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Balancing Digital Cinema, 3D And Water In “Life Of Pi”

Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

The prospect of working with director Ang Lee excited DP Claudio Miranda, but he didn’t expect he’d get the chance.  When Miranda received the call to discuss the feature adaptation of “Life of Pi” with Lee, he knew another person had been lined up to shoot the film.  He expected the conversation to sink faster than the novel’s fated cruiser.


“I’ve done terrible at interviews over the years; I’ve never got a job from one,” said Miranda.  “But we met, and we had a fantastic meeting.  We talked for hours.”


Lee wanted to shoot “Life of Pi” in 3D, a decision that dictated shooting digitally.  He was looking for DP’s with compelling digital and 3D examples in their portfolio, and was inspired with Miranda’s work on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Tron; Legacy.” Prior to shooting, Lee poured over 3D examples and was keenly aware of the affect poor filming choices made on eye discomfort, such as tight shutter angles.  Part of Miranda’s pre-production process involved recreating these 3D errors, then illustrating to Lee techniques they would employ to avoid making similar mistakes.


Pre-production also required close scrutiny during camera tests.  Sun glistening off water can be read as noise by most digital cameras.  Because the majority of Pi’s story takes place on the open ocean, this was a primary concern.  Miranda found the Arri Alexa handled the details of the water’s surface well without presenting an image that felt electronic


Water also provides exceptional challenges for 3D production.  Miranda knew conversion was not an option – cut outs can’t be made of water in post to play with depth of field the same way solid structures can.  Having used the PACE Fusion 3D rig on “Tron; Legacy,” Miranda knew it was his best choice.   He was also aware of Vince Pace’s groundbreaking underwater work, and knew this experience would prove extremely valuable for a capsizing scene early in the film.


“The capsizing scene was one of our first scenes, and it’s an epic scene,” said Miranda.  “We had water hitting the lenses.  We had worked through the motion a week before, and pulled together all the tools: cranes, platforms and staging, but the scene took many, many takes to get right. We were using a giant gimble to move the camera and trying to keep the water off the lenses with air.” 


Additionally, a great deal of experimentation was necessary to capture comfortable 3D images once Pi is adrift on a small lifeboat.  Early tests where the camera was attached to the boat focusing on the horizon resulted in queasiness.  Once the rigging was established, the next hurdle was capturing the characteristics of an untamed ocean on a soundstage.  Lee wanted to do the shoot in his homeland of Taiwan, in an effort to support and give back to his community.  An abandoned airport in Taichung, Taiwan, was used for the soundstage, the main terminal was used as the production office, and a 30 x 90 meter in-ground tank was built on the hangers.  While construction was underway, Miranda, Lee and members of the crew ventured out to sea for several days to plot the course of the sun and discover how evening light interacts with the water.


“One magical moment occurred when we were in the middle of the ocean at 11:00pm,” said Miranda.  “The water was filled with phosphorescent plankton.  We all dived into the ocean to experience how it gave off light.”


In addition to spending time at sea, scientist and engineers were consulted to help the production create a realistic churning, undulating ocean.  As the water’s cadence was refined, Miranda focused on lighting.  He had 240 foot by 60 foot doors that he could open to adjust sunlight on the tank. He also had 120 meter by 40 meter silks and enormous light sources he used to duplicate natural lighting.  


“Two and a half months being stuck in that tank wasn’t the greatest, but we did have complete control,” said Miranda.


While Miranda and his team created realistic water effects in the tank, the expansive ocean landscape, along with multiple versions of the film’s tiger, were completed by VFX house Rhythm and Hues in post.   The crew was forced to sustain a mental image of the completed frame while shooting.  Miranda found Lee to be a director who prefers to aim for capturing emotion through a refined image rather than discussing literal directions.  Some scenes – particularly those with giant swells – proved a little more challenging for the director to visualize.  Miranda was able to translate the emotional impact Lee was aiming for with the visual elements in his control, allowing collaboration to continue effectively.


While most of the film takes place at sea, a number of scenes were set and shot in India.  One scene in particular held a special appeal to Miranda as a cinematographer: a ceremony lit entirely by candle light.


“It is a real location and ceremony in India.  I really wanted to push that feeling; we had over 500,000 candles,” said Miranda.  “Producers, crew, actors, anyone around was lighting candles.  99% of all the lighting in that scene is candles.  It looks amazing, I’m really giddy about that scene.”



Liked reading about DP Claudio Miranda?  Read this additional article focusing on his talk at the ASC Clubhouse during their ASC Breakfast Club event: