Life of Pi’s extravagant narrative begins in sundrenched French India. It’s titular hero – named for a swimming pool, then later the mathematical symbol – lives with his parents and younger sister in an exotic zoological enclosure. The teenager has embraced the various tenets of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity when the family decide to relocate from Pondicherry to Canada. En route, the freighter carrying the clan and their many animals sinks, leaving Pi (Suraj Sharma) to drift on a lifeboat for more than 200 days with only a tiger for company.
In contrast to certain high-profile New Zealand productions, there was never any possibility that Lee would work with an actual cat. In the end, the director had trouble convincing international animal welfare groups that his very convincing and studiously non-anthropomorphised tiger was composed entirely from pixels from the effects house Rhythm Hues.
“The studio didn’t want that and neither did we,” says the Taiwanese-American. “It’s too much responsibility to travel a tiger and use a tiger. We watched tigers. We needed to learn from them – we have to learn how to animate them. How their muscles move. How they catch light. How hair moves. Every detail. We shoot numerous references. Normally an animation team are not allowed to do that. But we were determined that would happen.”
The animals, of course, were the easy part. They, at least, had real-life corollaries and special-effects precedents. Water, as James Cameron and most everyone at Pixar might tell you, presented a far more daunting challenge. The scene depicting the sinking freighter alone took months of shooting and longer again in post-production.
“It’s the first time anyone has used 3D to make a ship move around like that in water,” says Lee. “The transparency and the refraction are so difficult to get right. How do you shoot without fog? First day shooting that scene was day two and the last day was day 78. It took almost a year in post- production to finish that sequence.”
Lee, of course, has never knowingly shied away from a challenge. At 58, with 12 features in the can, the director has embraced an extraordinary array of styles and genres. “It would be no fun otherwise,” he grins.
Born in rural Taiwan to “waisheng ren” parents – refugees from the Communist revolution in mainland China – the young Lee’s classical Chinese education left little room for cinema.
“I have no idea where my interest in film comes from,” he says. “I’ve tracked my family tree on both sides and there’s nobody that comes close. I know my grandfather from my mother’s side had artistic inclinations; he liked to take photographs and played Urhu, the Chinese violin.”
Lee was enrolled as a drama student at the National Taiwan University of Arts when a chance viewing of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring inspired him to relocate to the United States and, ultimately, the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University, where he worked and studied with Spike Lee.