The last thing I was thinking about when the credits rolled on Lion was the visual effects. The first was getting out of the theatre before someone saw my two-hour long transformation into a puddle of tears. As I tried to compose myself, hood over my head like a petulant child, I watched the documentary footage post-script during the credits. That sure as hell didn’t help stop the waterworks, but it did keep me in my seat long enough to notice the army of (over 50) visual effects team members under your supervision. It made me think.
Even if only half your team was dedicated to Nicole Kidman’s age denying effects (justified early in the film, but a vain movie star demand after the narrative’s 20 year jump), that still left a whole lot of movie to work on. Surprising since each frame of this film feels natural and grounded. Director Garth Davis, in his feature film debut, opts for balance over flare at every turn in his storytelling. This may be in service of the story, or as a way to counteract the many inevitable and inescapable comparisons with Slumdog Millionaire. Regardless, it’s the right choice, and whatever digital trickery was involved in manipulating the images, it was as seamless as Kidman’s oxygen repelling pores.
That’s enough picking on poor old Nicole. By lending her name and talents to the film (and any reservations about sporting God-awful 80s hair), she no doubt helped sell this story about Australian parents who adopt a homeless Indian child. She and David Wenham, however, rightly play second fiddle to a pair of performances portraying Saroo Brierly – one by seven-year-old Sunny Pawar, and the other by Slumdog alum Dev Patel. After the heart-wrenching first act of the film where Saroo loses his family, the story falls into Patel’s hands, who gamely pulls off the transformation into an Australian surfer bro and Handsome Leading Man. I assume his new muscles or long locks didn’t come from your team, but who knows. They sure looked real, and provided a temporarily (welcomed) distraction from the emotionally loaded narrative in this film.
But as embarrassing as it felt in the moment, I don’t resent Lion’s ability to manipulate my emotions. Every turn felt earned, and the performances never crossed into melodrama. When the story finally resolves in both satisfying and heart-breaking ways, the visual choices made to convey a sense of closure felt simple and inspired. The only places your work may have been prominent were during the Google Map searches that that inspire Saroo’s journey. But even there, technology is always simply an enabler for human connection and never foregrounded for effect. Just the way it’s supposed to be, as I’m sure you’d agree.