Season Spotlight: “Life of Pi”

As awards season kicks into high gear, The Season begins daily spotlights on the films that are receiving (or, in our opinion, should be receiving) end-of-year buzz. These posts are aimed at highlighting some of the best cinema of the year and making the case for why they deserve your eyeballs, whether it's for the first, second, or fifth time.

It's fitting that we open our series of awards Season Spotlights with Ang Lee's Life of Pi, which had its World Premiere as the Opening Night film of the 50th New York Film Festival. On that special evening, after a whopping eight screenings throughout the Lincoln Center campus, festival attendees left feeling bedazzled by a film of supreme beauty and spirituality. 

Based on Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, Life of Pi tells the story of a young man's struggle for survival after a shipwreck leaves him stranded aboard a lifeboat with a hungry tiger as his only shipmate. Released over a decade ago, the novel arrived on the big screen last month after a journey filled with setbacks and multiple incarnations until Ang Lee was brought on in 2009. Under the stewardship of Fox 2000's Elizabeth Gabler—who was here at the Film Society along with Martel, Lee, and others for a post-screening press conference—the project previously was attached to directors such as M. Night Shyamalan and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. In the end, Fox went with Ang Lee because, as Gabler noted in the press conference, the studio felt that "under Ang's directorship we would have something that was extraordinary and new to the world in so many different ways."

Richard Peña, Rose Kuo, Tom Rothman, Suraj Sharma, Ang Lee, Yann Martel & Elizabeth Gabler at NYFF Opening Night. Photo by Ashley Dupree.

And extraordinary is what they got with Lee's awe-inspiring vision beautifully presented in 3D, an unthinkable idea when the project was first optioned by Fox in 2003. Even James Cameron, the modern pioneer of 3D cinema, praised the film in a special featurette, stating his belief that "the technology we created has contributed to a masterpiece." 

Such technical inventiveness in Life of Pi isn't specific to its use of 3D. A film that largely focuses on a young man and tiger on a small lifeboat presents problems. As the film's special effects supervisor, Bill Westenhofer, put it quite simply in a recent piece in The New York Times, "we didn't want our actor to get eaten." To avoid such an issue, Lee decided to create the tiger via CGI (computer-generated imagery). But what you see isn't completely a digitally created tiger, according to the piece. "We used [live tigers] for single shots, where it was just the tiger in the frame," says Westenhofer. "By doing that, it set our bar high for CGI. We couldn’t cheat at all. It pushed the artists to go and deliver something that’s never been done before, something as photo-real as anyone has ever done with an animal.”

Ang Lee at Life of Pi's world premiere at the New York Film Festival. Photo by Olga Bas.

Rarely does a film come along that so seamlessly blends cutting-edge technology with such profound, heartfelt emotion. With Life of Pi, Lee uses the grandiose, fantastical tools of modern cinema to create a truly transcendental film.

Awards (So Far):

AFI Movies of the Year

Nominated, Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Awards: Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominated, Satellite Awards: Best Picture, Best Adapated Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing & Editing, Best Visual Effects

Watch the full Life of Pi press conference from NYFF below:

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