The Making of "Life of Pi" and Program Management

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Categories: Program Management

from R&H production team.jpg

"This film has its own fate, and it chooses me." Director Ang Lee said this not out of arrogance, but out of recognition he had been given a unique opportunity to make "Life of Pi" with people who could help him produce a film from Yann Martel's "unfilmable" novel.

Based on interviews, the production involved the most difficult demands you can place on filmmakers: children, water and animals. Previous directors had failed to see the film through due to artistic or budgetary problems.

Like the best program managers out there, Mr. Lee succeeded by combining two approaches: one creative (by incorporating pre-visualizations), the other pragmatic (by inspiring others in controlling costs).

To tackle the visual special effects, the director and the producers settled on Rhythm & Hues Studios. In the year leading up to actual production, Mr. Lee worked on pre-visualizations -- a storyboarding technique that emulates scenes with music, sound and stunts -- of the most difficult parts of the film and shared them with the studio. This allowed both the director and the studio's artists to plan how to best create the shots.
These pre-visualizations were like a feasibility study in program management. It enabled Mr. Lee to focus the studio on the development of special effects. Via this process, the different types of visual effects professionals -- from physical props people to computer modelers -- could be properly integrated into the film's production plan and schedule. Being able to see who was working on what helped the director bring to life the characters and events in the novel -- and ensure that it was done in a style that remained faithful to the novel's spiritual themes.

The second challenge was the budget. Mr. Lee's original budget was US$70 million -- cheap, considering the production's challenges. Mr. Lee had persuaded the producers to make most of the film in Taiwan, which dramatically reduced costs. But it was still a big-budget film, and as actual costs looked as though they might climb over estimates, production halted. Mr. Lee met with studio executives and showed them finished shots. Although the execs were impressed, they were also honest: Film production could only resume if Mr. Lee kept down the budget. He agreed.
Rhythm & Hue Studios' cooperation helped cut the costs, and Mr. Lee was grateful. He also knew the California, U.S.-based studio was trying to expand internationally -- and that the Taiwanese government was trying to attract investment to the creative industries. So as film production ended, he suggested a mutually beneficial deal between the studio and the government.
The result was the building of a new Rhythm & Hue Studios facility in Taiwan and the creation of in-studio training and internships, a partnership between the studio and a Taiwanese telecom company to provide cloud computing services for local creative industries, and an investment company for film production.
In the end, all stakeholders -- Fox Studios, Rhythm & Hues Studios, the Taiwanese government and Mr. Lee -- recognized the mutual benefits of working together. Key to this was Mr. Lee showing the professionalism we should expect from a program manager, and recognizing and then creatively combining benefits.

Do you think creativity combined with pragmatism can drive project success?
Posted by Lung-Hung Chou on: February 01, 2013 10:15 AM | Permalink

Comments (2)

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PM Hut
HI Roger, Actually Life of Pi's budget was nearly double that amount (it was said to be something like $120-$130 million). I believe that for movies, it really doesn't matter whether you go over-budget or behind schedule, what's really important is the performance at the box office. Too much hype can lead to project success, but too much hype and too much delay can lead to frustration and perhaps project failure. Thanks for sharing!

Matt Hiland
Thanks for this post. I think most of us, whether in the so-called "creative" industries or not, could benefit from improving our left-brain/right-brain balance. Sometimes, in order to create your art, you have to engage your logical brain in cooperation with your creative brain. Sometimes, even seemingly straightforward projects require engaging the creative brain to overcome project issues. Perhaps most important, though, I think that people management requires us to make decisions with our hearts rather than just our heads. I think it behooves all of us to remember that people are the key factor in getting anything done and that the way we treat each other is the most important thing, not just in our jobs, but in life.

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