Film Producer’s “Pi” in the Sky Dreams Become Reality

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – You may not know Lee Berger by name, but you may have seen the work of his production teams in many of 2012’s biggest movies: “Django Unchained,” “The Hunger Games,” “Life of Pi” and “Snow White and the Huntsman.”

Berger ’76 is president of the film division of Rhythm & Hues Studios, a Los Angeles-based company that does everything from animating the Chipmunks to creating fantastic worlds (“The Chronicles of Narnia”).

“This is a very competitive industry,” says Berger. “We don’t normally get to pick and choose, and we’re lucky that Ang Lee chose us (for ‘Life of Pi’).”

“Life of Pi” snagged 11 Academy Award nominations last week, including Best Picture, with “Django” receiving five and “Snow White” getting two. Winners will be announced Feb. 24.

Berger’s main role at Rhythm & Hues, where he’s been since 1999, is to nurture working relationships with movie studios. He’s also the chief executive officer of East Grand Films, an investment fund created by the studio to help finance and produce Hollywood feature films for the global market.

His career clearly pulls from his days as a Maryland radio, television and film student and includes stints as a cameraman, grip, film supervisor and director.

“I took at least 10 courses with Robert Kolker. He had a really big influence on me,” he says. “I still have a relationship with him 40 years later. It’s really about who your teachers are.”

Such a varied career prepared him for working with the creators of such disparate movies as those nominated. “Although ‘Django Unchained’ is not considered a visual effects movie, we wanted to work with Quentin Tarantino, so we were excited by the opportunity to contribute to the movie and build that relationship at the same time.”

Berger’s expertise is in digital filmmaking, so it makes sense that his favorite shot in “Pi,” whose Oscar nominations include Best Visual Effects, reflects that background.

Pi tosses O.J. the orangutan a life jacket in one of the many special effects that meld real and computer-generated images. The animal, for all of its lifelike detail and movements, is just pixels and code. The jacket was real until it got to O.J.’s hands.

“Then we took it over,” says Berger. “Our job is to make sure that the work is so seamless that it doesn’t take you out of the movie.”

– By Monette Bailey and Lauren Brown

*Source: University of Maryland

Life of Pi (2012). *Source: Yahoo! Movies

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