Ever Wonder What the VFX Artists Did on the Life of Pi?

It’s hard to image a film without the wonder that special effects brings to the movie-going experience. Their hard work and talent makes those things that couldn’t possibly happen – believable.

Several Cogswell College alumni had the opportunity to be part of the cadre of artists who worked on the Oscar-winning “Life of Pi” and offer a fascinating peek into the life of the artists who bring these stories to life.

Most of these artists were also graduates of Cogswell’s unique Project X class. One of the secrets of Project X is that it does not run like a regular class but rather a full-blown film production company. Hours are long, aesthetics are very demanding and the artists are treated like professionals and not students. This total immersion creates an environment conducive to quality, camaraderie and the highest production value.

Our Alumni talk about their work on “Life of Pi”:

Ryan Rogers

Title: Technical Animation Lead

Brief Description: As a tech anim lead I was in charge of half of the tech animators that we had in LA as we had two teams. Technical animation is a department that is tasked with bringing to life all of the secondary motion of a scene. Our main tasks for “Life of Pi” were skin simulations, fur simulations and simulating the tarp that was covering the boat (which actually turned into our hardest character).

Most notable work: Tech is also in charge of any interaction between live action people and the CG characters. One of my most notable memories from working on the show were the scenes where Pi put Richard Parker’s head on his lap. We had to do a quite a bit of work on the shot to feel like the two characters were really sharing the same space, and that Pi’s hand was really contacting the tiger and running his hand through the tigers fur.  The dummy that they used on the set for the actor to act with, was just that… a dummy, it wasn’t an actual tigers head. A few of the shots, Pi is running his hand from the side of the tigers face, up to the top of his head. These were very difficult to sell, as the tigers head and the dummy didn’t line up perfectly. We had to do a lot of things to cheat the tracked hand to push down into the tiger’s fur so that we could get some sort of interaction through our simulations. It took a lot of time and ingenuity, but it was all worth it in the end. When you watch those scenes in the movie, it’s very convincing that Pi is running his hand through the fur of a real 500lb dying Bengal tiger .

Chris Evart

Job Title: Technical Animation TD

As a TD, I was responsible for the animation of muscle contraction and jiggle for skin simulation (sim), character interaction with skin and cloth and post animation geometry cleanup. Basically, the workflow was sim the muscles, sim the skin over the muscles, sim the fur over the skin and then do the interactions with the boat/set/plate actor.

I was responsible for many of the shots on Life of Pi because I worked on the show during the main production period and did a bunch of shots then, but I also was the only Tech TD (besides the supervisors) who came back and finished up the show after it came back from hiatus.

Some of the most memorable shots for me were:
An extremely long shot when the tiger first emerges from the tarp and kills the hyena. Pi rolls around on the tarp and there was a ton of tarp/tiger interaction. Simulating the tarp to get good interaction was a challenge but I’m happy with how it turned out. It’s the reveal shot of the tiger and it’s about 1600 frames I believe.

I did a close up interaction shot of Pi crying and petting the tigers head and then another interaction between Pi’s hand and the tiger’s head skin/fur as well as all the normal tech stuff. (skin sims and such.)

One of my shots was where the hyena starts attacking the dying zebra and bites his leg. The zebra kicks the hyena so I got to do fun kick recoil and interaction work. It also had OJ in the shot yelling.

Another favorite was the shot where the tiger comes out from under the tarp and turns around and roars right at the camera.

For each of these shots, I just described the shot specific stuff I did but I also did all the general tech on each of the shots.

Chris Sutherland

Job Title: Compositor (the process of combining multiple footage layers or “elements” to make them appear as if they were shot with the same camera, at the same time)

Before I started compositing on the film, I was asked to help with the Stereo QC stage of production–the first step in getting every shot ready for vfx magic. I trained and helped lead artists in LA for a while, which enabled our team to refine and streamline the process. After a couple of months, I had the opportunity to fly to our Hyderabad office in India for two weeks of training a small team of artists there. Wow… what an experience! Not only did I get to see an entirely different culture, but I also made some very good friends almost instantly. It’s a trip I will never forget… There is so much I could tell but I think it would end up being a book! Shortly after that trip, I started on the compositing stage of things…

First of all, it was amazing to work under Bill Westenhofer. The man is a master at his craft as visual effects supervisor. At least 95% of the time, he knew exactly what he wanted and gave very clear notes for artists to address. It’s hard to put into words how important that is for us! Not only that, but he was easy-going, and relatively chill for the most part. After working with him on this show, it’s no surprise that he’s been nominated for three Oscars and won two!

Second, it was even better to work directly under the guidance of my sequence supervisor Chris Kenny. It seemed no matter what issue I came across, he knew a way to address it. Every opportunity he got, he was teaching me something new. I learned a lot working with him and for that I’m also very grateful. He was also able to keep a light-hearted and fun atmosphere for the team, even when things got stressful and a bit crazy.

In terms of my own personal shot work, I felt very fortunate to have a variety of shots, and four in particular that I thought were really ‘cool’. One was when the whale jumps out of the water and knocks Pi off of his raft. My shot was of Pi underwater with all the jellies and bioluminescence. Another was in the flying fish sequence, when the camera whip pans from left, where all the fish are coming from, to right, where Pi and Richard Parker are in the boat trying to avoid and/or catch them. The last shot I worked on for the show was in the meerkat island sequence. It’s the first shot of the night scene, when Pi awakes, surrounded by meerkats in the tree. But finally, maybe the coolest shot I composited–that I had the least to composite on, funny enough–was where Richard Parker’s head takes up the entire screen for a few seconds, and you can just stare into his eyes. Beautiful imagery created by amazingly talented artists.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of working on this film was seeing it finished in theaters. It was a wonderful feeling to have my expectations blown away–as a film, as a story, and on top of that, a visual masterpiece. Even though I’d worked on the film and seen final shots in dailies, I was still astonished by the final product. I don’t know that I’ve seen another movie where the visual effects had so much to do with telling the story.

Working on Life of Pi honestly felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I am immensely grateful for the experience.

Ben Taylor

Job Title: Systems Operations Administrator

The work I did on the film covers a wide range of technical aspects on all the shots.

Some of my responsibilities included: Managing studio resources, converting/finalizing all the shots, fixing renders and various pipeline issues, and increasing efficiencies between technology and production.

It’s always fun to do work that you enjoy, although Life of Pi came at a very challenging time for our studio.

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