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Dreamy paintings were the visual inspiration for film 'Life of Pi'

By John d’Addario | The New Orleans Advocate

This article originally appeared here

You'd be forgiven for not immediately thinking "fine art" and "Hollywood" in the same sentence.

After all, most big budget movies these days aren't exactly known for artistic ambition. There are many reasons you might want to see "Guardians of the Galaxy" this summer, but gaining a more nuanced understanding of the relativity of truth and our place in the universe probably isn't among them. (With all due respect to the Guardians, of course.)

However, 2012's "Life of Pi" was a different kind of movie. Based on a best-selling 2001 fantasy novel by Jann Martel, the film - which explored ideas about religious faith, the power of storytelling and man's often ambivalent relationship with the natural world - was directed by multiple Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee and went on to receive four Oscars of its own (for cinematography, visual effects, original score and another Best Director nod for Lee.)

Central to the film's stunning visual effects was a series of drawings made by noted artist Alexis Rockman, which provided Lee with an initial framework for the design of his film.

Several of those drawings are on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Rockman is known for his large and minutely detailed tableaus depicting dramatic and often surreal events in the natural world: His monumental painting "Battle Royale" (2012) is also on view on NOMA's second floor and is one of the newer highlights of museum's permanent collection.

But the more intimate scale of the watercolor and ink drawings in the "Alexis Rockman: Drawings from Life of Pi" exhibition are in keeping with their original function in the early stages of the film's development.

They're more suggestive than expository, dreamlike impressions of what would eventually become intensely dynamic three-dimensional moving images in the final film.

Yet, anyone who's seen "Life of Pi" will immediately recognize that the creatures in the film share a common DNA with the ones in Rockman's ethereally delicate renderings.

One of the more captivating drawings in the exhibition depicts a luminous squid, its phosphorescent body floating serenely on a background of inky blackness. It's all the more evocative if you've seen "Life of Pi" and recall the scene in which that squid appears: an extended montage in which the tiger with whom the movie's protagonist has come to share an uneasy truce on a lifeboat gazes into the ocean and sees a myriad of sea creatures swimming, twisting and fighting in the deep.

It's a mesmerizing sequence, and despite the drawing's apparent simplicity, it perfectly encapsulates the depth and creativity of the visual effects that made the movie so magical.

Other drawings in the series depict more studies of animals and marine life from the "Tiger Vision" sequence in the film as well as details of vegetation on the island where Pi's incredible ocean journey reaches its end.

If you're curious to see how the concepts explored in Rockman's drawings were eventually realized onscreen, NOMA will be showing "Life of Pi" at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 15, as part of its Friday Nights at NOMA programming.

Next month, Rockman will be lecturing about the drawings and his involvement with the film at the museum Friday, Sept. 19.

And don't forget that the happenings at NOMA are just part of the inaugural New Orleans Museum Month, a new annual collaboration in which members of any of the participating cultural institutions can use their memberships for admission to any of the others.

It's more than enough great art (and free air conditioning) to give those Guardians of the Galaxy a run for their money this summer.

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