Behind The Scenes With
The Original Pi

By Steven Callahan
Photos: Peter Sorrell, Courtesy Fox Studios

For "Life Of Pi," Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee tapped the world's most famous ocean "survival consultant," Steven Callahan, to learn about existing in a life raft, and to ensure that the sea would be one of the movie's most authentic characters.

Slip behind the scenes of "Life Of Pi" with Steve Callahan, who made authentic lures, tools, and a liferaft for the movie. (Photos of Callahan by Peter Sorrell, Courtesy Fox Studios. Other photos by Steve Callahan)

Even as a small boy in the 1950s, I loved how movies transported me into other worlds. For a quarter, my brother and I became transfixed by the original "Blob," which kept me jumping on my bed for years because I knew the blob was living under it, and "Sinbad the Sailor" with its fighting skeletons. Never did I imagine working on a film, though. n How could a half-century of messing about in boats, including being dumb enough to lose one in 1982, lead me to become part of a crew of hundreds of astoundingly talented people, including Academy Award winners like Ang Lee, best known for directing such films as "Brokeback Mountain" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"? Well, as so often in life, we're led to extraordinary experiences by embracing serendipitous events.

Photo from the film Life of PiA scene from the film. See the trailer at

In 2003, my wife Kathy and I were cruising our trimaran off the coast of Australia when we received a package from our friends Lin and Larry Pardey. In it was Life of Pi, the Yann Martel novel about a precocious Indian boy nicknamed Pi whose family decides to immigrate to Canada, bringing the zoo they own with them. En route, their ship sinks, leaving Pi alone in a lifeboat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena, and a tiger named Richard Parker. In short order, the hyena dispatches the zebra and orangutan, then the tiger eats the hyena. Pi is left to survive and develop a dangerous but co-dependent, even spiritual relationship with Richard Parker. Lin noted a page deep in the book on which, to my surprise, I found that I was mentioned.

The book was entertaining, and I noticed reflections of numerous details of my own ocean-survival ordeal, as well as similar themes and ideas that I'd written about in Adrift. But as I read, I kept thinking, "Well, that's preposterous; it just couldn't happen that way," or "That certainly would never work." Still, even as Pi's drift extends to 100 days, then 200 and beyond, getting wilder and more fantastic, I couldn't stop imagining how I might have made things work, were I in his situation.

Fast Forward. The Phone Rings ...

Six years later, I received a call from Ang Lee's assistant, who told me Ang was interested in directing "Life of Pi," but had no boating experience. Ang was the fourth director to take the movie on, the project having previously burned through three other directors. Could Ang and scriptwriter David McGee visit us in Maine to discuss real-world ocean survival and, perhaps, go for a sail? I invited them out, and we spent a couple of days together, the first taking a spin on an antique Friendship sloop. The weather abruptly turned to Maine horrid with a frizzle — frigid fog so thick that it's nearly rain, water droplets invading every gap in our gear until we were soaked through — but David and Ang proved great sports, absorbing the whole experience, how everything looked and felt, even stopping the boat to feel how it bobbed and rolled while drifting.

Ang was quiet, reserved, and observant. David was outgoing and jovial, as we talked boats and films. I told stories about different sailing experiences, survival, oceanography, and anything I thought related to Pi's story, while David furiously typed notes. I remember telling them about one night, when I was alone on watch in the mid-Atlantic, when not 100 feet away, a whale and calf suddenly arose from the deep and breached, belly to belly, the bioluminescence streaming from their bodies, delivering one of many spiritual highs I've found while crossing the briny deep. Some of these stories would eventually find their way into the script, but at that time, when Ang and David departed, I thought, "Well, that was fun, but I'll probably never hear from them again." After all, this story had already burned through three other directors, and the chance of it getting onto celluloid appeared remote.

Piles of oarsOars played essential roles in constructing rafts and Pi's tools, so the crew needed piles of them.

Come the fall of 2010, I was recovering from surgery when I heard the film had gotten the green light from Fox Studios. Ang called me, and said, "I want to make the ocean a real character in this movie," not just a setting, as is typical in ocean-related films. He invited me to join the project, to help bring alive the beauty, diversity, wonder, travails, and illumination of the offshore world. As soon as I was fit to board a plane, I was off to Taichung, Taiwan. In November, I entered Taichung's old airport, scheduled for redevelopment but now a movie studio, its hangars converted to workshops and secondary stages, and the old terminal building housing props, wardrobe, makeup, art, marine, and other departments.

By then, I'd reread the book and script multiple times, and become increasingly attached to the story and Ang's vision. He'd directed all department heads to read Adrift, which many used as a reference to help marry the fantastic with the real. As the "survival consultant," and one of the few people on set with any deep-ocean experience, I found my role reached into numerous departments whose heads graciously welcomed me to play in their sandboxes. Some called me "the real Pi" but I was quick to point out that Pi made me look like a piker. He was Spider-Man at sea with capabilities beyond my comprehension.

Photo of Kathy and Steve with director Ang Lee and scriptwriter David McGeeKathy and Steve (left) took director Ang Lee and scriptwriter David McGee out sailing in foul weather, to give them the feel of a real boat at sea.

The Fantastical Goes To Sea

During pre-production, I helped tune particulars in the script, such as how the sinking ship and stormy seas would interact, or what Pi might do to show how well he's adapting to life afloat. The story editor and I assembled a timeline, photos, and sketches for every scene's critical elements, including the changing condition of the lifeboat, the boy, and his clothes and props. Assisting the visual-effects department, I added details on oceanic conditions and how the sea and sky should realistically look to complement the story and passage of time, and to their vast library I added heaps of my own images of the sea, skies, survivors, sea creatures, and other details. Transforming acres of blue screen into stunning skies and oceanic backgrounds, plus blending live action with visual effects, would require hundreds of people in multiple countries. In finished footage I've seen, usually I can't tell the real thing from the invented.

By shooting time in early 2011, we could stand on ramparts of a virtual fortress, three sides built of shipping containers stacked five high and welded together. The fourth, removable wall was as large as an old drive-in movie screen. From up here, I gazed out across the airport toward the city, or down upon an enclosed wave tank the size of a football field. With wave-tank operators, we worked to develop "sea" surfaces that could mimic conditions in the open ocean. The waves were driven by immense vacuum tanks and pumps, which pulled and spewed water from 12 chambers. Normally, wave tanks are used for resorts, with one setting left on for days. Ours, we abused relentlessly, and developed eight basic wave types with up to five variations of each, and immense spreadsheets detailing their timing, shapes, and how the lifeboat should move in each.

Pi had an onboard survival manual from the 1970s, which I helped to research and create. Ang's son Haan had created the concepts for Pi's raft in its various evolutions. Because Pi would spend most of his voyage on these rafts, I helped hone these designs so they'd actually work on waves, and so we could create these and other props with only the supplies, materials, and tools that Pi actually had at his disposal. Prop master Robin Miller also made sure every fishhook, compass, and knife was period-accurate. Oars were critical to the raft structure, so I worked hard to build — with Pi's hatchet, a single oar, and Pi's gear bag — a "furlable" canopy for rain collection and shade. It ended up catching so much water during shooting that we had to turn the rain down. Our team developed a net seat/berth hung off the canopy so comfortable that Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi, often napped in it while waiting between takes.

Suraj, like Pi, had to come a long way from his middle-class, minimally stressed background. When picked to play the part, he had virtually no acting experience and a total inability to swim. But hard training, especially by stuntmen Charlie Croughwell and his son Cameron, transformed him. By filming time, Suraj swam like a champion, could spend minutes underwater doing acrobatics, and performed many of his own very risky stunts. I marveled watching him grow up and helped him rehearse his tasks on the raft — how to spear fish and drive away sharks. I told him and Ang how, after I'd been in my life raft for almost three months, my reflexes had become so quick that I once snagged a passing minnow from the water and popped it in my mouth as a snack. They loved the image, so Ang had Suraj incorporate it into his character. I can't wait to see if this scene made it into the film. Ang and I had long discussions with Suraj about the physical, emotional, and even more abstract elements of survival at sea. Best were times Suraj shared his dreams, life, and humor, either on set or when we met for wonderful Indian meals his father prepared for us in their apartment.

What About 3D And The Animals?

Well, there were live tigers, a hyena, and others on set, which proved both huge challenges and spectacular in their own rights. How they were trained, filmed, and merged into digital action shall remain movie magic, but the images have to be seen to be believed. Don't expect Narnia-like anthropomorphized pets. These beasts remain wild, fitting the story, and like other elements, unlike anything seen before.

There's an old saw in the movie business that warns: Never make a film on the water, with animals, or with kids. But Ang and producer David Womark almost proudly declared, "So we're doing all three, and in 3D!" — though soon we all discovered why the old saw existed. We struggled to capture action and close-ups while keeping equipment and props working on our watery primary stage, often in violent motion. Ang's and scores of other artists' insatiable appetite to push creative limits constantly stretched everyone's capacities. Yet even when we were most exhausted, and Ang looked most beat, I tried to be encouraging by relating this effort to a voyage at sea. I'd tell Ang that, especially during the first few days offshore, when we're not yet acclimated to the bouncy offshore world, we often wonder, "Just why am I doing this again?" Yet after even the most difficult voyages, we quickly forget the pain and recall most the wonders witnessed, camaraderie shared, and ideas inspired. By the time we hit the local bar, we've miraculously transformed hardships into sea stories, and wonder, "When can we do that again?" To a large degree, how a story has the power to transform and uplift is what the "Life of Pi," making movies, and voyaging are all about. 

Callahan also wrote Capsized (Harper Collins, 1993), has contributed to a number of books, written hundreds of magazine articles, and was senior editor at Cruising World magazine. He's made many offshore passages on conventional and unconventional craft, including ultralights, small boats, even a proa. Callahan lives in Maine with his wife Kathy.

— Published: December 2012

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