Q&A: Academy Award winner Claudio Miranda on filming the 'impossible' film

CAMERON | PACE Group talks to the Oscar-winning cinematographer about his work on "Life of Pi" and the remarkable storytelling potential for 3D.

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     “The Life of Pi,” the story of a young man adrift in a life raft with a Bengal tiger, was no simple cinematic endeavor. Logistical hurdles, among other challenges, led many to conclude that “Pi,” based on the 2001 novel by Yann Martel, might never make it to the screen. Even director Ang Lee, who won his second Best Director Oscar for the film, struggled with what he called an “impossible” film. But Lee eventually concluded that the richness and dimensionality of 3D would deepen the story and advance his unique vision.

     Lee tapped Chilean-born Claudio Miranda, ASC, as his cinematographer, in large part because of his work with 3D on "Tron: Legacy" and digital on "Benjamin Button.” A critical and financial triumph worldwide, "Pi" was nominated for 11 Oscars and on Sunday won four, including for Best Director, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score and, for Miranda, Best Achievement in Cinematography. In the last four years, all three of the CPG-enabled 3D films nominated for Best Cinematography have received the prestigious award.
     CAMERON | PACE Group was integral to “Pi's” 3D artistry from pre-production to screen, lending both expertise and patented technology to the project. Miranda collaborated closely with CAMERON | PACE Group (CPG) Co-Founder and Co-Chairman Vince Pace on both "Tron" and "Pi.” The CPG team was on location in India and Taiwan, where a 1.7-million gallon tank was constructed for water scenes. "Pi" earned CPG Certification, a seal of approval that ensures the highest quality of stereoscopic production and 3D media experience possible. The only 3D films to win Oscars for Best Cinematography have been CPG Certified films.
     In the first of its “3D Showcase” series of interviews with leading creative and technical talent around the world, CPG spoke with Miranda at his home in Los Angeles prior to his Oscar win for cinematography on "Life of Pi.”

 CPG: So have you rented your tux?

 Claudio Miranda: Actually, I own one (laughs). I have to.

 CPG: Tell us how you got the job on “Life of Pi”.

 CM: Probably because of "Tron." And a little bit of "Benjamin Button." Ang (Director Ang Lee) had seen both films. "Button" is a good-looking movie full of digital effects, and "Tron" is a good-looking 3D movie. I really didn't imagine Ang being a 3D guy, since his other movies had been shot on film and in scope (the same aspect ratio as CinemaScope). But he knew he had to shoot digital for 3D, so I think that's why I got picked for the job.

 CPG: Was "Tron: Legacy" your first experience with 3D?

 CM: Yes. There's always talk about doing the 3D in post production using conversion. There were so many real sets on the film that we felt we should just do it in the camera. 

CPG: You worked closely with CAMERON | PACE Group (CPG) on that film. How was that experience?

CM: Just great. Vince (Pace) was there for me in the beginning in Vancouver, along with some other guys from CPG. Vince gave me the basics. Once he saw that I had the hang of it, I carried on.

CPG: We heard that before "Pi" you and Ang Lee educated yourselves about good 3D by studying bad 3D.

CM:  Ang and I learned some important lessons from one particularly bad movie that I won't mention. For example, they used a really tight shutter angle that caused strobing (a staccato effect in the motion of the film). It's not a great feeling when you're watching it in the theater. The tighter the shutter, the more crisp each frame. It's like when you're taking a still photograph and you want to capture your kid in mid-air without any blur so you use a very fast shutter speed. But with 3D, in-camera blur can be your friend because the blur between frames makes for a more fluid motion. It eliminates that kind of stutter on the screen and makes the 3D experience less hyperactive. With "Pi" we definitely preferred a faster frame rate and a longer shutter.

CPG: Clearly, the 3D in "Pi" is visually amazing. But it also plays an integral part in the storytelling.

CM: Ang was very sensitive to not overdoing it. Any time characters or objects started to look miniaturized as a result of the 3D, we veered away from that. But there are some cases where it can help with the storytelling. There was one scene where we wanted the lifeboat to look really small so we did spread the eyes (the distance between the two lens centers) to cause a miniaturizing effect. It made the boat look almost like a little toy. This was in service of the storytelling, to reinforce the idea that Pi was alone, a speck on the ocean. We wanted to play with the 3D to reinforce plot and character. When a character is being aggressive, you can get his head out in front, so it feels like he's in your space. Ang loved the idea, too, that in the scene of the sinking ship, Pi is on the viewer's side of the screen. He's watching the ship as it sinks on the inside of the screen. So there's a big visual separation between this new world that's all to be his, and his past, represented by the sinking ship. The 3D really reinforced that part of the story.

CPG:  Did you learn anything on "Pi" about 3D that you didn't know before?

CM: For me, "Tron" was really about making good 3D. I didn't really connect it to the way the audience would respond to the story. So doing it from point of view of a story was really something new. I had to think about how to set the 3D up and to stage it. Not just as far as people walking in and out of a room, but also how their placement would affect the emotions of the audience. We also experimented quite a lot with how different lenses might make the audience feel: Is it personal? Is it more intimate? Is it aggressive or passive? Those were new ideas that we played around with.

CPG: James Cameron (co-founder and co-chairman of CPG) said that "Pi" has shown that 3D can be used for smaller, more intimate films. Do you agree?

CM: Ang feels like "Pi" was the first art house movie to be shot in 3D. We felt like we had to explore this new medium. We had to try to figure it out.

CPG:  Did shooting "Pi" in 3D affect the decision of cameras you used?

CM: No. We used the Arri Alexa™. We tested with a bunch of cameras. At the time, it held water highlights the best. Cameras are always improving. There will always be a new test to see which one is best for what you need, every time you do a movie.

CPG: Why did you pick CPG for “Pi?”

CM: They get me everything I need. I knew I needed a really good underwater 3D rig. They know the Alexa that would be housed in the rig. I couldn't think of anyone else who could do that, so I didn't even test with anyone else. I talked to Vince and said "I really need this camera rig; we need this thing built." So they did it and it was great. It was my first opportunity to shoot underwater in 3D.

CPG: You also had CPG experts on the set in Taiwan?

CM: We had a number of guys there from CPG, including stereographers who offered advice on the 3D.

CPG: Did you notice any big changes in 3D technology between the time you shot "Tron" and "Pi?"

CM: Vince has shown me some of the newer rigs (smARTrigs ™) and there's a huge improvement in those. They're simpler and easier to use. So even in the short time since we shot "Life of Pi," this equipment has come a long way.

CPG: Did you consider post-production conversion for “Pi?”

CM: No. We had high hopes of keeping a lot of the ocean in the film. I just didn't see how you could cut up and convert water moving away from the camera or rolling toward you or sideways or capping. How do you chop that up and separate that for the conversion process? It just wouldn't have been the same. What I had seen of conversion didn't convince me. I didn't see it happening for either "Pi" or "Tron."

CPG:  Do you have a favorite 3D scene in “Pi?”

CM: I think the ship sinking was a good 3D moment. I loved the water in general, how it looked. I did quite a lot of 3D testing for the water scenes-- how it felt when the surface of the water is at the top third of the screen versus the bottom third. It's very interesting. If the water level is halfway up the screen, audiences might have an emotional reaction to that, almost like you're drowning. It's unsettling.

 CPG:  Do you think "Pi" would have been made without 3D?

 CM: Ang really felt that the movie had to be made in 3D. For him it seemed like it was the only choice. Obviously, I've seen this movie in both 3D and 2D. You know, you really do miss some things. The water has this flatter look to it in the 2D. It feels a lot different. With 3D you just have a lot more texture, which was very important in "Pi."

Ang loves 3D. So do I. He will always try to shoot in 3D. He was very excited about the results. He's always talking about creating another language for film, another way to tell the story. So in this impossible story to tell, he felt like 3D would give it another dimension. We still feel like there's so much more to learn from 3D, that there are so many places we can go where we haven't gone.

 
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