OSCARS: 'Life Of Pi' Production Design

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor

It was, in the words of production designer David Gropman, “a very large endeavor for a very short moment”. For Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi, designers created a faithful reproduction of the real-life Piscine Molitor in Paris in the 1950s. The set did not get much screen time, but Gropman says Lee insisted that the pool be fully rendered as an important key to the story. Pi was named after the swimming pool (full name Piscine Molitor Patel). Besides explaining Pi’s odd moniker, Gropman says Lee wanted to explain Pi’s ability to master the water and his alarming companion at sea, an adult Bengal tiger. Pi’s father survived polio as a young boy so he could not swim, but “he was happy to see his son be able to, not realizing it would one day save his life”, Gropman says. 1) The scene begins with a closeup of the Piscine Molitor sign. As a youth, Pi adopts the nickname to avoid having fellow students call him “Pissing” instead of Piscine.

2) At first, filmmakers considered renovating the real Piscine Molitor, once a world-famous attraction but now a piece of derelict architecture occasionally used for fashion shows and special events. But prohibitive costs led to creating a pool set to exact dimensions on the tarmac of an airport in Taiwan that the production crew had turned into studios and soundstages. A portion of the pool was dug 5 feet deep and filled with water so actors could actually take a dip.

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3) On the right side of the frame, the design team constructed an actual replica of the three stories of dressing rooms that flank the real Piscine Molitor. On the left, the matching bank of dressing rooms is a CGI extension. On both sides, the people and their beach umbrellas are real.

4) While designers took pains to replicate the exact dimensions and design of the pool, dressing rooms, and decks, all bets were off when it came to the skyline, a fantasy Paris featuring landmarks including the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame (neither are visible from the real Piscine Molitor). “We took tremendous liberties with that skyline”, the designer says with a laugh, adding that they wanted the look of a picture postcard.

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5) Color plays a significant role in the film’s design. Blue, white, and orange dominate, both in this scene and later scenes of Pi and his tiger companion lost at sea. “I knew that blue—between the ocean, the pool, and the sky—was going to be a very strong color”, Gropman says. “The interior of a lifeboat is orange so it can be spotted from far away—not to mention having a Bengal tiger, who is a very orange fellow himself. The hard white you see in the Piscine Molitor is echoed in the outside of the lifeboat”. An aqua shade popular in the 1950s colors the beach umbrellas and turns up in the elegant swimwear along with coordinating pastel yellows, greens, and pinks.

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6) What role did the 3D play for the designers? Gropman says Lee insisted that he and his supervising art director attend a master class in the technique. Lee did very little in the way of 3D tricks, that is, having objects suddenly pop out of the screen—rather, he asked Gropman to use the 3D perspective to create an illusion akin to the depth of a theater stage. “It’s a 3D approach, but borrowed from a much older tradition”, Gropman says. The pool structure is “very much a frame with four walls, the first one being the proscenium, where the balcony is”.