Visionary at helm

SURREAL: Suraj Sharma plays Pi in Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee.
SURREAL: Suraj Sharma plays Pi in Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee.

YANN Martel's 2001 best-seller, Life of Pi, about a teenage boy drifting at sea in a tiny lifeboat alongside a tiger, zebra, hyena and orang-utan, is an inherently challenging novel to adapt for the big screen.

It requires its director to mimic the experience of floating, post-shipwreck, on the vast Pacific Ocean and to tell a story steeped in internal psychological struggle.

Then there's the matter of dealing with two things most filmmakers are cautioned to avoid: young actors and potentially untameable animals.

Clearly none of this was too daunting for film-maker Ang Lee, the soft-spoken Academy Award winner responsible for the elegant reserve of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

After signing on to the project in 2009, Lee even added extra challenges to the adaptation process, opting to shoot the film in 3D with an unknown (newbie thespian Suraj Sharma) as his protagonist.

At this point it's worth noting that Sharma - who, as Pi, lives for an extended period of time on the open water - had no idea how to swim when filming started.

"There's one minute alone, under water, where he has to hold his breath for at least a minute and a half," Lee said. "And I tested him and it was only 15 seconds."

The director laughs about this now, noting that Sharma is "physically very agile" and was a quick study in the art of treading water. (For the record, the 19-year-old can now swim well.) Lee gets more serious when discussing the other issues he confronted; for example, while discussing his adjustment to 3D - a medium in which the director had not worked - he uses the word "confusing" three times and "elusive" twice.

"Three years back, I didn't know what it was," he said. "I just imagined that with a new medium, maybe, just maybe, it opened up new chances. And as I got into it, I found this is truly a new cinematic language. It's confusing because we're not used to it."

If Lee was confused, it doesn't show on screen. Like other acclaimed directors who have recently taken the multi-dimensional cinematic approach - Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders and Ridley Scott among them - Lee's use of 3D comes across less as a gimmick and more of an organic element, one that effectively emphasises the sudden horrors of Pi's increasingly dangerous situation and the surreality of a life adrift at sea.

At this point, readers of Life of Pi may be wondering how Lee managed to throw a human being into a glorified dinghy alongside those aforementioned creatures.

The short answer is CGI. The longer answer is that, particularly for the Bengal tiger with the unusual, personifying name Richard Parker, a combination of real animal footage, computer-generated images and scenes shot in a huge water tank in front of a green screen were seamlessly blended.

The result is that the starving, desperate Pi and the ferocious predator from his family zoo really do seem to come in close physical contact as they spar over personal space.

Lee said he spent months supervising the evolving work of the CGI wizards, another aspect of the job that made this a more methodical endeavour than his previous work.

"I got very technical on the movie Hulk," he said, "but I think by percentage and probably degree of difficulty, yeah, this is [my] most technical [film]."

On Life of Pi, even some of the more traditional elements of cinema presented hiccups.

There are numerous scenes in which the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells a writer the story of his perilous adventure. That writer was originally played by Tobey Maguire, who worked with Lee on 1997's The Ice Storm. After shooting, Lee decided he needed to recast the role with a lesser-known performer because Maguire's presence was distracting in a field of mostly unknown actors. The scribe is played in the final cut by Rafe Spall.

"With somebody like Tobey," Lee explained diplomatically, "I think I underestimated his star power. I knew Tobey when he was young, and he's a great talent, so I forgot how powerful he is as a star now." The Washington Post