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Director Ang Lee and Editor Tim Squyres on Life of Pi

How the VFX-Heavy Spectacle Redefined the Role of the Film Editor

After finishing Life of Pi, his eleventh film made in collaboration with editor Tim Squyres, ACE, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee's ideas about the role of the film editor are changing.

"The editor for a movie like this is not just [doing] montage — putting images together, doing combinations, and deciding rhythms," Lee said today. "He's actually making the images as well. Starting from pre-production, we all work together. Scriptwriting, Tim is involved. Previsualization, he is involved. Half of the image after we've shot it — for six months, we don't see anything. So Tim is participating in creating the images and deciding on the 3D.

"I don't really know what editors do or how to define editing anymore," Lee concluded. "It involves creating images and mise en scène, as well — particularly the rhythm of mise en scène, not just montage."

Lee was speaking to an audience of press and film students gathered at a hotel in downtown Manhattan for an event touting the upcoming Life of Pi 3D Blu-ray Disc. He was joined on stage by Squyres as well as screenwriter David Magee for a panel discussion that included the screening of two deleted scenes plus fairly extensive VFX breakdowns from the film's massive shipwreck scene that will be included in the Blu-ray supplements.

Planning It All in Previs

Extensive previs was key to filming what had been widely described as an unfilmable novel, Lee noted, recalling the year-long process through which he set the stage for every single shot in the film through a "cartoon-sketch" that showed exactly what should be happening in the frame. "Once the scene is blocked, everyone is smarter than I am," Lee said, describing the process of delegating the next layer of decisions on the film to his collaborators. 

"Shooting 3D is kind of hard," Squyres noted, explaining why Lee's previs was critical. "Shooting on water is really hard. You can't go in and get a whole bunch of coverage and figure out it out later."

Responding to a question from the panel moderator, film critic Scott Foundas, Squyres described the process of shaping the film around the animal performances created by the animators at MPC and Rhythm & Hues. "As the animation comes in, you work with the animators to find the right balance between the amount of stuff you want to put in the shot," Squyres responded. "In previs, usually the character, the animal, isn't doing very much, and what they're doing is very crude. But then as you get into animating you find all these little nuances you want to do, and sometimes it takes longer. More often you lengthen. So when you're doing the first assembly, you try to leave a little room for what you imagine the animal is really going to do, and then adjust as you go along."

Rhythm & Hues and the High Price of VFX

Answering a question from the audience on the bankruptcy of Rhythm & Hues, Lee cited the high cost of top-drawer visual-effects work. "A movie like this, it's very common that half of the budget goes to visual effects," he said. "This is a business where it's very hard to make money, and it's at the end of post-production, so everyone's getting down on [the VFX studios]. And each time you see visual effects, you want to see something that's never been done before, so their research-and-development fees are high."

Squyres offered a few more words on the subject. "It's a very tough business," he said. "If a company like Rhythm & Hues that can do work like this can't make their cash flow situation work, there's something really wrong with the business plan. I don't mean R&H's business plan. I mean the whole industry — the way the studios interact with visual effects. This movie shows that audiences really appreciate when that's done well. I don't have a solution to propose, but … I hope they get it fixed because we really need these guys. The amount of work and love they put into this was astounding."

The Amazing Evolving Film Editor

At a roundtable discussion following the main presentation, StudioDaily asked Squyres and Lee to elaborate a little more on the evolving role of the editor in the context of a VFX-heavy film built on a foundation of previs.

Squyres confessed that he was a little concerned that a film so heavily pre-planned would be a boring gig, but he found that the opposite was true. His mandate expanded to include not just dealing with things like the performance of the film's CG-animated tiger, but also thinking about what 3D and other technical issues would mean during the shoot. "I don't usually get involved in production design or lighting," he said, noting that usually a film editor can work only with what's been captured within the film frame. "Here, a lot of 'what's in the frame' wasn't there yet. To be a part of that was great."

"Tim has all the information in his head," Lee said by way of elaboration. "I [oversee] the whole thing and carry most of the frustration, anxiety and anger, budgeting and facing the studio. But emotionally, Tim is the anchor of post-production. I don't know how to thank him enough. It's tenacity, actually — a mental toughness. Stubborn, in some ways."

There was a beat as smiles were exchanged before Squyres gently corrected him: "Patient," Squyres said with a widening grin. 

Life of Pi will be released on Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, and DVD internationally on March 8 and in North America on March 12 by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Photo (top): Academy Award winning director Ang Lee, center, screenwriter David Magee, left, and film editor Tim Squyres meet with media for the first time since their movie Life of Pi won four Academy Awards, including Best Director for Ang Lee, Monday, March 4, 2013, in New York, on behalf of the Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray and DVD release on March 12. (Diane Bondareff/Invision for Fox Home Entertainment)


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  • http://www.facebook.com/dtvluke Luke Caldwell

    And this was the same Ang Lee who described VFX as kind of expensive! VFX made his bloody movie! The hide of this guy!

    • Alex Muus

      he made some seriously compelling movies that many people enjoy why be so stupid as to say this?

  • Jean-Sebastien Dussault

    «In previs, usually the character, the animal, isn’t doing very much, and what they’re doing is very crude. But then as you get into animating you find all these little nuances you want to do, and sometimes it takes longer. [...] You try to leave a little room for what you imagine the animal is really going to do, and then adjust as you go along.»

    I don’t see how different this is from previs / editing with live shooting