Life of Pi: The beginning of the end for Ang Lee's ambition?
2nd December, 2020
Winner of two Oscars, Ang Lee has been a long time big name in Hollywood, even back during his comic book adaptations, but was Life of Pi his pièce de résistance?
On the 21st of November, 2012, Ang Lee's cinematic adaptation of Yann Mantel's 2001 novel of the same name, was met with love from both critics and audiences, gaining over $600 million worldwide, and was nominated for 11 Oscars (winning four of them, including Best Director for Ang Lee).
All the accolades were worthy as it was one of the most unique films of that year, with its visual effects, spiritual cinematography, and intelligent storytelling being compared to the next stage of cinematic evolution.
The film seemed to be a career-high achievement for almost everyone involved. Ang Lee, the film's main production company Fox 2000, and especially the visual effects company Rhythm & Hues Studios. The latter of which were the ones to get some of the most praise and admiration for their respective field.
But instead of following up the project with more successes, none of those involved were able to build on what they achieved, almost as if they all were Icarus flying too close to the sun that was Life of Pi.
20th Century Fox has had acquired the rights to the book even before its publishing, with Elizabeth Gabler, the executive of Fox 2000, keeping the project alive with multiple directors attached to the production, including M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuarón, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
The studio managed to gather an amount of $120 million for the film's budget, more than double than a typical production. Along with an estimated $80 million from 20th Century for distribution and promotion.
That amount of money is almost unprecedented for its time by a major studio to spend for a project by a midbudget and independent production studio. Something that would have been seen as an impossible risk for a Hollywood film to take, especially for a bizarre premise that is not part of a major franchise, or could launch one, and no A-list actor.
An even bigger surprise was how exceptional the film ended up being, something that Fox 2000 was not famous for. Even though the studios have had some acclaimed films since its formation in the late 90s, like The Thin Red Line, Fight Club, and Walk the Line, the studio had been known as the lesser child between the two independent companies of 20th Century Fox. The other sibling being Fox Searchlight with a big collection of critically acclaimed films at that time, such as Oscar winner: Slumdog Millionaire, Black Swan, and Juno.
The success at the box office and the award circles put the studio on a new path of multiple possibilities, winning enough validation to head to riskier projects and bolder creatives. But for some reason, they never achieved the height of Life of Pi's success again.
They still followed on the same type of projects before Pi, and seemingly not try to go for another risk. Or at least to try as hard. Although they did have some hits with the likes of Bridge of Spies, Hidden Figures, and The Fault in Our Stars, compared to the rest of their work, these films seem to be the outliers in the trend.
The sheer will and effort to make a film such as Life of Pi is a fantastic credit that unfortunately, Hollywood studios do not seem to give much effort, especially since 2012. The whole market seems to have been replaced by superhero franchises, remakes, and reboots, and if you're not a household name like Christopher Nolan or James Cameron, you'll never stand a chance of getting a film about the exploration of faith while in the middle of the pacific ocean with a Bengal tiger as a companion, with a budget of over $100 million off the ground.
Especially after the rise of independent streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, studios such Fox 2000 become obsolete as most filmmakers and creatives head over to such companies cause of the freedom outside the typical studio system with an excessive amount of money and de-ageing technology (I'm looking at you Scorsese and your $250-million-Irishman).
So, it came with no surprise that Disney shut Fox 2000 down and kept Searchlight Pictures as the sole independent faction of 20th Century Studios.
Talking about companies shutting down, there's no greater tragedy from this story than that of Rhythm & Hues Studios, the people who handled the digital visual effects of the film. With over 500 people, in at least three different countries, who all arguably helped the film to win the Oscars for cinematography and visual effects, the company filed for bankruptcy just three months after the film's release. That was less than two weeks before the Oscars ceremony where Life of Pi ended up winning the most awards that night.
Unfortunately, to achieve greatness there have to be some losses, something very true for Rhythm & Hues, as they went over budget and overtime to what they initially planned, due to the extended research and development need to make the animals, especially Richard Parker (the Bengal tiger) as realistic as possible.
The story of their company's closure is still a sensitive subject within the animators' community, even to the extent that the animators participated in a 30-minute documentary about the toll the film had on the studio and the complete ignorance from the producers and crew for their bankruptcy.
One of those artists was Bill Westenhofer, who had won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects and got cut off when he was trying to mention the studio's fall during his acceptance speech, to no other track than the Jaws theme.
The studio ended up being liquified and bought by a different company, and just like that the people who worked on the revolutionary baby- The Lord of the Rings trilogy, were cast aside.
Although these occurrences are very regular in the industry (especially in today's world), the biggest issue that the animators had was how much the rest of the crew ignored them during the promotion of the film, especially during award seasons. None of the Oscar winners, besides Westenhofer, thanked Rhythm & Hues' sacrifices. But the most harmful neglect of all was that of Ang Lee's.
Life of Pi is, strangely enough, the combination of all of Lee's previous work. The film had the oversaturated visual narrative of Hulk. The caring depiction of non-western cultures from Eat Drink Man Woman. The esthetical admiration of nature from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The complex meaning of dialogue from The Ice Storm. The emotional resonance and subjective ambiguity from Brokeback Mountain.
Besides Hulk, Pi was the biggest film he had the helm for, his career up to that point seemed to be leading him to make this adaptation possible, something that Jean-Pierre Jeunet deemed as almost unfilmable. It is true that the end product is a cinematic marvel, but Lee simply doesn't seem suited to big studio films.
As Rhythm & Hues employees have stated, Ang Lee was pushing them to spend more time on their work, even on overtime, to make his vision as true as possible.
The good news is, at least at the time of the film's premiere, his vision of getting closer to, as he calls it a "Movie God" came real. The bad news is that his vision cost the jobs of hundreds of people. And for some reason, he did not even mention them in his acceptance speech when he won the Oscar for Best Director.
In all fairness, his win was a surprise for a lot of people, as he hadn't won any other award during that season, with Steven Spielberg being the frontrunner that year for his work on Lincoln. Lee seemed genuinely surprised when his name was called, so there was a very good chance he simply forgot to mention them, even though he did give a spotlight to several of the people and groups in his team.
Besides his now strained relationship with members of the animating community, he did not look ready to go forward and fulfil his quest to change or revolutionize the cinematic experience. Did he eventually achieve that? Short answer- no.
Life of Pi was a way for Lee to experiment with a technology that seemed overused by the time of release- 3D. Which, to be fair to him, he achieved in making of the best 3D experiences I've had in a cinema. Especially the scene where Pi and Richard Parker caught jumping fish, causing me to almost jump from my seat.
But few expected 3D to only be the beginning of Ang Lee's obsession with cinematic technology, as what followed next seemed almost impossible to imagine.
In 2012, around the same time as Life of Pi's release, there was another big studio film with a heavy amount of visual effects from a well-regarded filmmaker who tried to break boundaries. That film you ask? Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
"Instead of focusing on social outcasts with complex layers and the fascinating worlds they inhabit, Lee ended up being more focused on cinematic revolution with empty heroes and stories, a far cry from the emotional and visual sensitivity that he was known to be a master of."
The Lord of the Rings prequel, just like Pi, was also shot in 3D, but the was another technological upgrade. Jackson configurated The Hobbit into a film of 48fps (frames per second), compared to a normal film which has 24fps.
Even though the end result created a visual experience so realistic that felt it like a literal window into middle-earth, the film made a lot of people disoriented, and to some extent nauseously irritated.
For Ang Lee, he saw this as an opportunity to not only follow Jackson's footsteps but to extend it even more. Here enters Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, and its excessive 120fps (2.5 times the frames of The Hobbit) that ended up being an even bigger headache to what Jackson did, with critics and audience members being baffled that the Life of Pi director made it.
Billy Lynn should have been a wake-up call for Lee that this technology is either not the right call to evolve the cinematic experience or maybe he is not the right person to make it happen. But no, here comes 2019's Gemini Man with Will Smith fighting his younger clone with once again 120fps which was another critically panned flick from the two-time academy award-winner.
Instead of focusing on social outcasts with complex layers and the fascinating worlds they inhabit, Lee ended up being more focused on cinematic revolution with empty heroes and stories, a far cry from the emotional and visual sensitivity that he was known to be a master of.
Somehow, after a film like Life of Pi, a spiritual journey of a man learning how to leave the past behind and moving forward with a sense of maturity, Ang Lee does not seem to be following Pi's lesson. Lee somehow Lee managed to change the perception himself from a visionary to an some who overcompensates every project.
It is unfortunate how this film did everything that a studio film wants to achieve, while its creatives seem to be way far from its glory days. We may not see a film like Life of Pi any time soon, or at least from one of the big Hollywood studios.
Although creative voices will not be gone for a long time, and there are still some big films that seem to break similar boundaries, like Denis Villeneuve's Dune, (if we ever see it), they are reaching a shrinking audience.
Netflix, so far, has been thriving on independent big-budget films with the likes of David Finshe's Mank and George Clooney's The Midnight Sky. But with the limited competition, it can make it difficult for mainstream audiences to reconnect to unique cinematic stories, especially now when the theatrical and cinematic experience is facing a major crisis.
After eight years since Life of Pi was released, the industry has faced a major change, and its history and relevance seem to have been forgotten through all the white noise of superheroes and streaming services.
The film did make Ang Lee into a Peter Jackson level innovator, but if we overlook his last couple of projects and the shutting down of studios around him, we can see a piece of film that was made with a lot of care and sweat, that is transformed into a spiritual odyssey of faith.
No matter the consequences, it is still an achievement and it is still worth the watch, especially for the phenomenal performances of Suraj Sharma and the legendary Irrfan Khan (they should have been nominated for awards, but that's a debate for another time).
So let's hope that Ang Lee will return to his former glory of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, films that focus on script and storytelling. As much as we can love and admire Life of Pi, it may just be an experiment that can never be replicated again...
We challenge you to prove us wrong...
Stefanos Yoo-Min Florakis