Pi (Suraj Sharma) and the tiger drift in "Life of Pi," which might… (20th Century Fox )
Hollywood usually reserves 3-D for very specific, box-office-friendly genres -- superhero films like "The Avengers," fantasies like the Harry Potter franchise and animated movies like "Toy Story 3."
But in "Life of Pi," which screens Friday as one of AFI Fest's centerpiece galas, director Ang Lee charted some new depths thematically with the format -- he used 3-D to shoot an adaptation of a soulful novel about a boy stranded at sea with a Bengal tiger.
"'Life of Pi' breaks the paradigm that 3-D has to be some big, action fantasy spectacle, superhero movie," said James Cameron, whose 3-D production company, Cameron Pace Group, helped equip Lee's set.
"The movie is visually amazing, inventive, and it works on you in ways you’re not really aware of. It takes you on a journey, and unless you’ve read the book -- which I hadn’t -- you have no idea where that journey is going. It does what good 3-D is supposed to do, which is, it allows you to forget you’re watching a 3-D movie."
When he was first considering how to film "Life of Pi," which is based on Yann Martel's bestselling book, Lee visited what Cameron and his business partner, Vince Pace, call the "digital sandbox" at their company's Burbank offices.
Cameron said he and Pace were eager to work with Lee, who won an Oscar for directing the 2005 cowboy romance "Brokeback Mountain," in part to show how 3-D could be used on a very different film from Cameron's own "Avatar."
"Life is Pi" boasts plenty of action -- a dramatic sea storm capsizes a ship full of zoo animals. But much of the film's story centers on the lonely hours that Pi, an Indian teenage boy played by newcomer Suraj Sharma, spends at sea with his tiger companion. And there are lots of dreamlike shots of the natural world that feel light-years away from a comic book movie -- botanical gardens in Pondicherry, India; a mysterious island full of meerkats; a school of flying fish.
"This is what drives me crazy about Hollywood right now," Cameron said. "We’re five, six years into the 3-D renaissance and we’re sort of still at that stage they were in the '40s with color where they said, 'This is a B movie, this’ll be in black-and-white. And this movie’ll be in color.' Everybody knows the movies that should be in 3-D, right? Except they’re wrong."
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