Claudio Miranda, ASC on LIFE OF PI

With themes concerning God, hope and survival, LIFE OF PI’s ideas are epic with incredible visuals to match. Widely regarded as an “unfilmable” story, LIFE OF PI follows a boy’s spiritual journey across the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a tiger. Director Ang Lee (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN; CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON) decided early on that the production needed to go beyond a typical movie experience by originating in 3D stereoscopic. Lee tapped cinematographer Claudio Miranda, ASC to help translate the ambitious script to screen. “I believe I was hired because Ang liked TRON and BENJAMIN BUTTON. It’s a combination of those two films that he wanted to instill LIFE OF PI with: the 3D of TRON and digital not-looking-so-electronic on BENJAMIN BUTTON,” Miranda notes.

It was a landslide why we chose ALEXA. It was obvious very early on that was our camera.

Production shot with six ALEXA cameras paired on three Cameron Pace Fusion rigs with ARRI / ZEISS Master Primes. The uncompressed HD data was recorded to Codex recorders.  The result is a remarkable cinematic accomplishment that enhances the viewing experience and immerses audiences in a sea of breathtaking imagery. Here, the talented DP tells us about materializing images and emotions on a grand scale for LIFE OF PI. 

 

ARRI NEWS: What initially drew you to this project?

CM: What drew me to the project was the director, Ang Lee. If you get a project like this, you run for it. Anyone would be an idiot to turn this down. I felt very fortunate to land this job.

ARRI NEWS: When you came on board, had it been decided already that this would be a stereoscopic 3D shoot?

CM: Initially, Ang knew he wanted to shoot digital for 3D. He knew he wanted 3D before I even came on board, before even AVATAR. It wasn’t a trend for him. He always wanted to try this new language.

ARRI NEWS: How would you describe the look and style for LIFE OF PI?

CM: LIFE OF PI is naturalistic and appropriate for the time that we were trying to shoot. The look has kind of a golden hour, magical feel, which reflects on the story itself. There’s a great, soft feeling to it. It wants to draw you in. At times there are more realistic environments. You feel like you are taking this journey with the main character, Pi. You feel like you are with a boy and a tiger.

ARRI NEWS: The tiger is a pivotal character in the film. The animation is amazingly realistic.

CM: Most of the tiger scenes were without a real tiger. I think 23-24 shots were done with a real tiger -- everything else was done CG or with prosthetics. The CG tiger is so great. [Visual effects house Rhythm & Hues] really did an incredible job. At one point we cut from the CG tiger to the real tiger, I think there will be people out there who will guess the reverse. The effects are really good; it’s a far cry from anything I’ve ever seen before.

ARRI NEWS: What kind of testing did you do before determining LIFE OF PI would be shot on ALEXA?

CM: I did some early tests with other cameras. We needed strong, controlled highlights. Normally, sunlight reflecting on water is a pretty big digital issue. We shot off the Venice Beach pier with the camera very low to the water. The ALEXA was the only camera that didn’t feel electronic in the highlights. That’s pretty critical to the story, with all of the highlights going out of control in the reflections and with characters really close to the water. This was really important to get a handle on. It was a landslide why we chose ALEXA. It was obvious very early on that was our camera.

ARRI NEWS: Shooting in 3D is a different visual language, what kind of considerations did you need to make?

CM: Ang saw a 3D movie that was really horrible. I explained to Ang it was just what they did: bad lighting, bad acting, bad choices with shutter angle, bad everything. The great thing about that movie was it gave me a hint at what not to do with 3D.”

LIFE OF PI Featurette

Go behind the scenes with director Ang Lee on the epic journey of adventure and discovery to make LIFE OF PI. Shot with six ALEXAs, the production originated in stereoscopic 3D.

You’re a little worried when you try to tackle a 3D movie on the water, you want to make sure the audience doesn’t get sick and nauseous. We tested a lot of what makes people sick on the water. I could probably make you sick if I wanted. [Laughs]

My wife saw LIFE OF PI, she normally hates 3D and she didn’t mind it at all. It’s nice to hear that most people who usually hate 3D are not objecting to this movie.

ARRI NEWS: Much of the story takes place on the boat in the middle of the ocean. These scenes were shot against bluescreen, correct?

CM: All the water work was done against bluescreen. We tried shooting in the ocean, but it’s not a conducive shooting situation. We would be shooting ourselves in the foot to work that way. We built a tank in an abandoned airport in China, which was a feat in itself. The crew did an amazing job.

Between VFX and myself, we had to make it feel like the lighting of the boat had to really stick with the environment that we were actually projecting it for. I spent a lot of time with pre-vis, looking at weather and clouds to create what Pi’s environment really is. I think we did a pretty awesome job at putting that altogether.

It’s all very naturalistic lighting and it didn’t always have to be beautiful lighting, Sometimes it would be harsh or moonlit, stormy, overcast, light, dark, medium. There were many different looks in that tank. We had 300 feet of material (rags, blacks, etc). The tank was lit with nine ARRIMAXes rigged to MaxMovers clustered to a truss that was used as the sun. The ARRIMAXes were awesome. We could create any look in that tank. It was amazing.

LIFE OF PI Clip: Alone with a Tiger

LIFE OF PI scenes in the boat were lit with a giant rig of 9 ARRIMAXes over a water tank and shot against bluescreen.

We had the camera move over water in the tank. We used no marks. The Spidercam allowed us to do dolly moves, in and out, circles. We also had a Titan on a Hydroscope for the additional camera.

 

There’s one really painterly scene, where the water is really still. There’s a kind of golden light in the scene. This was based off a watercolor painting. I wanted it to be serene. Pi futilely puts a message in a can and it only goes out 50 feet and doesn’t move. It’s a helpless scene showing that he really is in the middle of nowhere and there is no help. He looks under the tarp and sees the tiger.

 

ARRI News: Many scenes were shot outside of the tank as well. Can you talk about the scene with the dancers as Pi is playing the drum? It’s a beautiful sequence shot on location.

CM: I was going to use big lights to make the dancehall very bright and sun-filled. It was an impossible location. I couldn’t squeeze any more lights there. We were between a rock and a hard place, but we still wanted to shoot this thing. We shot it wide open on the camera and basically lit it with two-bank Kino Flos on a wall. Visually when you were there, you could barely see any of the actors. It was so dark. Ang was caught by surprise. He said “I can’t trust my eyes anymore. When I look at the monitor it looks like bright sunlight, when I look in the room, I can’t see anything.”

Because of the sensitivity of the ALEXA, we were able to make the shot. That’s a shot that wouldn’t have been possible with a film camera, basically. We had no choice; I had to shoot it like that. Just being able to pull that kind of exposure out and the range of the ALEXA definitely helped with that scene. It’s nice to know that we made it work.

I’m a really big fan of low light and being able to get as much light out of practicals as possible. The low light sensitivity of these cameras is pretty amazing. We wanted to light a whole pool and art department brought in about 120,000 candles for this night scene. It was shot mostly with available lighting -- not completely, but it could have been. We had a fraction of lighting in the background, in the trees to give a little depth. It was low light and these cameras are so sensitive nowadays, you can capture this kind of scene with just candles. We shot everything at 800 ASA. The candlelit scene is probably my favorite in the whole film. To be able to retain those highlights and light people’s faces, that’s a pretty impressive camera to be able to control that. It was a really fantastic scene to have everyone pitch in and create this magical event in India. It was stunning.

-- An Tran