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With Spidercam And CGI, Ang Lee Masters 'Pi'

How do you turn a novel considered nearly impossible to adapt for film into a breathtaking 3D experience? Or, to put it simply, how do you make a movie about a boy and a tiger in a boat in the middle of the ocean?

"You just have to figure it out," says Oscar-winning director Ang Lee. "There's no book or film that teaches you how to do it."

The man who wrestled with "Life of Pi," which opens Wednesday, sounds awfully calm for someone who's done the impossible. But his relaxed, occasionally bemused tone belies the fact that his latest movie represents a nearly four-year journey to bring Yann Martel's best-selling work to the big screen.

"Life of Pi" is an adventurous, deeply emotional and richly philosophical tale of a teenage boy who is thrust into an incredibly dangerous situation when the cargo ship carrying his family's zoo to Canada sinks during a devastating storm.

Pi, as he's nicknamed, finds himself a castaway in the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with an unlikely fellow passenger: Richard Parker, the oddly named tiger who impressed upon the younger Pi just how ferocious a wild animal can be.

The role of Pi was landed by Suraj Sharma, a student who was living at the time in Delhi, India, with his parents. The newcomer went through several auditions over a six-month span and had to learn to swim in order to play the character.

But finding the right Pi was easy compared to figuring out the inherent problems of making the film, which needed a convincing, yet manageable ocean and tiger. "It appeared to be unfilmable," says Lee, a maestro of intimate dramas like 2005's "Brokeback Mountain" and action dazzlers like 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

"Obviously, the technical side is very difficult. Water, that tiger, the boy, and also a journey across the Pacific, without Tom Hanks," he continues, dropping a playful reference to the movie "Cast Away."

Lee approached the project with an attitude of where there's a will, there's a way. And he found his way with some help from technological wizardry and a man-made body of water.

For the ocean scenes, he used a self-generating wave tank built in Taiwan on the site of a former airport -- the largest such tank ever for a movie. It held 1.7 million gallons and gave the director a measure of control that the real ocean never would.

"I know from past experience, not my experience, but that of peer filmmakers, that going to real water is a bad idea," he says with a laugh. "You bring everything and it's still hopeless."

To shoot scenes in the tank, the director and the "Pi" crew had to "learn how to deal with that baby," he jokes. Even the biggest crane couldn't reach the center, he says, so the cinematography team relied on Spidercam, the overhead cameras suspended on cables that are used for sports TV coverage.

Computer-generated water provided the massive waves necessary for certain storm scenes. Advanced CGI technology also largely created Richard Parker. Four Bengal tigers were used as references for the visual effects team. Lee himself selected the tiger named King who served as the lead physical model.

"The first time I saw the tiger, it was videotaped," recalls Lee, who later traveled to France to see the majestic King in person. Right away, he says, he thought, "OK, I can see the movie, that kind of feeling. He has a lot of dignity. You can tell he doesn't have a good temper. He's not going to be your pet."

Lee says he entered "Pi" having had a good experience making the CGI-heavy 2003 action drama "Hulk." But he knew there was no guarantee his plans for "Pi" would work. As the project progressed from start to finish, other movies kept arriving that illustrated what was possible with 3D and CGI.

"Half a year into my preparation, 'Avatar' came out, so that was encouraging, in terms of the use of 3D, even though I knew down the line we'd do it differently, because we were moving forward with this medium," he notes.

While moviegoers will be able to walk in to "Pi" and soak up the dazzling images, Lee admits he can't separate himself from the movie enough to enjoy it that way. "It was quite a relief, at the New York Film Festival, I (thought), it's working. I didn't have pleasure or anything. I just remember I was relieved and started to feel sick, like I was collapsing."

The stunning visuals of "Life of Pi" beg one more question: Will technology eventually be able to replace actors on screen as convincingly as it re-creates animals? "I hope not," says the director wryly. "I would say it will stay (as it is now) for a long while, because humans are cheaper."

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