Life of Pi: Lee’s Spectacle–Locations

LIFE OF PI was shot primarily on locations in India and Taiwan. The sub-continent made a lasting impression on the entire team.  “India’s a place where so many things are possible, says Yann Martel, “It’s a place of infinite stories. Magical stories, realistic stories.  India is a mother lode of stories.”

Lee never considered shooting scenes set in Pi’s childhood home of Pondicherry, India – the entire first act – anywhere but the former French colony.  “While we were working on the script I scouted and there is really nothing else that compares to French India,” Lee explains. “It’s unique and somewhat unfamiliar to the rest of the world.   It’s like you can just drop a camera anywhere there, turn it on, and the picture will be beautiful.”

The production settled into 200,000 square feet of studio and office space near the city’s historic Muslim Quarter.  The production filmed on 18 locations in and around Pondicherry, and a crew of 600 – almost half of them locals – worked on the opening sequences of the film.  Approximately 5,500 local residents were hired as background actors for the magnificent exterior scenes.

The production transformed the town’s Botanical Gardens into the fictional Pondicherry Zoo.   Production designer David Gropman explains how that came to be: “The first thing Ang wanted to see when he visited Pondicherry was the zoo, as it was described in Yann Martel’s book. But there was – and never had been – a zoo in Pondicherry.  But there was a botanical garden, built by the French around the turn of the twentieth century, and Ang came up with the idea that the story’s zoo was, in fact, the former Pondicherry Botanical Gardens, which Pi’s father had discovered and decided to turn into a private zoo. The wonderful thing about the concept is that it led us to add an influence of French architecture and French botanical gardens, mixed with an Indian aesthetic.  So with Ang’s notes in hand, we created the zoo itself.”

The company secured permission to shoot on the grounds of Pondicherry’s 1000-year-old Villanur Temple.  Two thousand authentically costumed extras worked through the night until sunrise and upwards of 20,000 traditional diya candles were kept lit throughout the night– with every available crewmember on-hand keeping constant vigil with torches.  A sequence during which the Patels enjoy a family vacation was captured in Munnar, a small but popular hill station in Kerala on India’s southwest coast.

Meanwhile thousands of miles away in Taichung, Taiwan, construction was nearing completion on the world’s largest self-generating wave tank built for a motion picture.  In addition, and with the generous support on a both a national and local level from Taiwanese officials, Mr. Lee and his production team retrofitted Taichung’s Sui Nan airport facility and its airplane hangars into a functional working movie studio.  Flags representing the nature of what Mr. Lee calls LIFE OF PI’s “international cocktail production,” flew proudly from high atop of the tank’s massive green walls.

The surreal and mysterious island inhabited by a huge clan of meerkats was realized through a combination of a practical location shot deep within a colony of indigenous banyan trees at a Taiwanese botanical reserve, sets designed by production designer David Gropman, and digitally created environments.

Gropman notes that the banyan tree location was a critical one, “I was convinced that we would find inspiration for the meerkat island scenes in Taiwan. One of the biggest challenges was the practical locations and the design of the island itself.  And I was convinced that we couldn’t create the island in a convincing way without some inspiration from Mother Nature.  Ang knew of a banyan tree reserve hidden within Taiwan’s Kenting National Forest and brought us in for a look.  The reserve became the inspiration for the look of the mysterious island. The island as well as the banyan tree is one huge holistic organism and, not coincidentally, an indigenous tree typical of  India.  So the fact that it would be something that Pi would recognize was perfect.”
After principal photography wrapped, Lee began the lengthy post-production period, overseeing the work of editor Tim Squyres, A.C.E., composer Mychael Danna, and the critical visual effects.  Meanwhile, the film’s young star was preparing for another new chapter in his life’s journey – pursuing film studies as a university freshman at Delhi University’s St. Stephen’s College.  But whatever exciting adventures lie ahead for Suraj Sharma, he notes that making LIFE OF PI will always be an unforgettable experience.  “I can’t even say how much I’ve gained from being in the film.  Like Pi, I feel I experienced something remarkable – emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

“Making LIFE OF PI has enabled me to look at things from a different perspective.  I’m a lot stronger, and I know that I’m now capable of a lot more than I ever thought possible.  This past year has been pretty much everything to me.”