Documentary Short-Subject Review: Life After Pi
Growing up in the 1990’s, the one thing that fascinated me as much as people working on animated features, were those working on visual effects for film. The movie magic that made DeLoreans time-travel and animated characters interact in our world, had given way to the return of dinosaurs, and…talking pigs!?
Yes, two years after Jurassic Park wowed us, one of the strangest upsets for the Academy Awards’ Visual Effects awards category occurred, when the Oscar went to: Babe.
That win in 1995, would mark the first Academy Award for the production company, Rhythm & Hues. Founded in 1987, they would have their artistic hands in over 145 feature films, and win three Academy Awards. While they would run the gamut over many different types of effects, they were mostly known for their great work in character animation, notably regarding animals.
It was on the night of February 26, 2013, that several of the studio’s crew accepted their third Visual Effects award for their contributions to Ang Lee’s film adaptation, Life of Pi. However, what should have been a triumph, was more like putting the coins over the eyes of a corpse.
Several weeks before, the company had found itself in a bind when it had run out of money. Unable to find backers to help keep them afloat, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, laying off close to 300 people. After completing its final assignments, the studio closed its doors for good. A sad end to one of many studios that thrived during the uptick of effects-heavy features over the past 20 years.
The 30-minute film weaves a story from those who not only worked for Rhythm & Hues, but also founded it as well. It was nice to see a piece that did allow those in higher positions to have a say regarding what had happened. Overall, the consensus is that the system in which visual effects are crafted, is in dire need of fixing.
Of the effects houses left in North America, many have found themselves trying to compete with studios in Canada or even in Asia, which can significantly reduce the budget of a feature film. Life explores this concept with some nice visuals, not to mention explaining just why sending your movie’s work to Vancouver would be seen as a wise move by numerous executives.
During my days as an animation intern over a decade ago, my Supervisor told me a valuable lesson about the big studios:
Every studio wants the work to be three things: Faster, Better, and Cheaper. However, there is no way to have all three of these things. You can only have two. This means if you want your production work to be done Faster and Cheaper, it definitely won’t be better.
These days, there is a mindset in Hollywood that unless you strike before the iron is even hot, the shrinking attention-spans of moviegoers are going to look elsewhere with their money. After all, this isn’t the early 1980’s where people were forced to wait for 3 years until The Empire Strikes Back was released. These days, production schedules are often squeezed incredibly tight. Even the upcoming Star Wars Episodes VII-IX are only being allowed a 2-year window between films.
Recent articles have predicted that it’s possible one day, computing power will become so fast, that what would normally be preview animation, could be finalized animation in a matter of hours…or minutes!
The documentary put me in mind of another that chronicled the semi-collapse of Walt Disney Feature Animation’s hand-drawn department in the early 2000’s, titled Dream On, Silly Dreamer. However, that production was made several years after the events that are told. In the case of Life, the documentary is being released almost a year after the studio’s Oscar win, and was started almost as soon as word spread of the company’s closing.
It also acts as a healthy dose of reality regarding how a majority of effects artists work. This isn’t a solid 9-5 workplace job in many cases. Some people end up packing up and moving from job-to-job, oftentimes working into unpaid overtime hours during the final stretches of a production. One of the people interviewed shows (and tells) how his entire life is now spent living out of hotel rooms, in his pursuit of being a visual effects artist.
Even for a short-subject, the documentary details a studio that seemed to be a tight-knit little community (one person mentions how one of the studio’s founders actually took time to help her move in the early days). Rhythm & Hues appears to have been a studio run by people who wanted to do big things, but not fall into the trap of being gobbled up and (possibly) spat out by the studio system.
That scenario actually happened to the effects house Dream Quest Images in the late 1990’s. Walt Disney Studios bought them up, and renamed them The Secret Lab. However, when the films the company worked on like Dinosaur and Reign of Fire didn’t do well, the studio quickly pulled the plug, and disbanded the company (you can read an article written by a former DQI/TSL employee here). I always found this move perplexing, how the studio had its own visual effects company, which could have saved them from going to outside vendors for future film series like Pirates of the Caribbean. Then again, I’ve never been one to understand most executive decisions.
Even though it mentions that something needs to be done regarding how visual effects houses are relied on, Life After Pi offers no quick-fix or steps on how to do this. If anything, it acts moreso as a signal flare, that something is amiss. Could it be possible that the push to do things Faster and Cheaper, may one day cause the system to break down? It’s hard to imagine, but maybe a new visual effects Dark Ages could be looming on the horizon.
It feels like there could be even more information to have stretched the documentary out to an hour, but is considered the first chapter in a number of future segments, to be released through Hollywoodendingmovie.com . Currently, the site says that the upcoming documentary will chronicle the different ways in which the financial climate in Hollywood, is taxing numerous areas of the industry.
Life After Pi is an informative look at a side of the industry that not many may want to get into. While many are enamored with big-name superstars, many often forget that there are often hundreds of “little people” in the shadows, doing all sorts of little details on feature films, leg-working like mad against the clock. It’s often one reason why I don’t leave when the credits roll.
Many times, I’ll find myself sitting in the theater, counting how many visual effects houses worked on a film. I did that this summer, and my eyes almost popped out when I saw the list of effects houses that were pulled together just to complete Iron Man 3! It was almost as many as had been recruited by James Cameron to finish Titanic.
It is sad that we can pay people millions of dollars to hit a ball with a stick or to kick a ball…yet when it comes to people pouring so much time, effort, and care into artistry, the general consensus is, “can you do this for next-to-nothing, and get it done in 1/3 of the normal time?”
During the first 5 minutes of the documentary, we are treated to some scenes that show just how amazing Rhythm and Hues’ work was in crafting Life of Pi’s tiger character. During production, they shot reference footage of a real tiger, and then attempted to replicate what they saw, using their people and programs. The side-by-side comparisons of both live-action and the animated tiger are a testament to what a group of talented people can do, when they strive to push quality in a world that wants everything faster, and cheaper. At the end of the day, one has to also wonder…will things (ever) get Better?