The odds-on favorite to win the Best Cinematography Oscar this year seems to be Claudio Miranda for Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi.” Why? The Academy tends toward aesthetically pleasing films in the category. “Beautiful pictures,” you might say, and sometimes at the expense of perhaps more technically proficient work that may not be as postcard pretty.
But while that may be true, it’s been leveled at “Life of Pi” as a criticism in some quarters. This is, after all, a film with a visual scope that is as much a result of visual effects as it is practical photography. But Miranda has a few things to say about that, if you think his work was somehow not as important in the greater scheme than that of the effects artists at the Rhythm & Hues and MPC effects houses.
“I’m lighting the talent,” he says. “There’s always a real, tangible actor in the shot. And that actor is in a specific environment that I’m shaping with light. If the sun’s dead on top pouring down, everything has to reflect the time of day. If it’s a low golden light sun, I add warmth to it and the extension becomes that golden magical light that you see when the sun comes up.”
Not only that, but, by way of the Digital Intermediate process, Miranda was also responsible for “lighting” all the effects work done by the myriad of vendors working on the film above and beyond the great work done by the team at Rythm & Hues.
And there’s also the considerable nuts and bolts that went into capturing the film, which was mostly shot in a giant tank on a stage. “There were many setups that that tank lighting had to suffice,” Miranda says. “Overcast, moonlight. There was a whole system of rigging and stuff that can shape that lighting, even when there’s like a little light in the distance. I would also open it up for real sun at times.”
Rather than crowbarring a distance between effects and photography, perhaps it would be wiser — and indeed, more in keeping with the consistently shifting and evolving idea of what cinematography is — to consider the collaboration process. Miranda and effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer would frequently look at watercolor influences, discuss various skies and talk about matching lighting. A film like “Life of Pi” — which features a boy on a raft in the middle of the ocean for most of its running time — would become very uninteresting if the transition throughout the day wasn’t visually evident.
Miranda says he was brought onto the movie largely because of his experience with 3D photography on “TRON Legacy.” Ang Lee was interested from day one in using 3D technology to capture the story. “It needed another dimension,” the director said at the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival.
“Ang said, ‘I really want to shoot this in a new visual language,'” Miranda says. “He really wanted to experiment and felt that people were not doing enough in this medium, that they were just making gags and were not sensitive to the material and that you can actually make a story point of this. So we worked on how to make it a story point. We watched 3D movies, good and bad. And I learned a lot from some of the really bad movies. We figured out what was bothering us and improved that.”
This was all of course before “Avatar” was released into the pop cultural stratosphere. Lee and company were making their way through the process in a bit of a vacuum way out in Taiwan, and the process was arduous.
“I had severe doubts in the very beginning,” Miranda says. “I was a little apprehensive about making this movie because we were in Taichung. Everything had to be shipped in. We broke ground and turned hangers into stages. We were given the means to do it. I think working with people like that, with Ang, who does so much research and helps me do my research, made that job easy. It just puts the importance on doing your homework, and then the day is just executing.”
Nevertheless, as much as the story of the film is about its visual scope and beauty, Miranda takes a moment to consider its smaller, more unassuming elements.
“Some of the most beautiful shots almost have zero lighting or near no direction,” he says. “The weird dying Richard Parker scene. I just love that lighting because it’s so banal and such a moment of exhaustion. It’s like even the sun is exhausted, I guess, I don’t know. But I think that shot’s equally beautiful to everything else, just in a different way emotionally.”