs when he shifts his weight. By having the reference clips, we kept true to how the animal would react.”

After training and rehearsing with the tigers for five weeks, the production completed 23 shots of a real tiger around the lifeboat where most of the story takes place. The film’s remaining 148 tiger shots would be realized with advanced computer graphics technology. In the film, the real tigers are indistinguishable from the digital ones.

The lead vfx shop on the tiger shots, Rhythm and Hues, spent full year on research and development, building upon its already vast knowledge of CG animation as it created the fearsome Richard Parker. “Forty percent of our efforts were (born of) new technology,” which was used create “the hair, the way it lights, the muscle and skin system,” Westenhofer says.

Shots of other animals and of the film’s striking landscapes and oceanic elements drove Rhythm and Hues’ total number of vfx shots to 450. Additional shots, such as those of the storm and sinking ship, were handled by other vendors, with Westenhofer supervising the entire package. “What I’m most proud of is that visual effects can contribute to the art of the film as much as anything else in production,” Westenhofer says. “Ang said he looked forward to making art with us. Visual effects is not just technical. It can be a creative tool as well.”

Eye on the Oscars: Below the Line
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