Walt Jones ’01, on his journey from water-
lighting supervisor on Ang Lee’s
Life of Pi
to an Oscar for outstanding visual effects
as told to SW
I was responsible for overseeing digital oceans and skies in the film,
from the time the
sinks until the final credits roll. This to-
taled 500 individual shots, from dead calm and clear skies to gale-force
storms. I developed workflows with the help of an oceanography con-
sultant to define how oceans behave in various environments, and by
consulting with people who’d been lost at sea.
I spent weeks running up to the roof of our L.A. studio with
a camera rig every time the sky was doing something interesting!
I also worked closely with Ang and our team to design all of our
oceans. He’d made it clear that the ocean and skies were as much of a
character in the film as was the tiger, Richard Parker. As cliché as that
sounds, it really was the case: We had “melancholy,”“happy,” and
angry” oceans.
The lifeboat, raft, and Pi [played by Suraj Sharma] were the only
things that came from actual set photography. The ocean, skies,
Richard Parker, the floating island, the meerkats, fish, whale, and jel-
lyfish all were meticulously created by hundreds of artists working
with Ang and our editor, Bill Westenhofer. Placing Pi in his ocean en-
vironment depended solely on my team. Suraj was shot in both a life-
boat tied to the bottom of a large water tank and on a dry gimbal rig.
Filming him in a real ocean environment would have been impossibly
expensive and dangerous, nor would it allow Ang the environmental
control he needed to capture an emotional performance. 
Looking back, the toughest moment for me was the day I agreed to
come onto the film. Even though principal photography hadn’t begun,
Ang had created the entire movie in animatic form, and it was petrify-
ing to wrap my head around what he was asking us to create. I esti-
mate I logged 3,000 work hours between March 2011 and April 2012
before the film was finally in the can.
I still remember walking out of the screening room on the Fox
lot in awe of what we had accomplished. I imagine it’s like climbing
Everest and when you get to the top, you’re elated at pulling off the
amazing feat but still unable to really comprehend the effort required
to make it happen.
happened to be represented by the same manage-
ment company as Melissa Leo. Also, Alan apparently
The Space Between,
so he signed on right away.
We knew, too, that Alan would have a con-
nection to the film because of his activist work on
behalf of LGBT folks. As a straight filmmaker, I felt
it was important that the actor playing Rudy be
openly gay. And Alan was a guy who’s walked the
walk in promoting equality.
Alan’s co-star, Garret Dillahunt, who’s a regular
Raising Hope,
plays a closeted lawyer who falls
in love with Rudy. Garret is fromYakima,Wash.,
in real life, and there’s a joke in the movie about
his character being fromWallaWalla.Was that on
Actually, that was a total coincidence!
We literally didn’t get Garret to commit
until six days before shooting.
We got a lot of passes. To my casting direc-
tors’ credit, they’d pictured Garret from the get-go.
He got the script, and then he passed. We were at
the point where we had to make this movie and
somebody had to play this role!
Did you ever consider playing it yourself?
For about two seconds. [
No, I
knew Garret was the right guy. And to his credit, he
got on the phone with me, and his issue wasn’t the
script; he was just tired from working nonstop.
Thank God we’d been in the real estate
business before this, because you learn quickly to
never take no for an answer. [
Garret even-
tually said yes, and we cannot imagine anyone else
playing the role. He was and is perfect for the part.
And how did you find the young man with Down
syndrome to play Marco?
We met Isaac at a casting call in L.A. It’s
funny—the character was originally written to have
a foul mouth, like his mother. But kids with Down
are generally not aggressive; they’re very gentle
souls. And we pushed Isaac to say that stuff in his
second audition, and he wasn’t comfortable doing
it. I thought, “Well, we don’t have the right kid.”
It was really uncomfortable. He was cry-
ing, “I can’t do it, I can’t do it.”
And this is a great example of Kristine be-
ing a smart producer. She said: “He
the right kid.
Remember in
The Blind Side
how silent the kid was
in the first half of the movie? He drew you in; you
wanted to know what was going on in his head. He
doesn’t need to have a foul mouth.” So we rewrote
Marco’s dialogue.
Courtesy Walt Jones