Life of Pi, opening shots to open the mind




Music moves me – duh – and that is like having a window opening on a heightened reality, but the effect is fleeting: When the music ends, the magic, the uplifting, vanishes and the window slams shut. Words, on the other hand, by the nature of how they work, emotions evoked by dint of carefully laid out thoughts, have a more lingering effect. — Yann Martel

Enter the theater, descend a ramp, climb the steps to find a good seat. If we’re lucky we’ll be running late, cutting it close, so maybe we’ve missed most of the commercial noise that litters the last few minutes of mental prep before a movie begins. The lights dim down and we’re led into trailer territory, the last distractions to bug us. Then the light source shifts. Studio logo rolls up. The film we’re there to see finally comes alive. We’re pulled inside another dream, one of a thousand dreams we’ve all seen and shared onscreen.

We might start a series to take a closer look at how credit sequences are put together. A movie’s opening shots can clutch us tight by the hand or hold us by the throat when done right. Good directors use those moments to ease us into the proper frame of mind while we’re still suspended between between light and dark, between reality and dream state. Great directors grab our attention with flash and dazzle. Genius directors do all those things and then go a step further, setting up signposts to guide us through the journey we’re about to take together. As the credits roll in the first four minutes of Life of Pi, Ang Lee lays out a tidy diagram of the visual schemes he plans to employ and hints at some of the themes we’ll explore. Right away he begins to engage our minds so we’ll be revved up in the right gear when the story proper gains traction.

It wasn’t until the second time I saw Life of Pi that I noticed the very first shot features a hyena emerging from behind a bush to look around and regard a grazing giraffe. For a hyena, he appears to be a placid mellow fellow — and why shouldn’t he be? He’s safe, secure. There’s no threat or danger in sight. His habitat is so lush it might pass inspection as a real forest if not for the barred fence and stone wall in the background. He’s a happy hyena because all his needs are satisfied. No reason to be defensive because he’s not hurt. No need to stalk prey because he’s not hungry. Of course, all this will look a whole lot different in future viewings, won’t it? Next time we’ll know the bad news in store for this hyena, but even in the midst of all this serenity Ang Lee has already introduced us to a villain in the first 15 seconds of nimble foreshadowing. Another thing we see is how “Fox 2000 presents” hangs projected on another plane, thrust forward in 3D relief. Cool enough, but I’m a 3D skeptic. I knew going in that Ang Lee had said he didn’t think he could tell this story as well without 3D, so on first viewing I was anxious to have him prove it to me.


He had me at hummingbird. In the second shot of the credit sequence, a three-toed sloth hangs from a branch upside down. Anyone who’s read Yann Martel’s novel will know how Pi describes the lifestyle of a sloth, so it’s a kick to see this slacker make a cameo in a nod to those wonderful paragraphs. But this familiar face barely has time to register before a bright flutter of feathers darts in from the edge of the screen, and then — in the first moment of Pi that made me catch my breath — a hummingbird flies out of the screen and hovers over the audience. We’re no longer just visiting a zoo — we’re in the zoo, inhabiting the habitat ourselves. Not by accident, the composition of this shot is wall-to-wall nature, edge-to-edge jungle. No fence or evidence of human intrusion can be seen. As the hummingbird virtually bursts through the fourth wall, the sloth lazily looks out across the audience too. For a moment he breaks the fourth wall himself, looking directly at the camera and straight into our eyes. He’s watching us watching him, but he’s seeing us upside down (telegraphing another recurring visual motif in the movie that we’ll see time and again — animals, often inverted, making direct eye contact with us as if we’re the ones being studied). I didn’t notice until 3rd or 4th viewing that the dense leafy backdrop behind this sloth has a dark gap of pure black that opens like a keyhole into the jungle — and that dark recess perfectly mirrors the last shot in Life of Pi, the shadowy path back into the wild through which Richard Parker will make his last exit.

elephant mural

As soon as hints and clues like these began to tickle my senses, I already knew we were in for something special. In the confident hands of Ang Lee, playfulness puts us at ease and playful is the main sensation in these opening minutes. As fast as the hummingbird first appeared, he’s outta there just as quickly, he’s gone. Cut to the third shot, a mural of an Indian prince in white robe and pagri turban, armed with bow and arrow and riding astride a war elephant. The mural is a chipped and faded painting on a wall that occupies space parallel to the same focal plane as the movie screen — so it’s essentially a screen within a screen. The first time in my life that I noticed the screen-within-a-screen trick in a movie, I was in grade school, figuring out that when Dorothy was lifted up inside the tornado and looked through her bedroom mirror to see the Wicked Witch transform from riding bicycle to broom — I thought, “Hey, that window is the same shape screen as the movie I’m watching. Different level of reality? Maybe so.” (I was never a normal kid). So whenever I see a screen within a screen like that I look for whether it might be there to carry another level of meaning. The shot of the elephant mural goes by pretty fast and our attention is divided when a flock of flamingos wades into frame — but on repeat viewings you might notice there’s something really odd about that elephant. This warrior prince is riding an elephant that appears to be built out of dozens of people and other creatures. The elephants entire body, legs, truck, tail, all merge and mingle in a mash-up of what seem to be scenes from the life of this prince, from his birth, through adventure and romance, to his death. See the guy lain out prone in the belly of the beast? — that’s the same guy riding the elephant. I don’t know enough about Hinduism to understand the spiritual significance of all this, but it’s not hard to come up with half a dozen intriguing theories. And no, I do not think for an instant that this image is accidental. Because anyone who loves Life of Pi will know there is an identical image 90 minutes later, when Pi and Richard Parker share a vision of the horrors undersea — a hallucinatory scene of a giant squid that wraps its tentacles around a whale, and the pressure causes the whale to break apart into dozens of animals that hold significance in Pi’s life story. Whale and Elephant, both built out of a mosaic of other creatures? I’ve never seen that before, ever, so when I see it twice in the same movie, I know its placement is intentional.

Bear in mind, we’re only one minute into Life of Pi — with so much going on visually, so many messages already being embedded in our heads. Then, at the one-minute mark, the opening theme music, a dreamy romantic lullaby, kicks in with its full melody just as Ang Lee’s name first appears. But instead of 3D graphics, his name emerges from the stone wall mural as if it’s painted in the same 2D flat perspective to match the medieval style of the mural itself. Lee isn’t shunning 2D. Far from it. He’s still embracing the power of flat 2D images and letting us know he’ll be artfully including that viewpoint as part of his paintbox.


The title of the film, Life of Pi, appears in the fourth cut — a wide establishing shot of the zoo with too many elements in the frame to absorb or analyze right now. I’d rather jump ahead to the fifth shot, where a gawky young Red-Cheeked Gibbon sits alone in the frame as if posed for a formal portrait. What’s so amusing and charming here is how the name “Suraj Sharma” appears right next to this gibbon in what clicks mentally for me as a sort of photo-caption effect. We know that gibbon isn’t Suraj Sharma, but they do bear a resemblance in their lanky body language. It’s a subtle cue, I think, to prepare us for the possibility that personalities of man and beast can be folded together in this film. The book and movie both make a pretty big deal about how Richard Parker got his human name because of a clerical error when someone got the names of hunter and captured tiger reversed. In the novel, that was a neat literary device used to plant the seed of that concept in our head — the concept that the line can become blurred between civilized man and our spirit animal nature inside us. Fairly important theme of the novel, right? and I think Ang Lee is playing with a way to express that visually. What’s my proof? None, except that this isn’t the only shot where an actor’s name gets reverse-anthropomorphized into an amusing photo-caption. Just 3 shots later a burly bear will rise up on his hind legs and stand like a stocky barrel-chested man — and the name Gérard Depardieu appears onscreen to label his species.


If pressed, I could probably tease out meanings like these in every shot but I’m aware that some of my interpretations are a stretch. I’m not trying to make a hard sell But indulge me just a little longer. Two and a half minutes into the credits, there’s a process shot that strikes me as too unusual to be accidental. Cut to a view that’s entirely out of focus — all we see is a wet blur of green. Then the lens begins to adjust and while the wild zoo enclosure remains out of focus we see the hard bars of a cage come between us and the background greenery. For a few seconds, it’s only the bars of the cage we see — they’re as sharp, stark and architectural as the bars of a jail cell. The background in the distance is completely blurred. But then, with a transition that’s meant to look like rack focus but must surely be visual effect, the bars of the cage go out of focus and the habitat on the other side of the bars can now be sharply seen. Except the bars don’t just blur out. They seem to come undone before our eyes. Remember, this is happening in 3D, so the bars of the cage that have been projected out over the audience now seem to dissolve and fray into atomized strands, unwinding like a row of ropes unraveling. It’s a gorgeous effect and feels strangely like psychological liberation to me every time I’ve seen it. I believe it’s one more way for Ang Lee to have us accept that he’s about to lead us out of mental enclosures and help us pass through solid objects that obstruct our vision. Again, there’s no way to validate my interpretation — except to say Ang Lee will use variations of this very same dissolving bars effect no less than 4 or 5 more times in Life of Pi — often at a key point in the narrative when Pi is on the edge of an enlightening situation — and another variation once more when he has suffered an emotional trauma that will forever alter his perceptions. Watch next time. Look for the 5 transitions where bars or barriers dissolve away, and see the wonders revealed when they do.


We’re only 3 minutes into Life of Pi and Ang Lee has sketched out some incredibly profound themes he wants to explore with us — and perhaps more importantly. he’s giving us a quick lesson in the visual grammar that he’ll be using so that mentally we can key in on what the visual cues are telling us throughout the movie. I can’t claim to have picked up on all these things on first viewing — but isn’t that what we love about movies that are rich with visual layers and meticulous attention to composition? Now 3 and a half minutes into the credit sequence, the graphics “based on the novel by Yann Martel” appear — and guess who shows up again for an encore appearance? It’s the gangling young gibbon again. The same monkey who posed next to the name Suraj Sharma comes running along some swinging ropes and then begins to leap from branch to branch of a tree. Climbing higher and higher, the camera climbs with him. When he makes it to the highest limbs I can’t help but be reminded of the treetop wire-fu spectacle in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. It’s that graceful, that astonishing to watch. The ‘Y’ in Yann Martel dangles like a piece of ripe fruit about to drop before those credit graphics fade away and our young gibbon friend stops in the treetop to survey his world from the highest spot in the zoo that anyone can reach. The gibbon’s gaze then drops down. And we fall back to earth in the final shot of the credit sequence, on eye level with a red bird perched on a lily pad. The scene is already is rife with spiritual significance — and then the water in the lily pool ripples. Out of the ripples emerge the black and orange stripes of a Bengal Tiger. The pattern wavers as if the life force of the tiger fur itself is causing the disturbance on the water’s surface. The name Ang Lee appears again in the pool and seems to float along for several moments in a current. Richard Parker — seen only in reflection — passes out of frame, the red bird pecks and feeds on seeds, and Ang Lee’s name dissolves into the lily pond. Off-screen the voice of the writer is saying, “So, you were raised in a zoo?” Pi answers, “Born and raised.” And then Pi begins to tell his story.

bengal tiger

There’s so much to fill our eyes and tickle our senses in Life of Pi, I find new touches of depth and whimsy like this every time I watch it. Throughout the film we’re shown unexpected perspectives, often playing with the idea of surface, and flipping our vision upside down so that we see a swimmer do a breast-strokes across the sky and a life boat drift in a sea of stars, lost amid dark constellations. These are extraordinarily gorgeous images, but what’s even more important to me is how beautifully the visuals serve to illustrate the philosophical concepts being examined. You can probably tell I could go on like this for hours, but it’s now 2 a.m. in the morning before Oscar night. Looking at these shots from Life of Pi again tonight, it seems inconceivable to me that any other film could take the awards for Cinematography, Visual Effects, Art Direction, Original Score, and both Sound categories (although Les Mis is a sound threat). That’s 5 or 6 Oscars to hope for, and a 7th possibility that feels more like an impossible dream.

But in fact, no matter what happens tonight, Life of Pi exists in my head already as an impossible dream. When movies come along like Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Amour, or Lincoln, or Life of Pi — it feels as if I watch them in some sort of fugue state. These films hit me with their elegance and depth in a way that’s almost hypnotically dreamlike, and I sometimes get an palpable physical sensation behind my eyes when the sounds and images of beautiful movies strum harmonic tingles on my brain cells.

Back at the movies, when the last frame fades to black and the lights come up, I’m often nearly all alone in the room if I’ve stay to hear the end credit music play all the way out. We leave the theater, retrace our steps down corridors and into the lobby. Out the door and back into the real world, we’re forced to rouse from the dream the movie has given us. But don’t you love that feeling when you step outside and see the light has changed from the matinee swelter when you arrived to a quickening dusk when the movie’s over? Or when the sun that was shining when you bought your ticket is now behind clouds and and it’s drizzling chilly rain in the parking lot when you leave? Maybe that’s such a fantastic feeling for me because it’s a sensation I’ve associated with part of the movie experience all my life. The change in light reminds us that the planet kept spinning its predictable cycle while we were inside looking up at a movie screen, feasting our eyes and ears on the dreams of a thousand enormously talented people who made that movie possible.


Tribute to 2012′s Films

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  1. ChrisFlick
    February 24, 2013

    Terrific breakdown of this most elegant credit sequence. I am a traditionalist so like my credits at the beginning of the film. Lets me know who to look for deeper in the casts. Life of Pi was certainly one of the best this year, an unexpected pleasure, and this in 2D. Wish it had a Best Actor nomination, when you consider the achievement it is quite remarkable.

  2. Daveylow
    February 24, 2013

    Thanks for writing this, Ryan. As you’ve expressed, Life of Pi is a singular movie going experience and it isn’t a fluke that it has reached so many people all over the world.

    I’m not sure how some critics like A.O. Scott concluded the movie ultimately was about nothing and how some viewers were just bored.

    Here’s a film that challenges you to keep your eyes and ears open from first minute to last!

    I may try to see it one more time in 3-D if it’s still playing in NYC next week.

  3. Aria
    February 24, 2013

    Beautifully written, Ryan, what a lovely thing to read about this beautiful film on Oscar Sunday. Am I rooting for it to sweep? Absolutely! Will it happen? Of course not. But I’m so glad to see you, Sasha, and many other readers on this site recognize the achievement of Ang Lee & co. on this movie. I’m sure it’ll pick up several gongs for its technical brilliance tonight (and if only Lee could win as well…)

    I haven’t checked the box office numbers in a week or so, but I’m pretty sure that “Life of Pi” is the WORLDWIDE highest grossing of the nine films nominated for Best Picture. Its domestic take is over 100 million, and it’s made a real killing overseas. So happy to see that it’s done so well critically as well as commercially, what an amazing film.

  4. February 24, 2013

    Marry me, Ryan?

  5. Eric P.
    February 24, 2013

    This was beautiful. My eyes started tearing up just reading your account of these images. I’ve always admired an artist who utilizes imagery.I feel that so much more can be said with one single image than a whole paragraph of dialogue can.

  6. The Dude
    February 24, 2013

    Fantastic post, Ryan. It’s no surprise the movie is such a big hit worldwide- no movie this year, Oscar nominated or not, loses less on the translation; it’s such a beautiful movie, and one that is so successfully at visually translating everything you need to know, that it could be a silent film, with just the occasional dialogue card here and there.

  7. Zach
    February 24, 2013

    OH, you are making me want to change my predictions last-minute to Ang Lee. It would still be unprecedented for this kind of film to win Picture but not Director. This is the kind of film that doesn’t win Picture either way, but it would look really odd for Lee to win but the Best Picture is…Argo.

    Sadly if the Oscars mirror the People’s Choice Awards, they will do:

    Picture: Argo
    Director: David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
    Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
    Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
    Supporting Actor: Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook (or maybe Waltz)
    Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
    Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained
    Adapted Screenplay: Chris Terrio, Argo

    But if the Academy instead voted for the kinds of films and performances it usually rewards, the winners would be:

    Picture: Lincoln
    Director: Steven Spielberg, Lincoln (or maybe Affleck if he were nominated)
    Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
    Actress: Emmanuelle Riva, Amour by default (but truly JLaw would always be likely)
    Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
    Supporting Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
    Original Screenplay: Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty
    Adapted Screenplay: Tony Kushner, Lincoln

    Which list is better? Which list will the actual winners tonight better reflect?

  8. Bryce Forestieri
    February 24, 2013


  9. Dorothy Porker
    February 24, 2013

    Finally saw “Life of Pi” last night and, along with ZDT, it is my favorite film of the year. Beautiful write up, Ryan.

  10. Tero Heikkinen
    February 24, 2013

    Great writing, Ryan.

  11. Ann
    February 24, 2013

    I so enjoyed reading this post about Life of Pi and the movie going experience as well! This movie is one to be savored and you have gone into it as one must with poetry when it is packed with more than first meets the eye. Of all the movies seen this year, this is the one that stays in my minds eye most. Scenes replay for me when I think of it because it so visually powerful. Your writing has made me anxious to see it again. Thanks for posting this today.This really was a great read!

  12. Reno
    February 24, 2013

    Quite confident on 2 categories for Life of Pi: Cinematography and Visual Effects. Fearful for Score coz AMPAS members are no music experts save for some. Anna Karenina will clinch the twofer, Art Direction and Costume Design. Sound Mixing is Les Mis domain and Sound Editing is Skyfall territory. That said, and though Lincoln is my #1 film, I’m hopeful for Ang Lee winning Best Director and his frustration (and everyone else’s I guess) over Brokeback Mountain losing to Crash will be wiped out (albeit momentarily) when AMPAS rewards Life of Pi the Best Picture Oscar. A Best Director Oscar is incomplete if the film is not declared Best Picture.

    My ranking of the BP nominees:
    1. Lincoln
    2. Life of Pi
    3. Les Miserables
    4. Zero Dark Thirty
    5. Amour
    6. Beasts of the Southern Wild
    (^So far, my top 6 of 2012)

    7. Argo
    8. Silver Linings Playbook
    9. Django Unchained

    I’m going to need probably 1 more year to fill up my top 10 as great foreign and documentary features trickle in. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Kid with a Bike & 5 Broken Cameras are 2011 films and I’ve realized that 2011 is by far the best year for film in this millennium.

  13. The J Viewer (Five Wins in My Book)
    February 24, 2013

    Thanks for a good read, Ryan.

    For the record, Life of Pi takes a lead in my predictions with 5 hopeful wins.

    All the best to Ang Lee. I am rooting for him.

  14. desmond
    February 24, 2013

    As a chinese , I ‘m really proud of Ang Lee ‘s work in Life of Pi , not only one of the best living director , he is a master.

  15. daveinprogress
    February 24, 2013

    A perfect way to surround the day’s events, with a lyrical and loving tribute to a wonderful artistic achievement – beautiful prose, Ryan. It’s what it’s all about. Purity in the form. I do not expect it to happen, but if the Academy were to endorse the Life of Pi with its biggest prizes, it would be among its finest films to ever be rewarded. Enjoy the night.

  16. PigsnieLite
    February 24, 2013

    This is the first time an essay on a movie’s opening credits made me cry. You should write for FILM COMMENT, Ryan, if that magazine is still around. Let’s go, LIFE OF PI!

  17. Dennis Bee
    February 24, 2013

    I just got back from seeing LIFE OF PI–It makes nine Best Picture nominees for me! I have been visually challenged in one eye for four-and-a-half years, so no 3D for me. I had already predicted LIFE OF PI for Picture and Director, in keeping with my “Never bet on a Picture/Director split.” I’m certainly not going to change my mind now.

    LIFE OF PI is a beautiful film. I find it intriguing from the point of view of religion. It’s a spiritual journey; I haven’t read the novel but all the elements that have payoffs later–e.g., “You have your whole life ahead of you,” Pi’s mother tells him, which comes true not once but twice–the layers of writing, of story-telling and hearing, the multiple threads of double meaning–seemed obviously literary. But Ang Lee, who may have more consistent success with adaptations than any director currently working, has taken Yann Martel’s novel and found cinematic images for the novelist’s motifs and made so completely his own that they are our own too.

    LIFE OF PI is the sort of movie that could win everything it’s nominated for–no acting nominations, which are usually the most contentious categories. That’s not going to happen obviously; this is too competitive a year. But I could see it winning 7 or 8.

    Hasn’t this been an extraordinary year–certainly the best to date of the more-than-five-Best-Picture-nominees era? While all five of the nominated directors, plus Bigelow and Affleck, pulled off amazing feats of vision and execution, Lee’s is perhaps the most astounding. The Affleck snub will probably allow Lee to eke out his second Best Director Oscar. And look, the Academy will never stop making up for BROKEBACK.

    Beautiful work, Ryan. Thanks to you and Sasha for this fabulous site we love coming to year after year. This is my 46th Oscar day, and it always feels the same: I can’t wait for 8:30 (It used to be 10:00) US-EST! Happy Oscars, everyone!

  18. Astarisborn
    February 24, 2013

    There are no words to thank you enough Ryan for your emotional and amazing post. I revisited Life of Pi for the 7th time while reading your outstanding words. You are a miracle of universal language and you aligned the film in perfect new perceptions and meanings. Thank you again.
    Life of Pi “impossible dream” has always been possible because of your brilliant insight.

  19. dimforturtles
    February 24, 2013

    Beautiful, Ryan. Thank you. I thanked God when Master Ang Lee was announced as Best Director. That is the category I was most hoping for. S’Wonderful, it’s Marvelous! He created a spiritual space that can be revisited anytime, anywhere. I am so thankful for this film from Ang Lee.

  20. JBourne
    February 25, 2013

    The Taiwanese people are really proud of Ang Lee!

  21. steve50
    February 25, 2013

    Beautiful tribute, Ryan!

    The best moment of the night and, arguably the only surprise, was Ang Lee winning BD. When you look back, there’s no way it could have gone to anyone else.

  22. Scott I.
    February 25, 2013

    Great write-up. Thank you for reminding me of when I saw 12 Monkeys in the theater. We exited the dark theater directly into the parking lot and were greeted by the first snowfall of the year. It was beautiful.

  23. Jared Olsen
    February 26, 2013

    Good article, however you left out any mention of Garson Yu and his company yU+co who set, designed, and animated the type in the title sequence that you have so analyzed in detail. I think you should give credit to Ang’s collaborators because its definitely not a one-man job.

  24. Pierre de Plume
    March 4, 2013

    Three cheers for the fugue state!

    I know this is an inspired piece of writing, Ryan, as you say as much, but I also think you deserve much credit for your analytic ability not to mention the persistence to focus on this particular aspect of the film (opening credit sequence) since directors often lay groundwork and provide clues early in their films. And even though someone else designed the credit sequence, I’d say that Lee’s influence is clearly present there.

    The big question at the end of the film — was the story fantasy or reality? — was not a big question to me, and your analysis seems to suggest as much.

    I always love when you enter into your inspired/creative mode, which results in marvelous pieces of writing such as this one. I have Pi on DVD and intend to watch it again even though it won’t be 3D, of course. Even so, Ang Lee is a director who uses the medium of film to its fullest extent.

    I think this film would’ve been even a stronger contender is the two actors had received nominations — and I think they deserved them. Without these nominations, of course, the film suffered in its chances to win best picture. Regardless, this is a film that will be ruminated upon much more – and much longer – than the winner of the moment, Argo.

    Here’s hoping you fall into a fugue state more often.

    Side Note: Although I know you’re not a fan of The Artist, I do feel that there’s much to savor in that film even though my first viewing left me un-wowed. During my second viewing of that film, by narrowing my focus to its more romantic elements, a sort of fugue state allowed me to appreciate its better qualities. This is not to say that The Artist rivals Pi in overall quality — it doesn’t. For one thing, it’s not nearly as precise in its execution. That said, The Artist — like many films — can change our opinion upon revisiting.

  25. September 26, 2013

    Hello. Congratulations on this fascinating site. I’d be honoured if you’d grant me permission to use the ‘Humming Bird’ image to complement a poem on my blog–non-commercial use only. I would, of course include ownership attributes and provide a link to this page. thanks.

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