Sonia Horon, Global Animal
Ang Lee’s successful 3D adventure film, Life of Pi, was nominated in eleven categories at the 85th Academy Awards and won more than any other film, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score. Earning $583 million worldwide, the international hit chronicles the story of a boy who survives a shipwreck, only to be stranded on a boat with a Bengali Tiger.
But as always, when it comes to movies involving real animals, concerns of safety come into question. Although the movie’s main animal character, Richard Parker, is mostly CGI, four live tigers were used to film single shots.
Life of Pi‘s visual effects supervisor, Bill Westenhofer of Rhythm and Hues Studios, says Richard Parker was 85 percent digital and 15 percent real. He also told the New York Times that of the 170 tiger shots in the movie, only 23 were real.
“We used [real tigers] for single shots, where it was just the tiger in the frame, and they’re doing something that didn’t have to be all that specific in the action that we were after…By doing that, it set our bar high for CGI. We couldn’t cheat at all. It pushed the artists to go and deliver something that’s never been done before, something as photo-real as anyone has ever done with an animal.” The new push for CGI in movies is certainly great news for animal actors who have endured years of Hollywood abuse.
It’s not clear what kind of oversight the Oscar-winning movie had from animal organizations, if any. In addition, it was filmed in three different countries—India, Taiwan and Canada—where different laws might apply. But even a stamp of approval from a group such as the American Humane Association (AHA), who monitor animal welfare on sets, doesn’t necessarily mean what we think.
The AHA, famous for their “No Animals Were Harmed” disclaimer at the end of movies, has a questionable past. In recent years, the organization approved of Zookeeper, where a giraffe died on set during shooting; Water for Elephants, which used Tai the elephant from Have Trunk Will Travel, a group whose undercover training videos are a display of great cruelty; and Luck, an HBO TV show where three horses died on set before producers finally canceled the series.
As PETA states, “Moviegoers may be surprised to learn that the presence of American Humane Association representatives on a movie set is no guarantee that animals were not exploited, hurt, or even killed during production. AHA representatives only monitor what occurs during filming, not what happens during off-set training sessions, where abuse is most likely to occur.”
Despite its minimal use of four tigers, Life of Pi elicits a beautiful message about human-animal relationships and even won the AHA’S ‘Pawscar’ for Best Human/Animal Bond. And although it wasn’t 100 percent CGI, the film proves that you can make a great, realistic movie without torturing animals. Hopefully future productions will take note and let animal actors retire for good.