Suraj Sharma and Ang Lee on opening night at the New York Film Festival.

It was a day and night filled with emotion as the 50th New York Film Festival opened at Lincoln Center. Sitting in the back row benches at the Walter Reade Theater this morning, one of the below the line crew let out a sigh of relief as the first screening of Life of Pi concluded. Exhaling as the audience offered extended applause the technician said over and over, “It was a journey. It was a journey.” As he said those words he started to cry. His voice cracking he reiterated, “This film has been such a journey.”

Projectionist, editors and sound engineers worked through the night on Thursday to synchronize the pair of digital projectors that would be used in tandem to light the large Alice Tully Hall screen. On just a few hours sleep they were back on Friday morning for the first showing in front of an audience. The team had watched the film countless times to make final tweaks, but now they were preparing to show the movie to an audience for the first time in the high profile spotlight of a New York Film Festival world premiere.

The debut raised the stakes for Ang Lee, a filmmaker known for exploring a diverse range of stories. He's been at the New York Film Festival with The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but with his new film, Life of Pi, he's embraced an ambitious showcase of technological wizardry while also trying to depict the bond between a young boy and a ferocious Bengal tiger who are last at sea together on a small boat. In the story, the two are shipwrecked together for more than 200 days.

Even though he still wants to tweak the film a bit more over the next two weeks, Ang Lee himself broke down when he finished the movie recently.

“I’m like Pi,” Ang Lee recently told the New York Times as he rushed to complete the movie. “I feel adrift over the Pacific. I haven’t locked the picture yet. There are lots of confusions, constant surprises. There are times you feel defeated. You feel like your faith is being tested. When you’re on the ocean, it’s spiritual. I look at God and ask, ‘Why?’ But it’s a happy why.”

On Friday night when he spoke during a private gala dinner hosted by the Film Society board, Ang Lee reflected on this notion of 'faith' expressed excitement at being able to finally share his latest film with an audience. 

“No story comes alive until it is passed along from one person to another,” Lee told the dinner audience, “And stories give life meaning.”

He expressed a particular sense of pride as he introduced the film to NYFF audiences. Making Life of Pi was ambitious, grueling and expensive, Lee explained, adding, “But, it has my heart in it.” Lee took a leap of faith on a young, unproven actor—Suraj Sharma—and employed breathtaking visuals in 3D to convey the story. On Friday he said he felt liberated to explore approaches to visual storytelling that he'd been imagining since film school.

Ang Lee added that he was especially excited to launch his new movie here in his hometown of some 30 years, a place where he learned filmmaking while a student downtown at NYU.

“This is a proud and humbling experience at the same time,” Lee said, “I don't know about Oscars and stuff, but this is great. This is cool!”

Throughout the evening, Ang Lee was escorted by two men from the film community he has known for many years, Fox studio chief Tom Rothman and Film Society Program Director Richard Peña.

“It is commonly said that art and commerce cannot co-exist,” Tom Rothman explained during remarks at dinner. “I can say that's not true.” He went on to note that true success requires three things: ambition, risk and talent.

“Tonight's film is a testament to that singular talent,” Rotham praised, toasting Ang Lee.

Lee has been coming to movies at Lincoln Center since his days at NYU. Numerous times he praised Film Society's Richard Peña for educating and enlightening so many New Yorkers like himself during his 25 years at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Finally, as the second of two Alice Tully Hall showings of Life of Pi got underway, Peña himself took the stage to an extended ovation from the full house crowd. He saluted Film Society friends and colleagues and then took a moment to thank his family. With his wife in the audience, Peña's voice cracked as he praised his family for his patience with him during his many years at Lincoln Center. As the crowd joined him in a round of applause, he put a hand to his eyes and stepped back from the podium for a moment to compose himself.

“Ok. Let's get serious now,” he said, exhaling. The responsive crowd chuckled and then Peña introduced the Opening Night film of the New York Film Festival for the 25th and final time.

The 50th New York Film Festival continues through Sunday, October 14th.