Since it premiered at the end of 2012, box office takes from Ang Lee’s Life of Pi have reached almost US$400 million. Taiwan is basking in the film’s success because 80 percent of the movie was shot and produced on the island. In fact, Ang Lee told reporters in New York that “the movie couldn’t have been shot if it hadn’t been in Taiwan.”
Business Weekly reported that although the Taiwan government subsidized the film to the tune of NT$300 million (US$10.3 million), the film’s crew members pumped an equivalent amount into the local economy with expenditure on food, accommodation, and transportation.
Seeing the potential of the Taiwanese animation industry, US-based Rhythm and Hues Studios (R&H), has decided to invest in Taiwan. The studio is one of the world’s top visual effects companies, producing movies like Titanic and Harry Porter. It is expected that the studio’s investment will create a total of NT$6 billion (US$206.8 million) in related investments.
Babylon makes waves
In the movie, Lee uses high, tsunami-like violent ocean waves to depict the helplessness of the boy, the boat and the tiger in the face of nature’s onslaught.
“After watching the movie, I couldn’t tell if it was produced by my wave generators,” said Hsueh Yi-sen, general manager at Babylon Pool Systems Co., the company responsible for the wave-building technology and wave pattern design in Taiwan. In the two-hour movie, 90 minutes were shot at the ocean set, which was built by the company.
“No wave generators anywhere in the world could achieve the ocean effects required for the Life of Pi. It was almost ten times more difficult than that of a water park,” Hsueh told Business Weekly. He added that he ordered a dozen 150 horsepower vacuum water generators to achieve the effects required by the Life of Pi. There are different gates for upper and lower waves, and seven controls for wave strength adjustment in each machine, enabling them to generate a total of 14 different types of wave patterns.
Equipped with these generators, a 75-meter (246 feet) long, 30-meter (98.4 feet) wide and 3-meter (9.84 feet) deep pool, the wave pool is the largest ever built, being equivalent in size to five basketball courts.
Despite what was ultimately achieved, Babylon’s first wave pool presentation was a complete failure. Initially, the design team was confident when showing Lee ten kinds of simulated wave patterns. According to Business Weekly, Lee remained unsmiling during the presentation, and left before it was complete, saying grimly, “This is not what I want” and then walked away. In the two weeks that followed, Hsueh and his team worked 17-hour days and came up with designs for 100-wave patterns.
Finally Lee, a known perfectionist, agreed that the ocean waves produced by Babylon was not perfect, but merited a score of 90. He decided to shoot the movie based on the 90 percent score and to supplement the missing 10 percent with special effects.
Since the movie’s debut, the wave pool Hsueh built has risen to fame. Even renowned director and producer Martin Scorsese has stopped inTaiwanto inquire about renting the pool for special ocean wave effects.
With experience in producing the Life of Pi, Babylon now joins the elite list of only four other companies that are capable of producing such sophisticated wave generating technology.
Operating 400 animal puppets
The movie’s visually unique scenes were also provided by a special team of puppeteers. Initially Lee turned to Legacy Effects, a Hollywood-based special effects company, responsible for making almost 400 animal puppets for the Life of Pi. Its credits have included Avatar and Iron Man. After reading the screen play for the Life of Pi, Legacy Effects believed it needed at least 10 highly skilled puppeteers for the project. In all, they estimated 10 months would be needed to construct the entire screen shots of these animals based on the scale with an estimated cost of US$1 million in addition to the costs of air tickets, food and lodgings, Business Weekly reported.
In order to control costs, Lee decided to look for skilled puppeteers inTaiwan. As such, a team of puppeteers was formed by three American specialists from Legacy Effects supplemented with local Taiwanese puppeteers Lee Ca-why and Liu Yu-tsen.
It took four puppeteers, performing closely together, to create such scenes as the boy Pi feeding a giraffe at the bow of the boat.
There are 300 flying fish puppets in the movie. Each one is a different size, has different wing-like fins, different flapping strength, and even different facial expressions. While shooting the scene of Pi being attacked by these fish, careful calculations were needed to determine the exact degree and direction of flight for the flying fish.
After the conclusion of shooting, Lee Ca-why spoke emotionally about the experience of working with Legacy Effects. Rather than accept Legacy’s offer to work in Hollywood, he re-organized his work notes in order to form a new company. His dream is to nurture these puppet skills in Taiwan. After the project, Liu continued on to Germany to be a resident artist at a theater there.
Business Weekly concluded that Ang Lee started the engine of Taiwanese movies. As for how long it will travel depends on how widely Taiwan opens itself to working with international talent in order to globalize the island’s film industry. The shooting of the film may be over, but the seeds of future success have already been sown.