There is a ‘Brokeback Mountain’ in everyone’s heart, and a ‘Bengal Tiger’ in everyone’s heart.
In 2012, Ang Lee brought “a work that could not be made into a film” to the big screen. 3D, four tigers as models, 17-year-old newcomer to take the lead, Ang Lee used the commercial elements of the disaster adventure film to complete the personal artistic expression, with a gorgeous visual spectacle to tell the story of survival of man and faith. The story of survival is a magnificent visual spectacle that blossoms into a strange flower that is different from the original, but just as profound and intriguing as it is, stunning the world.
On November 21 of that year, ‘Life of Pi’ was released in Northern America, a day after it arrived in mainland China, firing the first shot of the 2013 Chinese New Year season, followed by ‘1942’ and ‘The Last Supper’, which were scheduled a week after it.
Also about disaster, survival, humanity, faith, hunger, in the battle with ‘1942’, ‘Life of Pi’ took 573 million yuan at the domestic box office, and finally 600 million dollars at the global box office, and received unanimous praise, achieving a win-win situation at the box office, commercial and artistic balance.
The following year at the Oscars, Ang Lee won the Best Director award for the second time after ‘Brokeback Mountain’, once again signifying his status as the “No. 1 Chinese filmmaker”.
One man, one tiger, one ocean, 227 days of drifting, 127 minutes of film time, the audience saw different versions of the story, giving multiple interpretations, and each interpretation reflects some aspect of human nature.
Ang Lee says that there is a beast hiding in everyone’s heart, and this tiger is our desire as well as our fear.
As Ang Lee’s first 3D film, the film’s story, theme and technology are perfectly blended, with visual spectacle and life spectacle flying together, and the extremely philosophical ending is still discussed by audiences today.
A tiger at heart, a rose at heart. Some people say that ‘Life of Pi’ is Ang Lee’s version of ‘Rashomon’. 10 years have passed, do you still stick to the choices you believed in back then? Which story do you identify with? Choose to believe in the difficult survival of man and tiger, or the cruel outcome of man eating man?
From Novel to Film: Ang Lee’s “Addition and Subtraction”
The film ‘Life of Pi’ is based on the magical realism work of the same name by Canadian author Yann Martel. The novel won the 2002 British Booker Prize, ‘The New York Times’ Outstanding Book of the Year and other honors, and stayed on the ‘The New York Times’ bestseller list for more than a year.
When ‘Life of Pi’ was translated and introduced in China in 2005, it was included in the Children’s Literature Library because of its inclusion of a wide variety of animals – species that are understood simply as innocent and without advanced intellectual activity.
In fact, the original novel is rich and far-reaching, full of fantasy adventure while profoundly bizarre. When the novel was a hit in Europe and the United States, it was called “impossible to be visualized” by the film industry because of its abstract, religious and philosophical content.
The difficulty of the adaptation is that it is difficult and costly to translate the image to a tiger and a boy, which was limited by the technology at that time.
In addition, the novel focuses on the spiritual core of the faith of man, which is more inclined to independent production and literary style of authorial expression, and it is difficult to balance with commercialized and genre-oriented big productions.
Fox acquired the film adaptation of the novel in 2003, and they considered such famous directors as M. Night Shyamalan, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Alfonso Cuarón before Ang Lee took over.
Shyamalan and Jeunet had even written the script for the film with their own writers, but each time the project was aborted for different reasons.
When Fox came to Ang Lee with an olive branch, Ang Lee turned his initial fear of the difficulty of adapting the novel into a victory over a seemingly insurmountable challenge, stirring his artistic “militant” nerve.
He compares himself to being like Pi meeting a tiger, “fear is the strength”, which can raise his alertness and not be eliminated due to stereotypes.
“Relying on instinct, people can survive, with innocence, people have faith.” Ang Lee once said that he is the “Pi” in the movie.
The initial intention of taking over ‘Life of Pi’, Ang Lee is obviously not limited to showing the fantasy story of the underdog, the teenager and the tiger, and the harmonious coexistence of man and nature, but hopes to explore the themes of how man overcomes fear, how to live with oneself, and the religious beliefs of man under the desire to survive.
Ang Lee once said, “Pi is irrational numbers, how do you see this circle in this unexplained thing, and I think it’s interesting for Easterners to shoot Westerners’ philosophical works, and I hope I can get the good things from both East and West.”
Ang Lee’s thought of deconstructing western culture with eastern Zen ideas is actually reflected in every addition and subtraction to the novel.
An important scene in the novel: Pi and the tiger are drifting in the sea exhausted, without food, blind and desperate, and can only wait for death, but miraculously meet another person who is also floating in the lifeboat. When the two lifeboats get closer and closer, the drifter tries to kill Pi for food, the tiger tears him apart and falls into the food of the tiger and Pi. It is only after this scene that Pi arrives at the fantasy island where the metaphor is reborn.
This paragraph took up 20 pages in the book, but was cut out entirely by Ang Lee. He deleted this paragraph and replaced it with dreamy images of jellyfish, giant whales, giant ships, mirror-like oceans, etc., allowing the audience to vaguely perceive the fictional nature of the story.
In addition to a lot of subtractions, Ang Lee also made certain additions, such as the object of Pi’s first love. The original does not have this girl, Ang Lee added this character through her related plot to bring in elements of Hinduism: dance, hand gestures (lotus in the forest), red thread. These elements, in turn, coincide with the portrayal of the mysterious island in the latter part of the film.
In addition, Pi had trained the tiger to jump through hoops in the novel, while in the movie he did not really eliminate his fear of the tiger, which also always remained a threat to humans as a carnivore.
At the same time, blood, feces and rot are barely visible on the decks of the lifeboats in the movie, maintaining an unrealistic dramatic scene.
All of these were necessary for the aesthetic choices and thematic expression of Ang Lee’s adaptation. On the basis of respecting the original, Ang Lee has made wonderful additions and subtractions to the novel’s text, blending the spiritual philosophies of East and West.
From the award-winning book that became a bestseller in 2002 to the film adaptation that was brought to the screen in 2012, ‘Life of Pi’ has had many twists and turns on the road to visualization.
The search for 3D has become the most important exit for Ang Lee to solve the problem for himself, as to how to realize the visual expression of the adapted text.
Ang Lee’s first 3D movie, CG tiger to fake real
After the release of ‘Life of Pi’ Ang Lee has said that if put five years ago, the film simply could not be made, but the development of 3D and CG technology (to make animals such as tigers) has made everything possible. “It’s very difficult to take apart the book, at least not to my ability. When I thought about a different perspective, about 3D, suddenly I realized that this pi is solved.”
In fact, as early as 2003 when ‘Hulk’, Ang Lee took a risk because of technology, using a large number of computer special effects for production, although the film was not good at the box office, but inspired Ang Lee’s study of technology and fascination.
The global success of ‘Avatar’ in 2009 became a major driving force behind 3D cinema and provided Ang Lee with a new production mindset and visual language for ‘Life of Pi’. The 3D shooting machine for ‘Life of Pi’ was rented from Cameron’s company.
Ang Lee has revealed that when borrowing the machine, Cameron will also send a shooting instruction manual, which is the director after shooting ‘Avatar’ summed up some basic rules of how to shoot in 3D.
However, Ang Lee, who had adopted 3D as a new “cinematic language”, did not follow Cameron’s instructions, but rather learned and experimented with the characters and themes of ‘Life of Pi’.
Using 3D technology, Ang Lee expands the landscape of this film, enriching the film’s visual expression levels and spatial effects, allowing the audience to be fully immersed in Pai’s journey of survival.
Fox Film Entertainment Group CEO Tom Rothman has said of ‘Life of Pi,’ “combining the visual effects of ‘Titanic,’ the 3D technological revolution of ‘Avatar’ and the lifelike CG-animated characters of ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes,’ to bring a novel that could not be made into a movie to the to the screen.”
In addition to the first try of 3D technology, the film’s production of the tiger through CG technology is also amazing, as a product of computer digital animation magic, completely no less than the real tiger in nature.
A total of four real tigers (Bengal Tiger) were used as physical references for the CG production of ‘Life of Pi’, three of which were from France and one of which was the most docile from Canada.
Ang Lee spent a lot of time with the tigers and their trainers, learning about their personalities and observing their reactions in different states, eventually recording thousands of hours of tiger footage.
During the shooting, Pi’s actors had never actually been on the same boat with a real tiger, so in order to make the actors more into the scene and have a sense of atmosphere, Pi shot the scene with a blue cloth wrapped tiger model, and then later replaced the blue tiger with a CG tiger.
Sometimes, Ang Lee got down on the boat board and played the tiger himself. And there are 24 real tiger shots, mainly including the tiger swimming in the water.
In order to truly present the original nature of the tiger, Ang Lee asked the special effects team to show its natural wildness, rather than allowing the tiger to be personified and shown as a threat to humans from beginning to end, which also follows the setting of the novel in which the tiger and Pi are kept at a dangerous distance from beginning to end.
Finally, the tiger made by CG, from the hair, eyes, paws and even an expression, a move, are lifelike, indistinguishable from the real, while exuding the fierce beastly nature of the “king of beasts”.
In addition, many of the sea scenes of ‘Life of Pi’ were shot in a water tank built at a former military airport in Taichung, Taiwan, China.
As the world’s largest fully automatic wave device tank at the time, 70 feet long, 30 feet wide and 4 feet deep, with a capacity of 1,700 gallons of water, it can create a variety of waves to simulate real waves. Some seawater images are drawn through computer animation effects.
For the Pi actor, he soaked in the sink almost every day during the months of filming, “a sink that later became just like my home.”
In 3D and CG technology special effects, the storm swept the surging sea, flying fish, dolphins jumping up, sharks swimming, as well as the sky at night and the night sky stars and other magnificent wonders of nature, have brought the audience a stunning visual enjoyment and spiritual impact.
With the extraordinary special effects spectacle, ‘Life of Pi’ finally won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. It is worth mentioning that the company “Rhythm & Hues Studios”, which won this award for ‘Life of Pi’, eventually suffered the fate of bankruptcy, it is reported that because of the long production cycle of ‘Life of Pi’, the financial deterioration was dragged down by the project.
In 2014, a 30-minute documentary, ‘Life After Pi’, followed the company before and after its collapse.
This event also reflects the time, money and effort behind the production of ‘Life of Pi’.
At a time when technical effects, especially 3D, had not yet generated more criticism in the eyes of audiences, Ang Lee’s first taste of 3D cinema was astonishing, and without the slightest trace of showmanship. He used ‘Life of Pi’ to prove to audiences that audiovisual stimulation is ultimately a service to emotions, and that technological innovation cannot override story, character and theme.
Life of Pi’, which combines the three most difficult elements of cinematography, namely “children, animals and water”, is an all-round success, making it a perfect match between technology and cinema aesthetics after ‘Avatar’ and ‘Hugo’, and allowing audiences and creators to see more possibilities of cinema art. It also allows audiences and creators to see more possibilities of film art.
Since then, Ang Lee’s obsession with technology has been unstoppable, and the subsequent ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ ‘Gemini Man’, which he directed, ventured into the 120 fps + 4K + 3D format, is a risky move by Ang Lee to challenge himself and seek more possibilities for expression, and to become “obsessed” with technology.
In the film ‘Life of Pi’, the lead actor, Pi, is almost a one-man show, shot with a non-existent “tiger” partner on set. Ang Lee chose Suraj Sharma, a 17-year-old Indian boy with no previous acting experience, as a bold and unexpected choice for the role.
Ang Lee took 6 months to choose this newcomer from 3000 people in the sea, which made a beautiful accident.
During the audition, Suraj read a two-page monologue, and with a little nudging from Ang Lee, it came together and brought tears to Ang Lee’s eyes.
Ang Lee says, “We wanted a boy whose innocence would capture our attention, whose depth would break our hearts, and whose physique would illustrate the pie in the drift. During the audition, Suraj exuded a wealth of emotion, mostly conveyed with his eyes. His ability to believe in and be in the world of the story is a rare gift.”
First gaining weight, then losing weight, during the shooting of the film, in order to match the change in Pai’s physique during the rafting, Suraj needed to change from a skinny boy of 68 kg, to a muscular man of 76 kg, and finally sharply reduced to 59 kg.
At the same time, before filming Suraj also had to undergo intense training on swimming and balance, learning a variety of survival skills.
Under the guidance of Ang Lee, Suraj, who had no acting experience, gave a natural and pure performance in the film, interpreting the emotions of extreme fear, loneliness and despair, and exhaustion in a remarkable way, finally completing the miracle of drifting with the “tiger”.
During the shooting, Suraj and Ang Lee built up a deep bond. After the final scene, they hugged each other and shed tears, as if they had experienced 227 days of drifting together.
Ang Lee, who guided Suraj, undoubtedly became the inspiration of Suraj’s acting path, and this film also changed Suraj’s life.
After ‘Life of Pi’ became a big hit, Suraj received a series of film and television commissions, appearing in ‘Million Dollar Arm’, ‘Happy Death Day 2U’ and ‘How I Met Your Father’, but has not been able to surpass the sensation caused by the role of Pai, which can be said to be the peak of the debut.
The actor who played the “middle-aged Pi” in ‘Life of Pi’, the famous Indian actor Irrfan Khan, sadly passed away in 2020 due to illness.
He has appeared in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, ‘Hindi Medium’, ‘Jurassic World’, ‘Salaam Bombay!’ and other productions, achieving great success in both Bollywood and Hollywood.
The sudden death of Irrfan Khan, then 53, seems to confirm his words in ‘Life of Pi’: “I guess in the end, life is about constantly letting go, but unfortunately, we are too late to say goodbye properly.”
Pi was heartbroken when the tiger left Pi decisively without looking back. In life, every experience and experience will take us farther into the unknown, but with faith in our hearts, we will not drift away.