Cuts We Love – Life of Pi

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1st Qtr, 2019

Ang Lee won an Academy Award® for Best Director for this adaptation of Yann Martel’s fantasy-adventure novel about a young man (Pi) who survives a disaster at sea and is hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery. Midway through the story we find Pi stranded in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a zoo tiger named Richard Parker. Pi stays on a small raft and is afraid to go onto the boat, for fear of being attacked. Both are very hungry, and there’s no hope of rescue.

“This scene was thoroughly prevised, and stayed closer to the plan than most of the scenes in the film,” relates Tim Squyres, ACE, who was Oscar® nominated for his work. “The order of shots during the fish swarm was different, and Pi’s interaction with Richard Parker with the boat hook changed to get the most of what was actually shot. We dropped a beat at the end of the scene, but otherwise it stayed pretty close to the previs.

A key element of Lee’s groundbreaking approach was to shoot in stereo 3D. This scene is the only one in the film in which the aspect ratio is varied. Explains Squyres, “The scene is 1:1.85, like the rest of the movie, up until Pi throws the first fish toward camera. The next shot is a 180-degree reverse, and on that cut we crop top and bottom to 1:2.40, and stay there until the end of the scene.

“While we’re cropped, up until the moment when the tuna lands in the boat, everything that would otherwise be converged in 3D in front of the screen is placed in front of the matte rather than behind. “These are mostly fish, and last only a few frames, but the swimming tuna in the underwater shot is partially over black for quite a while. I wish I could say we did it for some important narrative reason, but it was mostly just for fun.”

Another decision impacting this scene was whether to have a score. “The studio really wanted us to add fun music, and composer Mychael Danna actually did a piece, but we ultimately decided not to use it,” says Squyres. “We figured, if the scene was fun it would be fun either way, but if people wanted to feel the danger inherent in the situation, that was great too. Music could have told you fun or danger, but not both. Music would also have fought the fantastic sound-effect job Eugene Gearty and our mixers did, which made the scene more visceral and exciting than it was with music.”

One of the enjoyable things about Life of Pi for an editor is that one of the two lead performances is entirely made in post. Pi’s POV of Parker coming out from under the tarp is one of only 23 shots in the entire film with a real tiger.

“While an editor is usually limited by the performances that were shot, here we were shaping every nuance of Richard Parker’s performance from scratch,” says Squyres. “Working with Ang and the animators at Rhythm & Hues to craft that performance was one of the best parts of cutting the film.