The intriguing world of visual special effects

I have not seen the film Life of Pi and am probably not going to. I read Yann Martel’s book some years ago and what I liked most about it were the opening chapters of the boy Pi simultaneously following the religions of Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, unbeknownst to his parents or to the clerics of the three religions, each of whom thought he was a devout follower of only their faith. Once the boy started on his ill-fated journey across the ocean, I lost interest while the film seems to have that as its main focus.

Having said that, as someone with zero talent in any of the artistic fields (painting, sculpture, music, etc.), I have always been fascinated by how artists do their work and I had heard that the visual effects that were used by the VFX company Rhythm and Hues to capture the action on the lifeboat in the film (and for which they won the Academy Award for visual effects) were stunning and I was curious as to what went in to producing those results.

Reader kyoseki kindly sent me a link to how such things are done in general, with tutorials on how to create waterfalls and volcanoes. Some of them use a piece of software known as Houdini and you can apparently download a free rudimentary version of it to get a feel for what it can do. (According to reader EdW, the free version is identical to the full version except that it carries a watermark.)

He also sent me a fascinating article on how Life of Pi was done that contains demonstration clips. One thing becomes immediately clear, that people who think that ‘computer graphics’ involves simply inserting a few input parameters into an off-the-shelf computer program and turning the crank are completely wrong. If you want to get it right, it is a hugely complex endeavor, involving many skilled artists working long and hard on the minutest details. (The discussion following my post on the dire straits that the special effects industry is in has more details.)

Here’s one of the clips from the article, showing how a shot of Pi in an otherwise empty lifeboat in a swimming pool got transformed into a dramatic scene on the ocean. It is amazing stuff.


  1. EdW says

    Thank you for writing about the VFX industry’s troubles…

    We’re hurting, to be honest, and a big part of it is because we love what we do so much. We’re willing to work unpaid overtime and chase jobs across the globe because we love creating beautiful images and performances.

    None of my usual progressive media outlets have picked up the story yet, but it’s a great example of corporate welfare distorting markets and exploitative business practices.

    By the way, the free version of Houdini is actually the entire software – if you have the technical knowledge, you can create almost any of these effects with just this free software. It only limits the size of the final image and adds a watermark.

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