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Oscar winner Bill Westenhofer on being frontrunner for 'Life of Pi' visual effects

By Zach Laws
Feb 17 2013 12:42 pm
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Oscar winner Bill Westenhofer ("The Golden Compass," 2007) is no stranger to creating animals via visual effects, having done so for that film as well as “Babe: Pig in the City” (1998) and “Stuart Little” (1999).

However, he says designing the tiger in “Life of Pi” presented an exciting opportunity to try something new. “We had done digital animals in the past, and tried to make them look as real as possible, but then they get up and sing and dance, so you know it’s not real.”

As he reveals in the video chat below, “Here was a chance to do a digital tiger that was a real tiger, and behaved like one. I told my crew, ‘Here’s your chance to fool your colleagues and fool the experts.’”

He and his crew began by studying the movements of real tigers, one of which was named King. “There’s something I can check off my bucket list,” chuckles Westenhofer, recalling a terrifying brush with fate. “We’d been taking a bunch of photos and video references. I was right next to the cage when King decided he’d had enough and told me very authoritatively he was done for the day.”

Such risks have already paid off as he and his team picked up the BAFTA and swept the Visual Effects Society awards, winning four prizes there. And they are tipped to win Best Visual Effects at the Oscars. With the backing of all of our experts and editors as well as 90% of users, they are overwhelmingly favored to win the Academy Award with odds of 11/8, far ahead of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," which has odds of 7/2. 

In addition to the tiger Richard Parker, Westenhofer was tasked with creating the water world where Pi and his companion spend the bulk of the film. “The oceans were as daunting as any of the animal work we had to do,” he elaborates. “Ang (Lee) told us from the get-go he wanted the oceans to be as much a character as the animals, which is sort of code for ‘the oceans and the sky really set the mood for the scene.’ When Pi’s feeling desolate and alone we try to reflect that in the skies, and as his mood improves we go to a more friendly sky.”

“Unlike most films that involve the ocean, this is one of the rare ones where over three-fifths of the film’s running time is spent on the ocean, and not just on the deck. You’re sitting right smack with Pi’s butt in the ocean. So we had to get detail levels and have enough variety that it would entertain the audience for that much of the film.”

 
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