Saturday, January 19, 2013

How's The 3D In 'Life Of Pi'?


Considered an 'unfilmable' book, Life Of Pi has been kicking around Hollywood for years. Despite being briefly in the hands of Shyamalan and Jeunet, the burden of adapting Yann Martel's award-winning novel eventually fell to Ang Lee. A proven master of visual effects in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk, Lee seemed a good fit for the material. Eyebrows were raised though, when Lee announced he would film in native 3D; the wider industry seemed to ask, "doesn't he have enough trouble with the tiger and the ocean?" If you're after more background info, check out this 3Defence piece from a couple of months ago.

Native 3D

Claudio Miranda and Ang Lee on the Life Of Pi shoot
Life Of Pi was shot using Alexa cameras on Fusion 3D rigs provided by the Cameron Pace Group (as in, James Cameron). In charge of the film's visuals was accomplished cinematographer Claudio Miranda, whose most recent film was the similarly stunning Tron: Legacy. Between these films, his prior work with David Fincher, and upcoming film Oblivion, Miranda is carving out a niche for himself as one of digital cinema's true pioneers. If you're interested, we recommend having a read of this article to read about the challenges Miranda faced, filming digital footage whilst being surrounded by water. The crew had to contend with very bright reflections, whilst always measuring how 'seasick' the audience might feel bobbing up and down along with Pi and his tiger, Richard Parker.

Does the 3D 'pop'?

Does it ever! Ang Lee was reportedly motivated to film in 3D because of the new cinematic language it offered him (and not motivated by financial necessity or 'fad' like frenzy). His choices in Life Of Pi reflect this desire to learn and to innovate. The most significant trick he deployed was to add subtle letter-boxing to shots, to allow elements to jump out of the frame without actually popping out of the screen itself. You can see this technique in use in this picture, where a fish tail briefly flashes outside of the black border. This approach drew gasps from the audience 3Defence saw the film with, perhaps because the integrity of the frame was not compromised, and yet the film seemed to defy dimensions with something still managing to break free of the frame.

How's the depth of the 3D?

Life of Pi runs the gamut of depth choices available to modern film-makers. Many scenes favour the 'deep focus' Lee applied to his 2003 film Hulk. Others seem to stretch out to an infinite horizon, the likes of which are impressionistic and - dare we say it - nigh on Kubrickian. Then there are Pi's flashback scenes, which are often shot with incredibly shallow focus, where an actor's close-up is visibly separated from a blurry background. On paper, these stylistic choices may seem a hodgepodge of disparate ideas, but their varied usage in the film's extended opening sequence helps establish visual cues that later create a sort of short-hand that Lee can use to ease his audience into a narrative that jumps around between decades, multiple actors playing the same part, and various changes in scenery too. In short, Lee didn't just shoot in 3D to learn to speak its 'language'; he clearly shot this way so he'd later be able to teach the language.

Did it make sense to film in 3D?

That depends who you talk to. One imagines the crew on Life of Pi dreaded the complications of real tigers, over-bright sets filled with water, and child actors; they didn't need 3D bringing an extra headache to their shoot. Creatively, it makes sense to use every visual trick you can muster when telling a tale which overtly demands your suspension of disbelief in its own narrative. Finally, from a business perspective, the film was always likely to do well in the wider Asian market, where 3D cinema has been doing particularly great business for years, so it makes sense that the film's producers would chase a few extra dollars this way.

If we had to archive one version, should we save the 3D or the 2D?

The 3D version, without a doubt. Life of Pi joins the likes of Hugo and Avatar as an Oscar-nominated triumph that is a superior experience when watched with glasses on. Ang Lee abides by rules set by James Cameron: night-time scenes must have a dedicated light source (bio-luminescence is used here too), editing is allowed to be abrupt if quick-fire shots aren't "overtly 3D", and massive action (like Pi's shipwreck) ought to be framed with a human in the foreground to give us an easy sense of scale. It's clear to the audience that each shot's usage of 3D effects have been clearly thought out, and designed with purpose by master craftspeople.

Roger Ebert, notorious naysayer about 3D technology, has this to say: "What astonishes me is how much I love the use of 3-D in Life of Pi. I've never seen the medium better employed, not even in Avatar, and although I continue to have doubts about it in general, Lee never uses it for surprises or sensations, but only to deepen the film's sense of places and events"

The film itself

The one flaw most bring up with Life of Pi is its extended opening sequence, which deals exclusively with characters who, by and large, disappear from the narrative from Act 2 onwards. Many misread this as a 'waste of time'. The story itself is fiendishly difficult, in that grief plays a large part in the wider tale, and for that grief to seem palpable we must be shown how good things were before they got really, really, bad. Luckily, Ang Lee coaxes great work from his child actors and shoots these scenes with a warmth and sure-footedness that makes the shock of being stranded at sea that bit more effective. We at 3Defence didn't mind the pace of the film one bit - as an epic piece of cinema that traverses continents, it is a worthy Awards-season contender from 2012.

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