An Appreciation of the Tiger in “Life of Pi”

My favorite animated performance in Pixar’s Brave was the Queen-as-a-bear character. It was a fine piece of cartoon-inspired anthropomorphized animation that supported the storyline and convinced the viewer that there was a struggle of personalities occurring within the bear.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the animation of the tiger, Richard Parker, in Ang Lee’s film adaptation of the novel Life of Pi. The aims of the Rhythm & Hues animators who created the tiger were quite different than those of Brave‘s animators, but it is no less an artistic accomplishment.

In Life of Pi, the tiger shares the screen for long periods of time with a live-action actor, and the goal was to create a performance that was as naturalistic, animalistic and photorealistic as possible. They succeeded on all counts, and created a convincing character that the viewer never questions as being anything but a flesh-and-blood tiger. In fact, the film’s visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer, said in an interview that there were even shots of a real tiger mixed in seamlessly with the CG: “By doing that, it set our bar high for CGI. We couldn’t cheat at all. It pushed the artists to go and deliver something that’s never been done before, something as photo-real as anyone has ever done with an animal.”

Impressive as it is, one can’t help but feel that the tiger is an anticlimactic moment in the history of CG animation. There has been a decades-long buildup toward achieving such a character, and with each film, artists have progressively gotten closer and closer to this goal. The tiger is not a revolution, but rather the latest evolution of CGI’s march toward photoreal and natural digital actors.

Life of Pi’s animation director Erik-Jan De Boer has had plenty of time to develop an approach to naturalism over the past decade-and-a-half, primarily at Rhythm & Hues, which has distinguished itself as one of the top effects houses for CG animals. De Boer’s R&H credits include animals in films like The Golden Compass, Cats & Dogs, Stuart Little, Babe: Pig in the City and both Scooby-Doo features.

Significant portions of Life of Pi beyond the animals were also computer-generated and this article on FXguide serves as a primer to the use of CG in the film. Among the eleven Oscar nominations that the film earned last week was a nod for its visual effects. De Boer shares the nomination with Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron (vfx supervisor: MPC) and Donald R. Elliott (special effects technician). It would be a surprise if the film didn’t win in this category.

Film has always been about creating an illusion, and today, that illusion is being achieved in large part through animation. Directors like Ang Lee and James Cameron have transformed themselves into (part-time) animation directors with little fanfare, and some of the most technologically advanced pieces of character animation can be seen in their films. The tiger in Life of Pi is an impressive accomplishment, and shows that photoreal animals are now within the grasp of today’s animators. Anyone who is interested in the development of our art form owes it to themselves to check out the film.


  • Pedro Nakama

    I think this will win the VFX Oscar.

  • the Gee

    Do you think there are any outtakes of the tiger doing funny things?

    As much as the possibilities are broadened with this milestone, I can’t wonder if raising the bar to this level also limits what would be done.

    I brought this up before but something like this character may have no reason to be cartoonish or goofy in its performance. Say, eye-popping to express surprise. An actor can just quickly open his eyes as wide as possible, like many comedic actors have done. Would it look right or have the same effect for this character? You certainly couldn’t make it cartoonishly wild without it being inappropriate. So, in a way this brilliant accomplishment is a higher bar and is limiting for possibilities.

    eh?

    • http://ervilhasmaravilha.com Yellow

      I believe the bloopers in CGI are too expensive. It would’ve been great, though.

    • Chris Sobieniak

      I’ve already saw the writing on the wall long ago.

  • http://oneeyedrobot.com Yoram Benz

    Amazing! Was the tiger played by Andy Serkis?

    • Randy

      This question illustrates so much of what is wrong with the public’s perception of cg and mo-cap. Unless you were being sarcastic, in which case you’re hilarious.

      • http://oneeyedrobot.com Yoram Benz

        I was!

        • http://youtube.com/Mesterius1 Mesterius

          You’re hilarious! :)

  • wever

    As far as the tiger goes, I shall forever call it live-action. No one can convince me otherwise. Even when I see it as being animated, and even if I do watch a behind-the-scenes video. Because it doesn’t LOOK animated!

    • Vedanth Rajan

      and that i believe is the greatest praise to the animators who worked on this film…

  • Ikas

    Roarrrr at the oscar !

  • Mapache

    Frankly, I didn’t find it quite convincing. Though the rendering of the tiger’s body kinda blends well with the enviroment, the performance is cartoony in my opinion.

    What gives away the fact that the tiger is not there, I think, is its too humanized facial expressions. One could argue that was necessary for the film to work; That people needed to see what was going on inside the tigers head; I think that could be said using other cinematic resouces instead of the tiger’s puppy eyes.

    Excellent piece of animation, but a poor direction’s decision if you ask me.

    • http://ervilhasmaravilha.com Yellow

      Have you seen the movie on a theater? It is uncanny. And, by the way, the tiger is only one of the many beatiful CGI effects employed in the movie.

      • http://twitter.com/BongBong BongBong

        The orangutan was incredible to watch and sad at the same time.

    • Sarah J

      Huh, I didn’t see the tiger being humanized. One thing I complimented about the film was that it DIDN’T humanize the tiger.

      Personally I think what gave the tiger away for me was the fur. Looked just a bit too, like, fluffy. But it’s still an amazing effect.

      • SKent.

        I didn’t find it hard to spot the few tiger shots that were clearly live action. And I didn’t find all the CG totally convincing.

        Which isn’t to say I wasn’t impressed.

        In a sense, (if you’ve seen the movie or read the book) it doesn’t necessarily hurt the film that if the illusion isn’t 100%. You choose to believe in it.

  • Matt

    An amazing accomplishment indeed.

  • Toonio

    R&H Voodoo pipeline is da bomb!

  • Jon Hanson

    I know what you mean, it’s amazing work, I’d say it works way better than a movie like Avatar but because it’s so seamless people aren’t going to notice it as much. I honestly can’t remember being sure that the Tiger was CG at any point in the movie, although I kept thinking that they must have done some CG. In fact I’d say most of the movie is a primer in using CG but not looking too CG, although the fish did seem like a weak-point to me, but still good.

  • http://www.michaelspornanimation.com/splog/ Michael Sporn

    Since seeing it early on (I waited years for this film to open) I have been calling this film the best animated feature of the year, and I still think it is. I also think that this is the real purpose of cg animation. It’s not to make dancing viewmaster puppets that call themselves animated. (I wonder what Jim Henson would be doing today if he were still alive.)

    I’ve seen LIFE OF PI five times so far and will see it again. It’s a great film.

    • Sarah J

      Yeah, it is pretty great. I’ve only seen it once and I’m too cheap to see it more often. But I do plan on buying a DVD, which is kind of a big deal for me because I almost never find DVDs that I can’t pull out of a five-dollar bin.

  • http://genedeitchcredits.com Gene Deitch

    Wait for it, folks: Next up, a remake of African Queen, starring, (in “Living CGI”), Clark Gable & Greta Garbo!

    • Mapache

      There’s a J’adore (perfume) commercial starring Charlize Theron and CGI versions of Grace Kelly, Marylin Monroe and Marlene Dietrich. And it looks very convincing.

      • http://twitter.com/BongBong BongBong

        Actually, I spotted the Monroe flaws very quickly. She looked like cleaned up footage that had been comped in.

  • http://she-seeing.tumblr.com/art Caty

    Am I the only one who considers FX Hulk way ahead from its generation? LoP’s high realism was a shout out to that version (the best CGI on the Jolly Green Giant after Lou Ferrigno)That sense of mass + cleanliness I really don’t understand were they take it from, in both creatures. (I can’t include Avatar as a visual wonder, way to cheesy in terms of colour to be applauded as a hiper-realistic triumph)
    People who outdo themselves- those are the guys who deserve the ovation (at least) Congratulations

  • Mike Caracappa

    In a way, I think it’s better that the tiger doesn’t look too real when the CG strings become noticeable. There’s always that strive for realism in CG creatures in movies, but I think it helps sometimes when the CG is a bit noticeable, because in a way in a way it brings people back to the fact to the fantasy aspect of watching a movie. It’s not about realism so much as it is for the audience believing in the character that makes it real. Like the original King Kong, or something as recent as Jurassic Park, where the effects might seem a little more primitive now, but we accept the fantasy and still believe in them as characters as if they were real.

    • http://twitter.com/BongBong BongBong

      I’d call “Life of Pi” either magic realism or hyper-realism. At no time did it look like a documentary.

  • Sarah J

    I could tell the tiger was CG, well, in the way in moved. It’s hard to explain exactly. But it still looks AMAZING and I hope it gets some special effects awards.

  • GW

    I think that some day, animatronics will compete with computer generated visual effects. Once animatronics reaches the point where you can easily reinstruct the robots, computer animation will have to evolve in order to stay competitive for many instances. Not for all instances, as CGI allows for many things animatronics couldn’t do, but definitely for many situations involving wild animals. The downside here is that as this technique’s introduced, stop motion effects are likely to be marginalized even more.

  • http://twitter.com/BongBong BongBong

    Remember the Hulk vs. Hulk-Dogs fight in Ang Lee’s movie Hulk? The man knows how to direct action and animals.