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Life of Pi
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Life of Pi
Life of Pi | 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

How do you write about a work of art that leaves you overwhelmed and practically speechless? I find myself wrestling with superlatives — brilliant, visionary, breathtaking, life-affirming. Even the overused “G” word comes to mind, but I think in this case, it may be apt. Since I don’t consider what I write a “review,” per se, I won’t apologize in the slightest for gushing.

Ang Lee
Ang Lee, director of Life of Pi | Melanie Votaw Photo

I felt enormously privileged to be among the first to see Ang Lee’s Life of Pi at a press screening Friday morning. As I sat there, I thought, “I’m watching a piece of work that will be revered in the history of cinema.” At least that’s how I felt as I was transported, moved, and transformed by the experience.

One thing is for sure: You’ve never seen anything quite like this on screen. Some of the images are so exquisite that they brought tears to my eyes just from their sheer beauty. Whether the technology itself is groundbreaking is unimportant because the way Lee uses the technology is a game-changer in the industry.

The story, based on the book of the same title, is about a boy who is fascinated by three different religions. Suddenly, he must deal with a more abstract idea of God as he struggles to survive at sea with nothing but a tiger as a threatening companion.

The film is in 3D, and I’ve never been in love with that format. (The glasses on top of my usual glasses are uncomfortable.) But in this case, the technology is not only used masterfully, but it’s absolutely central to telling this magical story. In fact, director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) said at the press conference following the screening that he didn’t think it was possible to do the film in 2D.

Suraj Sharma
Suraj Sharma, the 18-year-old star of Life of Pi | Melanie Votaw Photo

So, get to the theater when it opens in the U.S. on November 21, 2012. Don’t wait for On Demand or DVD. See it in 3D on a big screen. I mean it; that’s an order! You’ll thank me, I promise.

The screening I attended was for press at the New York Film Festival run by the great Film Society of Lincoln Center. The film premiered for the general public at the Festival gala held Friday evening. Besides director Lee, the press conference included the book’s author Yann Martel, Elizabeth Gabler of 20th Century Fox, and the young unknown star Suraj Sharma.

Martel never thought he’d see his book become a film. “It was cinematic in my mind, but I never thought I’d actually see it on the screen. It would be too complicated to do,” he said. Lee felt the same way when he read the book the first time simply for pleasure. He thought it would be too expensive, but after 20th Century Fox approached him about it, he said, “Little by little, it started to become my destiny, my fate.”

Indeed, it proved to be a very challenging film to make. “For a movie like this, nothing works the way you plan it,” Lee said. “I got 1/8 of the shots in my shot list.” He used storyboards this time even though he doesn’t normally like to work that way. With a technologically rich film like this, “shots are so expensive,” he said. “You have to be so concise and precise. So, I spent a year before production.” He added, “I wouldn’t call it improvising; it’s survival.”

Life of Pi press conference
Richard Pena of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, director Ang Lee, Elizabeth Gabler of 20th Century Fox, actor Suraj Sharma, and author of Life of Pi Yann Martel at the Lincoln Center press conference | Melanie Votaw Photo

Someone asked about the aspect ratio shift in the film. Lee did not maintain the same ratio throughout, although it isn’t something I noticed at all. (This has to do with the ratio between width and height of an image, such as widescreen.) “I always wanted to do that since film school. No one would allow me to do it,” Lee said of changing the aspect ratio in a single film.

In spite of the challenges, the movie was finished on schedule and within budget — a number they declined to share. Lee said he’s still tweaking the film, however, and will continue to do so during the next couple of weeks.

Steve Callahan, a man who survived 76 days lost and alone at sea in the 1980s, served as a consultant on the film and provided insight to 18-year-old Sharma, who had never acted before this film. “Most of the time, you don’t feel anything,” Sharma said of what Callahan detailed about his experience at sea. “You’re left completely blank, so those moments when you feel happiness are extreme…. Emotions don’t just become what we see normally or feel normally. They become these extremely strong and very powerful feelings. That’s what I tried to put into my acting.”

Callahan also served as a water consultant for Lee, explaining to the director how waves function. “I built this wave tank just for this movie in Taiwan,” Lee said, “and we’re just learning how to use that. Nobody had done it before.”

Callahan was a spiritual leader for the cast and crew, as well. After fighting for his life at sea, he is now fighting for his life against cancer. “He’s a man we all cherish,” Lee added.

Life of Pi
A still from the film, Life of Pi | 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

The film was a very international one. The crew was made up of people from more than 20 countries. Lee said that it had to be made with American money and Hollywood technology, but it couldn’t be made in Los Angeles. He took the production to Taiwan where they took over an airport and built the tank, and he shot the opening scenes in Pondicherry, India, where the book begins.

Even the tigers that were used for some of the scenes were international – three from France and one from Canada. Of course, some of the tiger scenes were computer-generated based on observations of the real tigers. Sharma never actually shared a boat with a live tiger. “You’re basically imitating God’s work. You cannot guess,” Lee said. In the process, they created a library of tiger behavior for CGI reference. “I raised the bar for the digital guys. You have to match that in 3D. So, that’s really intimidating, but I think it’s a good kind of intimidation,” Lee continued.

All of the performances in Life of Pi are excellent. Sharma is remarkable as young Pi, and Irrfan Khan is wonderful as an older, wiser, introspective Pi. I believe this film will be a top contender for the Best Picture Oscar, and it will surely win technical awards. Take a look at the trailer, but bear in mind that without the large screen and 3D, you’re only getting a taste.

Again, run, don’t walk when this film lands in your area. I still can’t get it out of my head, and I expect to see it on the big screen at least two more times after its release.

I believe Life of Pi puts Ang Lee in the category of the best filmmakers in history. This movie is just that special.

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