“Most of the time, we’re thinking about how the scene works…We’re not philosophers. We’re filmmakers. We make movies that provoke thoughts and philosophies and feelings...”
—Director Ang Lee
Film master director Ang Lee talks with SET DECOR about embracing new aspects to enhance the art of filmmaking, the art of storytelling, as he did with the magical and magnificent LIFE OF PI – a story about a boy living in a lush paradise whose life suddenly and dramatically changes when after a savage storm at sea, he finds himself adrift in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger…and the man he becomes through the experience.
Ang Lee: When I first thought about filming LIFE OF PI, I thought this was an impossible project…the scope of the story is grand…it’s about adventure, survival, hope, wonder…but there is also spirituality and faith, and a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat! How do you make that into a movie? I thought, “If I add another dimension, maybe it is possible.” It took me a long time to figure out, it was a big endeavor. But I thought that if I use 3D, maybe the new technology can open up people’s minds. I think, by giving a new cinematic language, people might open up. We might bring back naturally the innocence of watching a movie…a theatrical experience. Maybe that will happen.
SET DECOR: This film is so unique…
Ang Lee: Doing something new put me on the edge. It’s like Pi facing the tiger, kept me very alert…
I needed total attention, total focus…and therefore I get the thrill that I’m living life fully. The excitement of finding new ways of expression and putting things in different places, giving the depth and manipulating the depth…your POV…that Z axis…your imagination and exploration…I’m a filmmaker. I live for that kind of thing.
SET DECOR: Could you talk about the combined use of two primary visual tools…set decoration and 3D…and how set decoration helps to make the 3D creditable?
Ang Lee: Well, I think set decorating will be the same in the future. I think in the future, 3D might be different…it might be lighted differently, it might be framed differently, the shots might be longer as you soak up more information.
It’s a new cinematic language…not only effects, but where you place things [which includes set decoration].
I think we’re in a transitional time of accepting 3D as a new artistic media. It has been tricks and action mostly up to now, instead of what 3D ought to be—part of storytelling, part of how you see things.
It’s a new illusion. It’s not life, it’s not 2D…it’s elusive. Because it’s not projected like 2D flat on the screen, it has depth. You can bring it up to you. You can emphasize things differently. There’s more density in front of you, but it’s elusive, it’s not solid screen. It’s the space opened up.
It’s something we have not mastered yet…it’s something we’re still learning, both filmmakers and viewers. We’re into a new deal.
It’s very hard to say how I think visually…it’s different. In terms of set decorating, I believe because in the future even if you might treat depth differently, you will still need good set decoration. Now in the past, we would deal with a flat screen, 2D, and you would create depth from there…you would use the illusion of shadow. 3D might not have to be that way, because it has depth of its own. But we don’t carry that out very much right now. We light the same way, because that’s how gaffers are trained…and same with photographers…when you train in photography, you train in 2D. So was I! You still light the set the same way, so you won’t flat it out.
I found in 3D, you take up more details. I found this most noticeable in performance. Some of the performance, I had to be near the young actor, to coach him through it…not so much the emotional scenes, but actions…and I found once I’m happy…I’d be watching the 2D monitor so I could be close to the actor…when I was happy with the performance and checked it in 2D, I’d go back in my booth and watch the playback in 3D, and most likely, I’d go back and reduce his performance to make it subtler. In 3D, we just pick up a lot more information.
In terms of set decorating, it should be along that way, but we didn’t do so much of that. I go with the set decorating mostly according to my eyes. What you see is what it is. I think when you frame it in the future, you might frame it differently. It might be looser, instead of relying on the frame, the corners. A lot of time, you do the set decorating based on the corners of your framing. I think that might have to be loosened up a little bit in the future.
SET DECOR: Certainly for this film, Anna Pinnock’s set decoration and David Gropman’s production design gave substance and good basic layers for the 3D. As the film opens, we’re in paradise…
Ang Lee: Yes!
SET DECOR: For the zoo, you had the actual botanical garden in Pondicherry, India, built by the French at the turn of the twentieth century, which Gropman points out allowed him to base additional architecture on both French and Indian aesthetics. And then you filled in the layers with both set decoration and the use of 3D?
Right! When David set it out, I’d see how I could frame it so the 3D could be interesting.
But there are a couple of things…that are not actually “set” …that I think worth mentioning.
With every animal, I tried to lay out a law of how I would use 3D in the movie. [Thus, every animal is presented from a different perspective.] So for example, for the Malaysian bear I used very deep 3D, but behind it, I had a wall that David had a painter from England paint a scene across. That’s a flat wall, but we drew a French Romanticism false perspective! So that’s 3D perspective on a flat 2D, but in front of it is a real 3D! [Chuckles] So that somehow relates to set decorating, because that’s a part of the background giving depth. That’s like an in-joke about 3D!
And we also decorated a 2D joke on a 3D shot—it’s the hippo and the pig. They come from the same family, both are fat. One is wild, the other is domestic. One is much larger than the other, but, because the 2D image is flat, on the screen they’re the same size. Pig and hippo…that’s a 2d trick: you line them up…smaller one in front, larger in back…and they’re the same size…that’s 2D! [Chuckles]
SET DECOR: Also in this boyhood paradise, Pi’s family home offers the sort of the realism that we’re used to…establishing everyday life that anyone can identify with. Here, an earth palette and simple lines, light woods. Rather than ornately carved heavy plantation furniture, these are more contemporary furnishings…to show that the parents were “contemporary” for their time?
Ang Lee: Right….which is period. That was like in the ‘60s & ‘70s home life. And because his mother is a botanist, his life is filled with plants.
SET DECOR: There’s a line where Pi states that since his mother was cast out from her family, her religion was her only link to her past…So in their home we see a few subtle pieces of Hindi style art…
Ang Lee: Yes. We actually used a lot of Indian art, including the large sculpture of Maria Notre Dame standing on a lotus flower that we placed in the entry of the Catholic parish church! And for the Hindi, we did the beautiful water ceremony!
SET DECOR: The scene that you filmed at the 1000-year old Villanur Temple…
Ang Lee: And that scene is special because we had 1600 extras…a big set up with the whole place lit up by candles. That night we burned 110,000 candles…on leaves and on the ground and people holding them…I think that’s fabulous.
SET DECOR: The temple, its grounds, the floating pavilion…all were lushly set decorated with floral garlands, art and sculptures, and lit with the thousands of traditional diya candles, reflected in the water…
Ang Lee: Yes! Not in the very gaudy way they put neons now! We did in the old-fashioned way…it was the most beautiful thing, like in our childhoods. Now they light it with gaudy neon lights. [Chuckles]…We go all the way to India and we don’t want to see the modern touches!
SET DECOR: Another period set, the Piscine Molitor pool in Paris…It’s just a tiny, momentary shot, but it was such a snapshot of the time…
Ang Lee: [Chuckles] You do know that was where the bikini was first introduced in 1946, at Piscine Molitor? So this was costume and some set decorating, and they had a heavenly time! There was no such thing as “too much”! And I said, “No, don’t pull it back, just go ahead.” [Chuckles]
SET DECOR: From that to the very pulled-back Pi’s home as an adult in Canada, and what that tells us. There was the subtle reference of the striped sofa and rug in the same striping colors of a tiger, only muted. And the dining table echoed the one of his parents’…such a minimal thing to bring forward from his memories.
Ang Lee: Yes, only subtle references. His life in Canada was bland. I wanted the set to be nondescript, almost banal, so it’s in contrast with the colorful picture of life in India. I wanted that contrast, because you know, that was paradise for Pi, that was his innocence, his romantic period. After the journey, he grew up.
LIFE OF PI is just as much about immersing audiences in the characters’ emotional space as it is about the epic scale and adventure…To me it was a profound experience, but on the surface it has to be fun, adventurous and illusive!