Making of life of Pi by the Rhythm & Hues Studio, India
Life of PI : The movie that has been termed as a "visual spectacle" by many and has changed the way VFX is employed in films, Life of Pi has not only consolidated the belief that VFX can be used as more than just a gimmick, it has also managed to spellbind. audiences worldwide with its beautiful imagery of oceans, hyper realistic animals and captivating visuals of the water world. Behind all of the visual wizardry was the hard work of hundreds of VFX artists, who toiled to bring director Ang Lee's maverick vision of the popular bestseller to reality.
CGTantra is proud to present an in depth behind the scenes analysis of what went behind in making the movie critics the world over are calling the "year's best".
Rhythm & Hues : The adaptation of Yann Martel's novel was long thought to be 'un-filmable'. Ang Lee's desire to make the novel come alive on celluloid turned out to be an adventure for the entire production team. Given the studio's success in creating hyper-realistic CG animals on movies such as The Golden Compass & The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, Ang Lee approached Rhythm & Hues in August 2009. He asked Bill Westenhofer, our VFX supervisor on Life of Pi, whether a digital character looked better or worse in stereo. Bill's reply was "We don't know so why don't we give it a shot?" That request set the wheels in motion for an incredible & magical journey for both Ang Lee and R&H.
Rhythm & Hues: R&H was the lead Visual Effects studio for the film. Our scope of work included creating photorealistic animals, environments and blending CG ocean surfaces. The photorealistic animals we created included the Bengal tiger called Richard Parker, the Orangutan called OJ, the Hyena, the Zebra, the pack of meerkats and the scores of different ocean creatures you see in the film.
The Asian team played a large role in the film. Almost 40% of the visual effects work was done out of Asia and involved departments such as modeling, animation, tracking, texturing, lighting and FX.The modeling department worked on various CG animal models as well as complex blend shapes for the tiger. They also had to recreate a CG lifeboat to match the finest details of the actual lifeboat. This was an extremely important task as many shots had to inter cut between live shots and CG shots and many were extreme close-ups of the boat.The texturing department worked on many variations of the meerkats, the lifeboat as well as on other smaller props.
The animation team in Asia had the opportunity to work on few sequences featuring Richard Parker and worked tirelessly to make him and his actions realistic and believable.
The animators also had a lot of fun studying the personality and behavior of different creatures featured in the film, a case in point being the shot that has multiple meerkats crawling over Pi's body.The animation team was very lucky that Erik de Boer, the animation supervisor, was present on the sets and gave constant feedback to the artists, and it is greatly due to this expert guidance that the animators were able to display such level of sophistication in animating the various creatures in Life of Pi.
The Technical Animation department mostly worked on simulating photorealistic feel of muscle harmonics and fur for all the mammals. The Fx department majorly worked on the foam, whitecaps for the ocean surface and also interactive splashes and bubbles for the lifeboat and raft. The environment team was responsible for creating the entire meerkat island, a huge island filled with meerkats. The lighters and compositors worked on numerous challenging shots, some with interaction between Pi and Richard Parker, others with just Richard Parker moving around in the boat. Besides that, they also worked on some complicated underwater shots, ocean extensions and meerkat island shots. Fortunately, the team had Lighting and Sequence Supervisors who were very clear about their creative and aesthetic vision.
This show was truly a global effort as there were people from Los Angeles, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kuala Lumpur & Vancouver who put in a lot of work to make the movie a visual marvel.
Rhythm & Hues: Ang Lee had a very specific vision for this movie he wanted the audiences to see and everyone at R&H worked tirelessly to bring his vision to life.
The first thing that director Ang Lee wanted to know was whether a CG animal would be more or less realistic in 3-D. That's because once he committed to shooting Life of Pi in 3D (using the Cameron-Pace 3-D rig), the entire thrust of his movie rested on the believability of the Bengal tiger, Richard Parker. After all, most of Life of Pi takes place on a lifeboat at sea (shot on stage in a water tank against blue screen) with just the eponymous hero (Suraj Sharma) and the tiger.
We followed Ang Lee's instructions and did a few tests and came to the conclusion that the third dimension gave the animal a sense of life. The 3D gave the CG character a little more presence and one could see more detail, which helped in selling the believability of the character.
Rhythm & Hues: It was fantastic working with Ang Lee. What was unique about this project amongst other projects we have worked on was when we got back to Los Angeles and Ang was addressing the crew, he finished his whole opening spiel with, "I want to make art with you." I think that was what motivated everyone involved to put their best foot forward. Since this was all shot in a tank in Taiwan [the tank was built from scratch in an abandoned airport] in front of a blue screen, we were given a pretty blank slate. It was really up to the digital effects crew to come up with the look and feel for the movie. Ang is very meticulous, so we did a ton of research on the look and feel of the water and the ocean (a major component in the movie), even going so far as to go out on a coast guard cutter in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a heavy storm and getting reference footage. We had real tigers on set, (we spent eight weeks with real tigers!),and studied their mannerisms closely as Ang was very specific about the look he wanted for Richard Parker. Ang appreciates symbolism, so quite often the directions we would be given for skies were, instead of "go get me a sunset," Ang would say, "give me a pensive sky," or a "melancholy sky," so it would be up to us to go through our library of skies and pick candidates we thought would fit his descriptions and we would go over those and set that for the scene.
In the words of R&H's animation director Erik de Boer, "Having Ang Lee describe our work as 'impeccable' is, I think, the best compliment the team has ever received. This was the perfect challenge for our animation team: complex quadrupedal locomotion on a swaying lifeboat with pure animalistic behavior."
Rhythm & Hues: The biggest challenge was to create Richard Parker (the Royal Bengal tiger) as the movie was heavily driven by Pi's interaction with this character. It not only had to look real, but it also had to be made believable to come across as a living, breathing character. Another important aspect was that Richard Parker needed to interact with the environment. Erik de Boer would constantly encourage the animators to add subtle motions to the character to make it look more realistic, such as colliding the side of tail with the boat, having the tail flip over the side of the boat, or to using the oars and animating them whilst balancing the tiger's paw on them.
Voodoo, R&H's proprietary VFX toolset was used for animation. According to Erik de Boer, the tiger's face was one of the key aspects to concentrate on - "The facial rigging on him was a combination of a more muscle-driven under-layer with more blend shapes on top of it, and those blend shapes were partially created again in a procedural way. We would have the modeler sculpt those blend shapes for aggressive snarls. The little tabs these tigers have on their lower jaws that get pulled in on snarls - we had great reference of all of that and then we would let a modeler run with those and would art direct them until we were happy. On top we had a procedural way to make sure the distribution of polygons was true and naturalistic."
As Bill Westenhofer refers to the muscle and skin setup for Richard Parker, he outlines "Tigers are very much a sinewy body surrounded by a loose bag of skin...There's a muscles system and a two pass skin solve - one that gets tugged by the muscles and moves around and then a dynamic simulation that would hang off that and allow the skin to slide over the surface to wriggle up with various folds."
R&H added to their work flow the ability to sub-surface scatter through fur. Bayever says "The sub-surface looked so great, because it just softened out the fur a little bit and gave us the ability to have the light penetrate into the tiger and his fur." Richard Parker was mostly raytraced and full 'diffuse reflected' his environment. HDRI was used as much as possible, so there was a need to work out a procedure to get higher dynamic range into and out of Photoshop.It was a chicken and egg question when it came to creating a sequence of Richard Parker being half submerged in the water.
The challenge was that the the water simulations are run in Houdini, but the fur, muscles and tiger are all proprietary... In order to get a tiger that is in water and the hair being swished around just like the water is moving it around and the simulation at the same time over the tiger begs the question - do you start with animation or simulation?
In most cases, we started with a very quick pass of water simulation in the boat. We then passed that simulation off into animation. They then animated the tiger in the simulation. and that would get passed back to the effects so they could re-run the simulation and get all the water interaction and the waves over and sliding over the back of the tiger. Effects would provide velocity fields to our technical animation department and run the fur through that. We would actually have the ability to get the fur that's outside the water stick to the top of the tiger like heavy fur would and the fur that's under the surface would move around like it's underwater, slowly as fur would.
Rhythm & Hues: Richard Parker is digital in 85% of the scenes he features in. However, to get as much reference as possible, we used both a mock up dummy and up to four real tigers while shooting. We did everything we could to help Suraj, the actor who plays Pi. Some shots were simple and you could just give Suraj directions, but if it helped to have him to have someone in a blue suit for the tiger, our animation director would do so. Our animation director Erik earned his chops one day during the flying fish sequence. He was grabbing hold of a pole that Pi is reacting with in the scene. He was in a blue leotard, sitting in a pile rotten fish, pretending to be the tiger. He earned his credit that day.
Rhythm & Hues: Essentially, it was a mix of both live and CGI. This made the show a lot more challenging especially when the FX-lighters had to create CGI water to match timing and size of each and every wave so that it merges seamlessly with real water. The department also had the responsibility of integrating and lighting the FX elements such as foam and whitecaps into the scene.
Rhythm & Hues: The challenge for us was how to portray an ocean that's as much a character as possible.This is the first film in a while that features water for over 3/5th of the running time, so we had to find a way to deal with the ocean. We also looked at a lot of references for how Ang wanted the sky to be portrayed in some shots.
Along with Rhythm & Hues, MPC contributed key water simulation shots, including dramatic sequences of the ship sinking and for a sequence dubbed 'The Storm of God". In order to establish just what role the ocean would play and how that would look, a great deal of research was undertaken. We went out on a coast guard cutter off Taiwan to fairly rough seas, that was really great reference. We found that you could get swells that were 14 second periods and you could have long wave lengths but with huge volumes of water that will raise six or seven feet at a time.
The research was pivotal in setting up a tank setup in Taiwan that was 75 by 30 meters and three meters deep. To aid tracking, a painted grid half a meter in size was painted on a splash guard surrounding the tank. We also placed a wave break at one end with tetrapod constructs piled up that helped kill the waves bouncing back.We had a theme park company build a series of 12 caissons - large pistons that could suck water in and pump it out at varying rates, with varying wave patterns. The best we got was a four foot swell on 12 second periods.
But of course many shots of the life raft were shot in a tank with a wave machine providing a lot of movement. That meant R&H had to match the look of the 'practical waves'. One of the first things we did was that Bill shot the turbines running at different intervals and different setting. So we had a bunch of footage with a locked off camera and we brought it back to R&H. We had our ocean layout guys match the waves with some procedural tools, match the frequency and get a CG version of what they shot on set.
Rhythm & Hues: There are tens of thousands of fish flying as they slam and hit the boat, Pi and Richard Parker. The sheer number of fish in the scene alone became one of R&H's most complicated Massive set-ups ever tackled to date. The simulation had to be run at 120 frames per second and because the fish had to travel a long distance - from being far away from the boat to flying way past the boat. Tweaking was also needed to ensure that the fish could interact with rolling waves, go on top and underneath the water but not through a wave. Massive can only take in a single frame piece of geometry to interact with... it can take in multiple frames but the waves and the oceans were so huge it was difficult for Massive to deal with.
In the whale sequence, the bioluminescence itself had to illuminate everything in the scene. We weren't using the lights necessarily, but for the most part of the whale and inside the whale's mouth had to be lit by the same bioluminescent volumes.
Rhythm & Hues: The utmost satisfaction for us working on this film is being able to provide an end result where CGI becomes so believable that it seems so real. We had various reference footages, some of which were with a real tiger and helped us in picking up the finer details and specific actions. Though shots had to be realistic, they also had to have a nice balance of fantasy and reality. This created an exciting task for the animators to pick up - for example, how high could a whale jump to add to the drama and make it spectacular yet believable? All in all, R&H created the tiger, the orangutan, the hyena, the zebra, the meerkats, the flying fish, the whale, the sharks and other various ocean fishes.
We are really thankful to the entire Rhythm and Hues Asia team as well as the colleagues in LA who helped us with getting all the images and visuals and sparing time for the answers. Looking forward to seeing more wonderful work from Rhythm and Hues.