CinemaCon: First Look at Ang Lee’s Life of Pi


20th Century Fox must know they have something special on their hands, which is why they chose to use a good portion of their CinemaCon presentation to show off the very first footage from Ang Lee’s movie based on Yann Martel’s best-selling novel Life of Pi. Before the presentation, got to talk with director Lee briefly about taking on the project and the decision to do it in 3D.

The Life of Pi portion of the Fox presentation was set-up by showing a sizzle reel of some of the great filmmakers that have worked with the company, including testimonials from James Cameron, Ridley Scott and George Lucas about their experiences working with Fox, plus brief glimpses of both Steven Spielberg and then Ang Lee at the end.

Fox Chief Executive Officer of Film Entertainment Tom Rothman, who worked with Lee at the beginning of their respective careers, told the audience that Lee really wants to raise the bar with what many considered an unfilmable movie by combining “the visual FX of ‘Titanic,’ the creative 3D revolution of ‘Avatar,’ the emotional CG character work of Caesar in ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes.'” The idea was to use technology and storytelling to turn the story of 17-year-old Pi Patel and his adventures with a Bengal tiger into an epic film that spans three continents and two oceans.

The footage was set up with the info that Pi’s family owns a zoo with 200 animals in India, and we catch up with them as they’ve packed up the family and all the animals on a freighter headed towards America, leaving Pi’s first love behind.

We’ll do our best to describe the footage shown, though it’s doubtful we can do justice to the fantastic imagery and cinematography.

The extended scene shown opened at sea where rain is pouring down on the Patel family’s freighter, the Tsimtsum, waves hitting hard and rocking the entire boat. We then go below decks where Pi wakes up and hearing the storm, wakes up his brother and tries to convince him to go on to deck with him, but his brother is worried they’ll get by lightning. Undaunted, Pi heads down the hall, being rocked back and forth with the boat and up the stairs and opens the door to a huge gale. But that doesn’t stop him and he goes outside, completely thrilled by all the rain as he starts shouting and doing a little dance to the rain gods as well as sliding in the water pooled on the deck. Then an alarm starts going off and the boat starts rocking even harder–really, it was like a scene from Titanic–and Pi is thrown against the rail. Below him, he can see waves crashing over the bow of the freighter completely engulfing it and he immediately realizes that the water must be flooding below deck.

He frantically goes below to look for his brothers, diving into the water and swimming below as a zebra swims past him in the water. He opens a door and more waters pours through as we watch him swim around for a bit. Eventually, he gets back onto deck and we see animals everywhere, many of them having gotten loose from their cages. He finds his brothers who are trying to get to the lifeboats and Pi ends up being pushed onto one in a scuffle with his brothers and almost slides off the end. He’s out on his own and trying to figure out how to get the lifeboat down and the captain is telling them to jump, but then we see a zebra on a deck above them. Completely panicked, it jumps over the rail onto the lifeboat and its weight causes it to become unmoored and it goes crashing down to the sea below.

So now it’s just Pi and an injured mewling zebra in the lifeboat that’s getting pulled further and further away from the freighter. Suddenly, he sees something in the water and thinking it’s his family, he calls out to him with no response, so he grabs the lifesaver on the boat and throws it out to him and starts pulling it back towards the lifeboat. As it gets closer, he uses a hook on a pole to reach out and pull it in, but he sees that he’s caught a Bengal tiger that was floating in the water and he tries to shoo him away but then a big wave pulls the tiger right onto the deck of the lifeboat.

Pi ends up jumping out of the lifeboat into the water and he tries to swim away and just keeps getting pulled lower and lower–the cameras following him the entire time–until he’s just floating, motionless, and we see the freighter has been sunk by the storm lying below him. He suddenly starts moving and finds the energy to swim back up to the surface where the lifeboat is still waiting, and he tenaciously climbs back on board – we see the zebra lying there motionless, but no sign of the tiger. Pi climbs all the way out onto the bow of the boat, to the very end, and looks down into the water where his family must be and he cries out “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

This led to a bit of quick footage from other parts of the movie interspersed with title cards that said something like “When All You’ve Known is Lost, Find Your Courage” and then it had titles like “A Life of Adventure, A Life of Friendship” before ending on the “Life of Pi” logo. (We can probably expect to see some of those title cards showing up in the actual trailer, whenever that may be.) The images shown included seeing Pi discovering the tiger hiding under the canvas on the lifeboat, and various stages in their relationship as they start to bond and get closer, as well as some of the amazing locations and fantastic landscapes like India, and it ends with a brightly-colored water spout rising high above Pi on the boat.

Next, director Ang Lee was introduced to talk about his vision for the movie while slides on the screen behind him showed some of the original concept art for the movie. He talked about how he wanted to use 3D to pull you into the emotional space of the characters.

He then introduced a second clip from a little later on in the movie, after the storm has subsided and the sun has come out, but by then, Pi has realized that the Bengal tiger is still on board (he was hiding under the cover) and he’s still trying to contend with a man-eating creature being just a few feet away from him. As he reaches for the pole with the hook we saw earlier, he’s hit in the face with a fish. He throws that fish to the tiger saying he can have it but it flies off and away from the lifeboat leaving the tiger watching it fly away. We then see an entire school of flying fish heading towards the boat and Pi quickly puts his arms to protect his face as he’s hit by one fish after another but looking through his arms, he sees that the tiger is swatting at all the fish and trying to grab some in its mouth. It’s an amazing scene to watch as they’re bombarded with fish and the tiger is acting like a big house cat just trying to catch as many fish in its mouth as possible.

The camerawork here is astounding, too, as it moves around the scene and even goes underwater following the fish’s path as we see that larger fish are joining the school including swordfish and tuna, one of which lands in the boat, so Pi, now covered in fish gook, uses the pole to try to hold off the tiger so that he can grab the big fish for himself. Undaunted, the tiger starts digging into the smaller fish that have pooled up in the bottom of the boat.

This footage really looked fantastic, especially the fact that so much of it involves visual FX. After the second clip, Lee came out again to remind people that what they saw was unfinished, saying there was roughly 10% to go. “It’s very difficult to recreate God’s work… but we’re trying,” he joked.

We’re always hesitant to hail a movie’s Oscar chances this early in the game–we probably should have learned our lesson with The Karate Kid a few years back–but it seems fairly obvious that the emotional story and the technical mastery on display in creating something so epic should mean that Life of Pi will be mentioned in the Oscar race by year’s end. The footage we saw was so beautiful and powerful that we can only imagine the rest of the movie offers more of the same.

While we’re waiting for that first trailer, enjoy our brief interview with director Ang Lee below. Life of Pi is scheduled to open on December 21.

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Tuesday: Mar. 31, 2020


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