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It has taken 12 years to bring Life of Pi to the screen, from a genuine worldwide best seller. It has everything you go to the movies for – and can’t get anywhere else, as producer Gil Netter remarked. Andrew L. Urban pores through the notes by the filmmakers to compile a background briefing.

It is the versatile Hollywood producer Gil Netter who deserves the credit for starting the ball rolling on a film version of Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize winning, best selling but (surely) unfilmable book Life of Pi. He saw it as a story "which has everything you go to the movies for – and what you can’t get anywhere else.” 

Netter, who has had a long and successful relationship with Fox 2000 Pictures, brought the book to the company’s president of production, Elizabeth Gabler, who acquired the property for Fox in 2002. Netter’s production credits roll across films as varied as Water for Elephants, The Blind Side, Dude, Where’s My Car and My Best Friend’s Wedding. But Life of Pi is in a category of its own.

Growing up in Pondicherry, ‘French’ India during the 1970s, Piscine, known to all as Pi (at 17 years of age is played by Suraj Sharma; the contemporary character is played by Irrfan Khan; and as a youngster in the film’s early scenes, by Ayush Tandon), has a rich life. His father (Adil Hussain) owns a zoo, and Pi spends his days among tigers, zebras, hippos, and other creatures. But after Pi attempts to befriend a Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker, the young boy learns a harsh lesson from his father about the relationship between human and beast. As circumstances worsen for them, the family decides to move to Canada, hitching a ride on a Japanese cargo ship, where they encounter a sadistic French chef (Gérard Depardieu). Soon, Pi finds himself in the company of a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan, and Richard Parker the Bengal tiger, after a shipwreck sets them adrift in the Pacific Ocean.

"a heady experience"

Watching his book being translated into film was a heady experience for Martel, who notes that “Life of Pi has been translated into forty-two languages. To see it translated on film as a movie is like the forty-third. The language of cinema is a universal one and to see the story translated that way is a thrill.”

David Magee (“Neverland”) was given the daunting task of adapting Martel’s rich, far-reaching work that married the profound and whimsical with epic adventure and deep introspection. The screenwriter admits that while he read the book for pleasure some time before the assignment, now that he had the gig he wondered “how he could translate it for the screen.” The key, he determined, was the idea of simply telling a story about a story. “In the book, Pi is telling a story to the character of The Writer, just as Ang is telling us a story with his film,” says Magee. 

“Life of Pi, on a huge scale, is a fable of faith,” adds Lee. “In many ways, it is about the value of storytelling and the value of sharing stories.”

Indeed, and it is thanks to Lee’s cinematic vision that the film has turned out as miraculously as it has. 

"The challenges are endless"

The challenges are endless: a young Indian boy to carry the film; a tiger to share his lifeboat - after a terrible storm that sinks the ship; endless days on an endless ocean …with nothing but introspection, the tiger and the occasional whale.

After an extensive talent search throughout India, during which over 3,000 young men auditioned, Lee, his casting director Avy Kaufman and her team chose 17-year-old Suraj Sharma to play Pi Patel. Suraj is a student who at the time lived with his parents in Delhi. (Ironically, Suraj’s parents are mathematicians, and now their son was about to embark on his first film role – as a character named Pi – a mathematical constant and transcendental number.) 

"the innocence to capture our attention, the depth of character to break our hearts, and the physicality needed"

“We searched for a young man who had the innocence to capture our attention, the depth of character to break our hearts, and the physicality needed to embody Pi on his journey,” says Lee.

To mark the beginning of her son’s journey to a new world of acting and studio moviemaking (much like Pi finds himself on an adventure he could never have dreamed of), Suraj’s mother performed a small ceremony, during which she appointed Lee as her son’s guru. Lee’s first thoughts were that he was unworthy of assuming such a formidable responsibility. But the ceremony, he notes, “got to me,” and he agreed to strive to be deserving of the honour. 

Through a stringent program of diet and physical training, Suraj was transformed from a skinny 150 pounds to a muscular 167 pounds. Then during the course of filming his weight dropped to just over 130 pounds, to reflect Pi’s physical struggles.

Suraj spent much of the production in the world’s largest self-generating wave tank ever designed and built for a motion picture. Located in Taichung, Taiwan, on the site of a former airport, the tank measured 70 meters long, 30 meters wide and 4 meters deep, with a capacity of 1.7 million gallons, and allowed the filmmakers to generate a range of water textures. For the sinking of the ship Tsimtsum, and a massive “Storm of God” sequence, the tank’s water was replaced by CG H20. But I challenge anyone to notice.

And that was the least of it.

"digital magic"

Pi’s companion on his oceanic odyssey, Richard Parker the Bengal tiger, is largely a creation of advanced CG wizardry, overseen by visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer. The digital magic builds upon the revolutionary character CG work of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, creating a sentient creature that feels as real as the four actual Royal Bengal Tigers that served as physical and performance references. The visual effects team strove to maintain subtle animal nuances, and avoided anthropomorphizing the beast. 

Westenhofer credits the hundreds of hours of video the filmmakers took of tigers, with providing invaluable reference for their CG creation. Real animals also contributed some performance work.

The surreal and mysterious island inhabited by a huge clan of meerkats was realized through a combination of a practical location shot deep within a colony of indigenous banyan trees at a Taiwanese botanical reserve, sets designed by production designer David Gropman, and digitally created environments. 

Gropman notes that the banyan tree location was a critical one, “I was convinced that we would find inspiration for the meerkat island scenes in Taiwan. One of the biggest challenges was the practical locations and the design of the island itself. And I was convinced that we couldn't create the island in a convincing way without some inspiration from Mother Nature. Ang knew of a banyan tree reserve hidden within Taiwan’s Kenting National Forest and brought us in for a look. The reserve became the inspiration for the look of the mysterious island. The island as well as the banyan tree is one huge holistic organism and, not coincidentally, an indigenous tree typical of India. So the fact that it would be something that Pi would recognize was perfect.”

And after all that came the post production work of editor Tim Squyres, A.C.E., composer Mychael Danna, and the massive team working on the critical visual effects.

"the heart, soul and spirit"

Yet at the end of the film, it’s not the vast and brilliant technology but the heart, soul and spirit of the film that leaves a lasting impression.

Life of Pi – in cinemas from January 1, 2013

Published December 26, 2012

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