How did they bring the 'unfilmable' Life of Pi to our screens?

The tale of an Indian boy who becomes stranded in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger went on to sell more than seven million copies

Nick Clark@MrNickClark
Saturday 08 December 2012 01:00

The book had been described as "unfilmable". But 10 years on, director Ang Lee has been hailed by critics for his adaptation of Life of Pi, which is to hit UK cinemas next week.

Yann Martel caused a literary sensation after Life of Pi was published in 2001. Despite being rejected by five publishers, it was picked up by Knopf Canada and won the Man Booker Prize a year later. The tale of an Indian boy who becomes stranded in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger went on to sell more than seven million copies and was translated into 42 languages. Lee, whose work includes Brokeback Mountain and Sense and Sensibility, said: "Cinematically speaking, it was the most difficult movie I ever made".

Critic Roger Ebert has called the film a "miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery" while another critic suggested that Lee's adaptation means nothing is unfilmable anymore. The dazzling effects look to be a strong contender for an Oscar. Here is how they turned some of Martel's text into visuals.

1. "I saw a sight that will stay with me for the rest of my days. Richard Parker had risen and emerged. He was not 15ft from me. Oh, the size of him! "

Suraj Sharma, who played Pi, was not required to act in a lifeboat opposite an adult Bengal tiger. The film-makers had four tigers to serve as references for Richard Parker, and while some shots were of the real beasts, most were digital with the images stitched together in post-production.

The process was overseen by the effects whiz behind The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Sharma won the role by accident, after accompanying his brother who was preparing to read for the part. He was hired after 3,000 auditioned.

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2. "You must imagine a hot and humid place, bathed in sunshine and bright colours. The riot of flowers is incessant. There are trees, shrubs and climbing plants in profusion."

Pi tells the story of his early life in India, where he lives in his family's zoo and during the passages explores the world's three major religions – Christianity, Islam and Hinduism – and decides to follow all three.

Lee said he never considered shooting the scenes set in Pondicherry, India, anywhere else. He said: "I scouted and there is really nothing else that compares to French India. It's unique and somewhat unfamiliar to the rest of the world."

The production filmed on 18 locations in and around Pondicherry, and a crew of 600 worked on the opening sequences of the film. About 5,500 locals were hired as background actors for a religious ceremony shown in the film. During the scene 110,000 candles were lit. The fictional zoo was created from the town's Botanical Gardens by "creating every enclosure almost as an individual piece of theatre", according to production designer David Gropman.

3. "The landscape was covered in meerkats. And when I appeared, it seemed that all of them turned to me, astonished, like chickens in a farmyard, and stood up."

As his boat drifts on, they come across an island inhabited by meerkats. The island was created partly at a Taiwanese botanical reserve, where they shot within a colony of indigenous banyan trees. Those images were then enhanced with digital imagery and an island was created around them. Production designer David Gropman said the banyan tree location was critical to creating the feel of the island. "I was convinced we couldn't create the island in a convincing way without some inspiration from Mother Nature."

4. "The ship sank. It made a sound like a giant metallic burp. Things bubbled at the surface and then vanished. Everything was screaming: the sea, the wind, my heart."

Pi's family and the animals from the zoo are on a container ship that sinks in a storm. Pi makes it on to a life raft with several animals. Much of the filming was carried out in a self-generating wave tank on a set in Taiwan, the largest constructed for a movie. Sharma, the actor who played Pi at 17, said the tank, which held 1.7 million gallons of water, "began to feel like my home". The sinking of the ship Tsimtsum in the "Storm of God" sequence was largely carried out with computer graphics. The film-makers wanted the ocean to appear "as much a character as possible".

5. "It took me a few seconds to understand what it was. An arching wrinkle around its edge was my clue. It was an eye. It was a whale. Its eye, the size of my head, was looking directly at me."

A whale swims right underneath the boat and Pi looks it in the eye. In a change from the book, the whale breaks through the surface and jumps over the boat.

In one of the most stunning images from the film, Pi is drifting on the raft at night surrounded by luminescent plankton. Again the whale was created through visual effects in post production. "The whale breach has a slightly overcranked feel, a slightly slow-motion feel, and to get the weight into the animal is tricky," Erik de Boer, animation supervisor of Rhythm & Hues, told The Daily.

"To push the drama and make it spectacular we just pushed the height of the jump. And the whale comes out of the water completely and it looks cool."

The effects also had to use the bioluminescence to light the whale and inside its mouth.

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