'Life of Pi' Director Ang Lee Calls Rhythm & Hues Bankruptcy 'Very Sad'

Ang Lee
Patrick Lin/AFP/Getty Images

"They seemed to do everything right for the movie. It was textbook distribution, from the smallest thing to the biggest thing that year."

"I hope they can be saved somehow," says the director of the VFX house that created the CG tiger for his Oscar-nominated movie.

Reacting to the news that the visual effects house Rhythm & Hues, Oscar-nominated for Life of Pi, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, director Ang Lee said he is “very sad.”

During an appearance at the Motion Picture Sound Editors’ Golden Reel Awards, Lee told The Hollywood Reporter, “I hope they can be saved somehow. My heart goes out to them.”

STORY: 'Life of Pi' Wins Pair of Sound Editors' Awards

R&H created Pi’s photo-real CG tiger, and Lee praised the efforts, saying, “The tiger, the water – they did wonderful work, so many people, hundreds and hundreds.”

Global competition is driving down the prices that visual effects houses can demand for their work. Even though effects are a big part of the budget on VFX-driven films, the companies that produce the work are finding it difficult to maintain decent profit margins.

It results in a business quandary that has no clear solution. Said Lee: “I would like it to be cheaper and not a tough business [for VFX vendors]. It’s easy for me to say, but it’s very tough. It’s very hard for them to make money. The research and development is so expensive; that is a big burden for every house. They all have good times and hard times, and in the tough times, some may not [survive]."

He continued, “I hope somehow, two things: It gets to be an easier business, cheaper, and more people can put their hands on it. Secondly, I would like to see it be used more of as an artistic form than just effects for action.”

At the Golden Reel Awards, Lee was presented with the Motion Picture Sound Editors’ Filmmaker Award by his Pi collaborators: editor Tim Squyres, visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer and director of photography Claudio Miranda. His sound team also took home two awards in sound editing, the most for any feature film Sunday night.

“The best part of awards season is when the crew is together,” Lee said. “It’s just wonderful; we are very close.”

STORY: Rhythm & Hues Bankruptcy Could Affect Five Different Films

During the last few weeks, Lee has also received honorary awards from the Visual Effects Society and International 3D Society in recognition of how he has pushed the creative and technical filmmaking envelope during production of Pi – by shooting in 3D, mixing with Dolby’s immersive new sound format Atmos and rendering a photo-real CG tiger through the VFX process.

Accepting the MPSE award, Lee told the crowd, “I love sound work.” He received an enthusiastic response when, commenting on the phrase that "50 percent of movies is sound," he said, “I think you should do better, make the percentage 60.”

He told THR that he chose Atmos because “it's the newest and baddest.” Saying that it brought “excitement” and “more power,” he added, “I think the most exciting part is the way you can do music. To separate the music elements and move them around is very interesting.”

Speaking about 3D at the VES Awards, he also said, “It’s often associated with action movies, but as I got into it, that was just one aspect. There are so many aspects of 3D, it's a new cinematic language.”

Asked about one scene featuring a lengthy close-up of Pi recounting his ordeal at sea, Lee said: “The volume 3D gives the face is very dramatic, I think 3D should be used in dramatic scenes. The volume and depth you give a face is very powerful. Normally, the more intense moments, I gave it more depth.”

As another example of 3D's use, Lee cited an underwater shot of Pi — in the audience’s space — watching the sinking ship in the distance, behind the screen. “I think that very effectively lets the audience imagine being Pi.”

On the VFX side, Lee said he started work on Pi by telling the VFX team that “we are going to make art together.”

“The rest is tedious work,” he admitted. “It takes months of months for every shot. It takes a lot of patience and coordination and collaboration.”

Of the tiger, he said, “It is very hard to imitate God’s work. To make something look alive and real is a very difficult thing. It’s a humbling experience.”