Max Ivins told us about the Look Effects work on CAPTAIN AMERICA some time ago. He is back on The Art of VFX to explain his work on LIFE OF PI.

How did Look Effects got involved on this show?
One of our producers has had a long-standing relationship with Susan MacLeod, VFX Producer on the project. So, she approached about working on it.

How was the collaboration with director Ang Lee?
Not being the primary facility, we did not have a lot of interface with Ang Lee. But we did receive input from him that proved clear and helpful to us. From the feedback we did receive from him, it was apparent that he was clear on what he wanted and his vision and expectations were clearly laid out for us.

How did you collaborates with VFX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer?
Bill was fantastic. I have the highest level of respect for Bill after sitting in dailies and getting a significant amount of insightful and helpful input from him – which is not always what you get in our industry. Bill is fantastic on both the artistic and technical aspects of, not only visual effects, but filmmaking in general. It was a pleasure to work with him.

What have you done on this show?
We did approximately 60 shots, primarily compositing that takes place in the early part of the movie when Pi is in India. We did a number of set extensions, blue-screen composites. My favorite sequence was creating hundreds of candle boats for a Hindu religious ceremony.

How did you create the shot with the flamingos?
The flamingo shot was about inserting the elephant mural into the shot. Principal photography was done with a blue screen where the mural was to go. The big challenge to the shot ended up being the intersection of the water and the bottom of the blue screen-mural and the reflection of the mural on the water and, with all stereo screen compositing, tiny objects such as blades of grass, flamingo feathers, flamingo legs do not pull the same for each eye. So you end of with a huge number of stereo discrepancies that have to be repaired with either roto or removal and replacement – all in the correct stereo depth. This turned this relatively straightforward composite into an extremely challenging and time-consuming shot for the company. But it looks really nice!

Can you tell us more about the lake sequence with the boats with candles?
That was basically us creating 3D banana boats that held candles that mimicked actual ones that were shot in principal photography – along with their ancillary reflections, etc. – and adding in a star-filled sky. This culminated in a transition where the camera tilts up into the night sky (our cg star field) and, then, rotates tilt and pan down into the next scene. And remember all of this was in stereo, which makes everything more challenging and time-consuming. Live-action stereo requires exacting work for the vfx team for the effects to work.

How did you create the matte-painting of the sky for this sequence?
Hero shots of the Milky Way that exist just were not high-enough resolution, so we had to create our own. To generate the star field, I actually pulled out an ancient piece of software – Do you remember Chalice? – for which I had to install a virtual Windows 95 on my current Windows 7 machine to run it. With that I generated several large, high-res star fields that were used as the building blocks for the final extreme-res matte painting. It was something like 26K.

That texture map was projected on a sky dome in Nuke. This got us what Ang wanted.

Can you explain to us more about your removal work on the modern items?
The shoot took place in contemporary India, but the story takes place in the mid-twentieth century. So we ended up covering over newer buildings, signage and wires. But it wasn’t as much as you would think it would be. The ones we did do required, not only removing these items, but also doing so with plates that have heavy rain – in stereo 3D. Rain in stereo is its own issue. We also had to remove automotive headlights and lit signs that made it feel like the wrong time – in history and of day. Due to the amount of activity, people, rain, etc. in these shots, this work required a great deal of finessing and experience on the part of our artists. And, once again, all in stereo.

What were the main challenges with these shots?
It’s hard to pinpoint a main challenge, other that it was shot in stereo, along with all the other complicating issues – rain, lights, wires – each of which requires its own strategy and finesse. If pressed, I would say the primary challenge is the sum of all the challenges in these shots, multiplied by it all being in stereo. So stereo is the main factor, as it makes everything you do more exacting.

How did you extend the ship hold interior?
We had a matte painter create a matte painting of everything beyond Pi in layers that were, then, used by a Nuke artist who created geometry for all the cargo and the ship hold. He projected the layers of the ship on the geometry and cleaned up the seams between the two eyes. (Remember this is stereo.) We rendered both eyes in Nuke, in which the final composite was done.

What was the real size of this set?
In this shot, the set goes 8 feet beyond where Pi is sitting. Everything beyond that is a set extension. Height was not a problem; we did not extend the height of the set. All the animals were on the set. We did end of taking Pi out of another sequence and comping him in to match the movement of the animals.

Can you tell us more about your work on Montreal shot?
The Montreal shot with the ships in the background was inspired by how the location looked when it was scouted. So, in this shot of Pi and the writer sitting on a bench, we added two large boats that are matte paintings projected on 3D models.

What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The biggest challenge ended up being the stereo – because nature does not like to be photographed from two different positions. And two different cameras don’t capture things exactly the same way. Rain, leaves, grass, blue-screens are not stereo-friendly. As a result, stereo was the biggest challenge all around. Ang set extremely high standards for the stereo in this film – which exacerbated the stereo challenge.

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
There was no particular shot or sequence. But as I said above, the high standards set for the stereo made this project sleep-preventing.

What do you keep from this experience?
Just kidding. We learned so much more about doing stereo for which we’ll be really glad on our next 3D project.

How long have you worked on this film?
We worked on it for about a year, due to the shooting schedule. They talked to us really early in the whole thing.

How many shots have you done?
We did about 60.

What was the size of your team?
Not overly large. We had about a half-a-dozen artists in the core of our crew.

What is your next project?
I am currently finishing up MAN OF STEEL and am looking forward to spending some time with my new son.

A big thanks for your time.


Look Effects: Official website of Look Effects.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2013


  1. This is truely encouraging for me….
    learning more in this feild.



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