Designing the Scenes

by Susan Gerhard | Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox

For David Gropman, the job always starts with a pen and paper.

Life of Pi production designer, David Gropman sits at his desk.

The spectacular 3-D ocean fable "Life of Pi" received a warm reception when it landed on American shores for opening night of the New York Film Festival in September.

Based on Yann Martel's novel of the same name, the Ang Lee-directed film focuses on a boy sharing an unlikely sea voyage with a Bengal tiger on a small lifeboat. A Book of Job-like narrative about patience and faith, the project must have, at moments, tested the patience of its production designer, David Gropman (B.A., '74), as it traveled to multiple continents and required specialized aquatic sets to come to life.

"'Life of Pi' offered many challenges," says Gropman, whose work on Ang Lee's first 3-D film was called "eye-popping" by Variety. "Any film that takes place primarily on water is its own special challenge to begin with," he says, and traveling between Taiwan and India and working with international crews in both countries "kept me busy."

Ang Lee, who worked with Gropman on "Taking Woodstock," says, "It was a very, very long job, and I had a great time with David. He's reliable, hard-working, friendly and does great design."

But what Gropman brought to this project that was especially helpful to Lee was not his work on 41 film productions, including "Doubt," "Hairspray,  "Casanova," "Searching for Bobby Fischer" and "Little Children," but his experience in the theatre, which began in the early 1970s at SF State. Lee, who comes from a stage background as well, says 3-D is closer to stage than cinema because of its depth of perspective. "Even though it's an open ocean, and it's vast, when you come down to a character, a boat and a tiger? it's a set. So that's why I like his background."

Still frame from the movie "Life of Pi" showing the boy on a raft with a tiger on the boat in the background

For that set, Gropman built a 100-feet by 200-feet tank to hold a raft for its protagonist to battle weather, hunger and animals. "Just getting to and from the set, or to the actor: it was a bit of an effort," explains the understated Gropman. Add to that the wave that needs to be created, whether it's a ripple of the ocean or a six-footer, and the wear and tear the water takes on the set. Since Pi's journey is 270 days at sea, the lifeboat wasn't just one entity, but many: the Day 1 boat carrying a hyena, an orangutan and a zebra was going to look different from the weather-beaten Day 12 and Day 36 boats, which were not, in filming, deployed chronologically. "Even in a tank with 11 wave makers," says Gropman, "it was still not totally predictable. You're still dealing with a lifeboat floating in water."

Gropman describes his work as "placing the audience in the world of the story." He has not only inspired the confidence of James Ivory, Robert Altman, Steven Zaillian (B.A.,'75) and Lasse Hallström, but also earned an Oscar nomination for his production design on Hallström's "The Cider House Rules".

Though Gropman's designs are categorized as technical achievements, they always begin in the most non-technical way, says Gropman: with pencil, paper and a trip to the New York Public Library's Picture Collection, where he pulls photos from archives to begin immersing himself in other times and distant places. He strives to be a "mini-expert," so, he says, he can leave the photos behind and begin building a world from scratch.

The digital era has changed and arguably enhanced the job he has done for nearly four decades, but Gropman admits he still favors celluloid. "For me," he says, "film creates both a magic and an honesty that is hard to create digitally. There is a warp that happens with film that creates an image of reality with a depth that makes you believe and feel what you are seeing."

Still frame from the movie "Life of Pi" showing the boy with his arms spread wide while sitting on the boat in a storm

Gropman says he started his career as a theatre set designer at SF State. Eric Sinkkonen, now a professor emeritus and freelance designer, remembers Gropman as a "phenomenal" student, entering an upper-class only session as a freshman and providing competition for his classmates, who rose to meet the new standard Gropman set. Also, says the professor, who has followed his career and visited him on set, "He's a very nice person and knows how to deal with people diplomatically." Sinkkonen once watched him defuse the bomb-like atmosphere that had developed between two high-profile collaborators, not an uncommon situation in the industry.

Gropman's first play at SF State was a production of "Winnie the Pooh," directed by Robert Woodruff (M.A.,'74), then a student. Woodruff went on to premiere many of Sam Shepard's plays at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. He later helped Gropman land a job designing for Shepard's "Buried Child" in New York. Today Gropman finds himself in Oklahoma building sets for the film version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "August: Osage County" starring none other than Sam Shepard.

It's a small world, agrees his former professor, but one made more dazzling by Gropman's highly studied and deeply creative designs.

"It's great when your student's work exceeds your own," Sinkkonen says. "It's a great compliment."


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