Life of Pi

VFX Oscars Protest

While the film Life of Pi won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects last night, it was not exactly the happy occasion as one expects. Rhythm and Hues, largely responsible for working on the film, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, is neither receiving largely the respect nor the help that they need and thus many VFX artists gathered to stage a protest. Myself, and many others, in honor of those artists, have changed our profile pictures to a neon green (in association with green-screening).

 When VFX supervisor, Bill Westenhofer attempted to give his speech last night, was rudely cut short by the orchestra playing the ominous music of Jaws right when he was about speak of the plight of the VFX industry. It may just be bad timing but, as others have pointed out, he was cut off very abruptly and precisely while other award winners have gone overtime without any problems.

As mentioned, an issue of the VFX industry is the high overhead in creating the visual effects and maintaining the facility but a very low margin. The VFX houses just hope to break even and not, as more often than not, lose money. The issue has further escalated as jobs are gradually outsourced outside the country mainly due to subsidies that the outsourced country may offer. Creating jobs outside in other countries may be great also but again, many times what happens is that small studios are quickly set up for that one project and then after the project finishes, the studio close down again.

Another worrying aspect to this predicament is what that means for us students. People who have just graduated or will be graduating soon will be competing against all these very talented people from Rhythm and Hues and from Dreamworks.

For anyone looking for some more details on the issues of the industry and the exact details that the protestors are arguing for, there's a great post over on Reddit. The VES, supporting the visual effects community, have written open letters about the current situation and they are a great read. Definitely stop over at to read more details on what the artists are organizing for!

Oscar Nominees 2013

The nominees for the 85th Annual Academy Awards have been announced. Yay!The awards show will be broadcast live on Sunday, Feb 24th on ABC.Let's take this by categories, mainly focusing on animation and vfx.

Best Picture “Argo” “Django Unchained” “Les Miserables” “Life of Pi” “Amour” “Lincoln” “Silver Linings Playbook” “Zero Dark Thirty” “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

Life of Pi is expected, and I've already mentioned it twice before so I won't say as much about it this time. Les Miserables was amazing; I cried, everyone cried. I haven't seen Beasts of the Southern Wild yet but I have heard great things about it and this movie is particularly of note due to that a group AAU students worked on the VFX of the movie.

Animated Feature Film “Brave” “Frankenweenie” “ParaNorman” “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” “Wreck-It Ralph”

As unfortunate as it seems, I don't really expect Brave to win as there have been many contention points about the story being somewhat weak. ParaNorman and Wreck-it-Ralph are some great contenders for the award. I'm somewhat disappointed that Rise of the Guardians was not nominated, but I suppose since the list is limited to five and there are already two 3D animated films that picking Frankenweenie would be a more diversified choice, although I found the movie to be somewhat dull.

Short Film – Animated “Adam and Dog” “Fresh Guacamole” “Head over Heels” “Maggie Simpson in ‘The Longest Daycare’” “Paperman”

I just went to watch the trailers for Adam and Dog and Head over Heels and they look beautiful and so adorable. As I haven't seen the full short it's somewhat hard to judge though. I think I've only seen Fresh Guacamole and Paperman in full but here I am fully expecting Paperman to take the award. Beautiful story, beautiful art, beautiful music, and particularly the advancement and combination of integrating 2D animation with 3D animation.

Visual Effects “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” “Life of Pi” “Marvel’s The Avengers” “Prometheus” “Snow White and the Huntsman”

I still think that the top two films fighting for the award will be Life of Pi and The Hobbit. It's quite hard to say who will win but I think I would prefer Life of Pi. I had a lot less issues with Life of Pi compared with The Hobbit, particularly at 48fps. I thought the vfx in Life of Pi was more beautiful and used well without a lot of frivolousness.



VFX and Storytelling

As a form of art, film has been used as a medium to tell stories. With the growth of technology and its implementation into the medium of film and production, stories have expanded to be told many different ways across various genres that could not be achieved during the early rise of movies. The technological improvements achieved over the many years have led to the rise of film leaving a stunning visual impact on the viewers.  With the influx of movies being made each year, there are a number of films that fall unfortunately into the realm of being overly dependent on visual effects work used to stun an audience while losing the grasp of the story.  Audiences first and foremost go to see movies for the story and thus visual effects ultimately should be implemented to further the plot instead of being a distraction.  Within the hoard of movies being released, there are often a handful of gems, films that were able to successfully integrate effect work not only to enrich the visual experience but also the story in creating immersive worlds and appealing characters. Many movies are misguided by the thought that extravagant effects work will entice the audience by itself. Unfortunately in such cases, the visual effects work becomes a crutch and the time dedicated to show off the grandiose explosions, chase scenes, or fight scenes are ill-used and takes away valuable time in plot development.  In extreme cases where certain scenes are extended for prolonged periods of time, the attention of the audience is lost.  One such case is apparent in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2011), as the director opted to cut important deaths and invaluable assistance of Harry’s escape from Voldemort in order to highlight a flying motorcycle chase through tunnels with various shenanigans of dodging cars and careening upside-down.  While the effects works may have greatly improved, particularly in comparison to the previous films, with many poor choices the Harry Potter movies do not hold up well.  The movies consist of many gaping plot holes and apparent inconsistencies that were brushed away but poorly hidden.  George Lucas stated “the realm of storytelling is more important than that of the visual effects necessary to bring a scene to life”.  While a world of magic needs to have many visual effect shots, often times the visual effects are unfortunately misused and are only seen as temporary eye-candy.

Visual effects have solidified as an integral aspect to film making but the winner of the Oscar award for visual effects is now harder to predict as focuses have shifted.  Instead of watching extravagant effects and considering shot counts, the focus has shifted into the integration of visual effects to serve the art of storytelling as expressed by Dennis Muren.  Peter Jackson stated that “in the world of Digital Effects, anything imagined is possible... which in a way brings the emphasis back on storytelling”. With technological advancements, many stories that may have been impossible to create can now be done.  Hailed as one of the books with a story unable to be filmed, Ang Lee took on Life of Pi (2012) and does a remarkable job in creating an epic journey of a young boy stranded on a life boat with a tiger.  Not only were there physical limitations of putting a person in a boat with a tiger, but the story was also difficult to tell in its portrayal of the struggle against nature, the emotional and psychological difficulties, and wonderment of spirituality.  Used well, the visual effects in the film not only portrayed the extreme dangers of the sea, the lonely solitude of being lost at sea, but also the vast wonders of the world.  The visual effects created the world that allowed the audience to follow the arduous journey of Pi as he struggles with survival.  While the animals were largely digitally created throughout the movie, the animals were created well and do not break the illusion of the danger of being in a small boat with a fully grown tiger.  The audience can feel the suspense and fear as they become fully immersed in the story. While often overlooked and not even considered for an Oscar award in the visual effects category, animated films use a lot of visual effects in their storytelling.  A notable film of such that was released recently was Rise of the Guardians (2012).  Much like how the digitally created Iron Man suit from the Iron Man series is what creates the character of the protagonist, the particle dynamics of sand is a part of the character of the Sandman from Rise of the Guardians.  One of the twelve basic principles of animation is appeal; not only is the Sandman appealing in character design but by his actions that were highlighted with the streams of sand that are used to conjure various images and items.  The visual effects of the particles vastly contributed towards the Sandman’s character that he would not be the same without it.  Such is an excellent example of using effects to develop the integral component of a character that plays a core role in the conveyance of the story while the audience continues believing in magic and dreams.

Visual effects have come a long way since they were first developed but, first and foremost, visual effects should exist to assist the story in creating emotion, deepening characters, and furthering the plot.  As ideas and usage of visual effects have shifted it has become difficult to distinguish which movie will win an Oscar for visual effects.  Shot counts and blockbusting films are not criterion in which films are judged but rather the skillful usage and of the effect are what are sought after.  Film, as a form of art is a process used to tell stories and with the rise of visual effects, more possibilities have been opened that were not feasible prior, enabling a larger array of stories to be told.  With anything imaginable being possible, it is important to bring films back to the attribute of storytelling.

VFX Oscar Shortlist

The 85th Academy Awards are coming up and the 10 films currently remaining in the list for visual effects have been announced. The list will be shortened down to just 5 titles to be nominated for Oscar consideration and will be announced Thursday, January 10, 2013. The Amazing Spider-Man Cloud Atlas The Dark Knight Rises The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey John Carter Life of Pi The Avengers Prometheus Skyfall Snow White and the Huntsman

Unfortunately I have not seen all the movies so it would be hard for me talk about each one individually but the ones that I would definitely see go through are Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit, and Life of Pi. Cloud Atlas is quite a large and overwhelming project to take on as it crosses through both time and space in six different locations. A lot of effects went into the production of the film but most importantly they were used to drive the story. While The Hobbit hasn't even been released yet, the film is a very strong contender from what we all already know of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Peter Jackson. All three of the LotR films have won in the past and people have high expectations for The Hobbit. Life of Pi was considered one of the many unfilmable book films but Ang Lee has done a beautiful job in directing. With both being shot in stereoscope, beautifully scenery, imposing storms, and realistic animals, Life of Pi has additionally been called the "Avatar" film of the year.

Batman may have to fight for it's position in the top five as it contends along with two films that are not only heavy in effects but also in the same super hero genre. John Carter is an unfortunate circumstance in where the marketing of the film was not done well and not many people even know about the film. I wish I could like Snow White and the Huntsman as it had some beautiful effects with the crows and the liquid gold magic mirror but Kristen Stewart completely ruined the movie and it was agonizing to watch her on screen.

As Dennis Muren says, vfx is there to serve the story and provide emotional effect. It is not about how many vfx shots there are in a film or how much money the film is making in box office. Here is to looking forward to the final 5 nominees of the Oscars and the final film taking the award!

Life of Pi Review

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is one of my favorite books. With my love for tigers, it caught my eye back in 2001 as I was wondering a bookstore and the blue cover with a contrasting orange tiger caught my eye. When I heard that Life of Pi was getting a movie adaptation I was extremely excited and had high expectations for Ang Lee to do the book justice. Seeing the movie today I would say that the movie is visually stunning, I love Richard Parker the tiger, but I do feel that the story does fall a bit flat when compared to the book. The comparison may be unfair as film has to present in an alternate format; by itself the movie is wonderful but with biases and preconceptions of what I loved and what I wanted to see the movie did not work as well for me. One major point that did not work well for me was the flow of time presented in the movie. Pi spent 227 days lost at sea and Pi retelling the story happened over the span of a few days. In the film, the retelling of the story all took place within one day which already made the story feel shorter instead of a long gruesome suffering that Pi had to endure. While towards the beginning it was shown Pi marking notches on the side of the lifeboat to record days, the continuation was not shown so without reading the book the audience would not have known that Pi was lost at sea for over 7 months. Instead it felt like it was merely two or three. While in the book, Pi kept all his food and water but had ended up eating them all, which helped signify how long he was lost, the movie simply had him lose his stores of food and water. It also did not help that in the film the lifeboat looked pristine and white for the most part and was only noticeably aged at the end when Pi finally finds land and drags the lifeboat ashore. It is understandable that a lot has to be cut out for the film due to the audience wouldn't want to watch uneventful days with mundane occurrences, a lot of it was internal monologue in the book, but the pace of the movie with events happening right after each other made the flow somewhat too fast. There were many days when Pi cycled between having a bountiful harvest of food to days when there was no water nor food and was starving but that effect did not come through at all in the film. The film did well with composition in showing the solitude of Pi though with many repeated shots of a small boat in a vast seascape.

An important theme in the book is spirituality. Spirituality, not religion. Through the naivety and innocence of a young boy, the book goes more in depth of Pi finding God in Hinduism, Muslim, and Christianity. Pi sees faith, love, honor, and respect in all three religions and confounds the leaders of the religions in Pondicherry when questions why he was not allowed to just love God. While lost at sea, Pi keeps up his practice of loving God. He has a set routine and he prays and meditates for a significant portion of his days. It would have been nice to seen some of that devotion in the movie but for the most part it was reduced to Pi shouting to God during a storm.

The book was additionally more violent than the movie. Originally the hyena was already in the lifeboat and later on Pi figured that the officers on the ship threw him onto the lifeboat in order to distract the hyena instead of the film showing someone already on the boat and the officers attempting to save Pi. The zebra suffered a lot more and longer in the book. The zebra still had a broken leg but later on the hyena tore it off and ate it. The zebra was still alive and the book describes the missing limb as a "bloody stump with a flap of skin covering over it". Not satisfied with just killing off the zebra and letting it be eaten, later on the hyena tore open the underside of the zebra, stuck its head in and started eating the zebra alive from the inside out. That would be extremely traumatizing to any children in the audience but it does well in describing the predicament of Pi and the loss of innocence. An event that was cut out from the movie, which was reasonable for it would have been confusing to do, was when Pi went blind and met a French castaway who was also blind and starving. In the end as the French man tried to kill Pi, Richard Parker came out from under the tarpaulin and ate the French man. The event was significant in increasing the fantastical aspect and wonder at Pi's story for the odds of meeting another blind man drifting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean might be about zero, but it happened. While I would have liked the event to be included in the film with the banter of the two characters, showing a black screen for an extended period would not work well in theaters.

While it differed slightly in the film, I was glad that Pi's alternate story was included. The alternate story with no animals was what really made me love the book at the end for it brings up the issue of relative truths. Both stories do not explain how the boat sunk and both stories end up with Pi's family dying and Pi being lost at sea. Neither can be proven, and neither consequences matter, so why does it matter other than which one is the better story. To Pi, the first story may be the actual truth but the Japanese men who came to interview him would not believe him and wanted a story that they would be able to believe in the confines of what they know of the world. I was slightly disappointed that the interaction was cut short though for the interview actually went on for a long time with Pi disproving the notion of facts that the Japanese men had. In the book, for the most part, Pi was very calm during his interview and only became agitated when the Japanese men would not believe his story. However, in the film, with the second version of the story, Pi was crying with the retelling which made the original story seem more like a protection of his psyche by trying to suppress the events that happened with substitution. I'm not sure if this is better or worse but I do like the first story better.

The visual effects used throughout the movie were quite stunning. Two companies that I know of that worked on the film were Rhythm and Hues and The Motion Picture Company. When Pi killed the dorado, the flashing of colors was subtle but apparent and beautiful. The animals were well done but what I loved the most was the water. Both under and above were stunning to look at. Under the water had magnificent swirls as waves crashed on top, the scene of the sunken ship, and a beautiful luminescence. Above water there were the gigantic crashing waves and the still surface mirroring the sky. The effects worked well in helping progress the storytelling and the big showoff with the whale glowing and jumping out of the ocean was written in well to have a cause and effect instead of a simple showcase. The event with the whale was well done and integrated nicely which I was pleasantly surprised about since I knew that the occurrence never happened in the book.

I loved the lighting in the film. The luminescence blue underwater and the golden lights in a few shots were beautiful. While subtle, the lighting helped direct the storytelling and inspired hope in addition to the darker bleakness of Pi's predicament. Then ending with the jungle so desaturated instead of a lush green was somewhat strange but possibly acceptable. While Pi had finally found land, which should be a joyous occasion, Richard Parker had entered the jungle and left Pi without a farewell and so Pi would possibly see the jungle as a source of his sorrow.


I haven't gone to see a live action movie in the theaters in a long time so I finally got to see some different trailers than the ones they put in front of animated films. While it's still an animated film, the one that stood out to me is Epic. By Blue Sky it is about a girl who shrinks and goes on an adventure with Leafmen. The humanoid plants look good and well designed, but mainly I'm glad to see that Blue Sky is finally doing something other than the Ice Age series.

Movie good, book better. Watch the movie, read the book.