Oscars 2013: How Life of Pi tiger Richard Parker roared into life

By : |December 6, 2012 0

BANGALORE, INDIA: A simple arithmetic on the eyeball-grabbing scenes in the visual 3D spectacle, Life of Pi, reveals that out of 960 shots in the movie, only 270 didn’t involve any visual effects (VFX) sequences.

Sure, there are many other recent movies that had a lot of animated scenes and computer-generated imagery (CGI), but this one faced two real creative and technical challenges. One, to create photo-realistic animals and two, to have long drawn-out ocean sequences that didn’t look chimerical.

In fact, Oscar-winner Ang Lee’s film adaptation of the Yann Martel novel by the same name was long thought to be ‘unfilmable’ and used four real tigers as reference, with 85 per cent of the shots featuring the ‘hero’ Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker, being computer-generated imagery (CGI).

Its scope of work features numerous other photo-real characters, including the orangutan, zebra, hyena and meerkats, apart from extensive open ocean water simulations and the exhilarating flying fish sequences, matte paintings, animatronics, a wave simulation tank and practical effects. Subsequently, stereoscopic production added another layer of complexity. Also, it necessitated full Category 12 storm sequences on long, sustained shots as well as artistry through visual effects.

According to Academy Award winner Bill Westenhofer, the production’s visual effects supervisor, “Ang Lee addressed the team at Rhythm & Hues, and concluded his welcome by saying that he looked forward to ‘creating art with us’. It’s not often we’re offered that kind of an opportunity.”

Westenhofer is a VFX supervisor for Rhythm & Hues (R&H), which was the lead effects house on the film. About 600 digital artists and staff in the company’s six international locations directly contributed to the film over the course of three years.

Westenhofer continues, “We have made photo-real animals before, but no matter how real we made them, they ultimately had to talk or get up and dance. This was a chance to make a digital tiger that behaved like a real tiger. I told the team that our goal was to produce work that was so seamless that we would ‘work ourselves out of recognition’ in that the audience would not realize they are watching visual effects.”

Forget audiences, even director Lee couldn’t recognize the digital creation and mistook it for the real beast. “We laid our digital tiger over footage of the real animal that we had taken in France. Ang saw it and asked ‘is that King?’, the name of the real tiger, Richard Parker, is based on. I said, ‘yes, it was’, but it was clear he hadn’t realized he was looking at a computer version. As soon as he did, he smiled and said ‘good work.’ It was at that point we both realized we were on the road to creating something special,” Westenhofer recalls.

“It was the exceptional attention to detail that we fostered in our artists that made the difference for Life of Pi, even beyond the technical advancements.”

R&H’s animation director Erik-Jan de Boer adds to it, “Having Ang Lee describe our work as ‘impeccable’ is, I think, the best compliment the team has ever received. This was the perfect challenge for our animation team: complex quadrupedal locomotion on a swaying lifeboat with pure animalistic behaviour.”

He worked with supervisors, Brian Wells, Scott Claus, Ian Blum and Matt Shumway, each leading a group of animators spread out over R&H facilities in Los Angeles (15 animators), Mumbai (15) and Hyderabad (12). The full animation team was supported by a layout group, supervised by Lulu Simon in Los Angeles.

Using CGI to successfully emote with a 450-pound Bengal tiger, intercut with a live action animal, was an incredibly exciting challenge for the animation team. But, working together for many years on projects, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Night at the Museum 1 & 2, and The Golden Compass, the team had developed a solid understanding of general physicality and biomechanics, and the ability to create complex photo-realistic animalistic behavior and quadrupedal locomotion.

All CGI sequences in Life of Pi were created through keyframe animation in R&H’s proprietary software package, Voodoo. A layer of technical animation was added on top of the main performance by a team of 16 artists based in Los Angeles and supervised by Matt Brown.

Complex simulations, based on character motion, wind, water and other external forces, were run to add realistic details to the animal skins (muscularity and body mass harmonics), hair, whiskers, fins and various props, like lifejacket straps and the lifeboat tarp.

R&H crowd artists Jason Quintana and Mark Welser used software package, Massive, to create flocking simulations for the flying fish shots and meerkat island populations. The meerkat behaviors were controlled through complex rules that sourced an extensive keyframed motion library to create crowds of up to 60,000 animals.

Headquartered in El Segundo, California, Rhythm & Hues’ Film Division is a global production house for the creation of visual effects and animation for Hollywood movies. Among its 145 screen credits are The Golden Compass and Babe, Academy Award winners for Achievement in Visual Effects, in 2008 and 1995 respectively. The studio has additional facilities in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kuala Lumpur, Vancouver and Kaohsiung in Taiwan.

R&H’s projects currently in production include Django Unchained, R.I.P.D, The Seventh Son, Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters, 300: Rise of an Empire, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Winters Tale, Grown Ups 2 and Black Sky.

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