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Rob Legato Wizards of Ahs Q&A: Rob Legato


Question:

When the Titanic is cracking in half and going down, it really looked like it could have been quite dangerous. Can you tell me anything about how the whole scene was done, and how dangerous it was?

Also, is there any film you know available on the making of Titanic besides NOVA's program?

Howard Glosser
Central Point, OR



Response from Rob Legato:

In the entire sequence there is a mix between live action and models. When the ship cracks in half and it's doing this pretty heavy pitch up, there's a small portion that was filmed as live action 60, 70 feet up on a hydraulic rig. And anything attaching to the rest of the ship is all done with a computer set extension. Anybody physically falling off and into the water is done with what we call digital stunt people. We used a model of a real stunt person falling into a bag, motion captured them, and then created every large stunt fall that you see in the movie. Anything that's going above 50 feet is all digital stunt. Anything below about a 45 degree angle to when the ship is mostly level or at a very slight lift is real stunt people. There's one very dangerous scene that was only done once and somebody hurt their ribs and maybe broke an ankle when the ship was vertical, 90 degrees. They had real stunt guys on descender rigs, which are wires that slow them down before they hit some object. And all the objects are made out of rubber and all that. But still, falling straight down into a cap stand or whatever, caused these guys to get hurt. Only in one take in the movie is it like that. And the rest of it, anytime any people are falling—the guy hanging off the flag pole and falling into the water or hitting the propeller—it's all digital stunt people.

There is, I believe, an HBO first look special which is quite good on Titanic. And there will be a Criterion laser disk which will have "behind the scenes" stuff and also there's apparently a CD-ROM that has some "behind the scenes" stuff on it that's available. I think it's out for this Christmas at any rate.



Question:

Water and airflow patterns seems to be a special problem in achieving realistic special effects. Examples include the wake of the Titanic, shockwaves from aircraft and explosions. Even scientists who specialize in such flows have trouble computing them and experiments are required. How do you handle such special effects problems? Do you enlist the help of professional fluid dynamics experts?

Gary Settles
Bellefonte, PA



Response from Rob Legato:

We have a fluid dynamics expert who's a CG supervisor who helped model one of the shots. And even that proved too difficult to do as a real simulation on a computer. It was the one shot where it's directly under water as you're watching the screw propellors go by, very early on in the film. And that was done imitating roughly what would really happen, the rest of it you just fake it. Whatever you think it should look like ends up being more important than how it really does, because you're trying to over-dramatize a particular moment. And it's too difficult to do in a computer in many cases, so we help it out. In the case of the wakes on the Titanic, we shot a real wake and then texture-mapped it on top of the computer-generated water. So the internal turbulence is all created naturally. And yet it still looks like it's part of this other larger background. And so you get the best of both things. It's a tremendous amount of computing power to try to recreate the random turbulence.



Question:

How much work it involved on the actor's part to adapt the special effects?

Claude Vaillancourt
Belleville, Ontario



Response from Rob Legato:

Just the fact that you're acting like something dangerous or romantic is happening with 100 people around is kind of ridiculous. People are used to it so you don't really pay that much attention and don't laugh too much at it. But, just the normal everyday filming, you know, little tender moments and things like that, you know, literally have a crowd of 50 people behind the camera. so it's always going to feel a little funny or ridiculous. But, on film it looks perfectly natural. And for the most part, the actors are pretty good because what they have the ability to imagine what the scene might be like in real life. Because even in normal live action scenes, where they have the set and everything, in front of them is the entire crew, the camera, the lights, the people sitting on chairs taking notes. So, they're actually in a fairly unreal world anyway. And, in fact, usually what's behind them is not there for them either, maybe it's a background we add in later. So, it's not that far removed from the unreal experience they're overcoming anyway.



Question:

Some of the more subtle but effective visual effects in the film are the match dissolves from the ship wreck present-day taking us back to the past when Titanic was in her glory. How were those accomplished?

Michael Decsi
Tweed, ON, Canada



Response from Rob Legato:

That was the heart of the film, magically taking you from one state to the next without being totally aware of when the manipulation. One of the reasons we created the computer-generated people and water and everything else is to have complete control over the scene. So, we built a 45 foot model of the pristine 1912 Titanic. Then we built the same ship, except in the present-day condition under water. We'd shoot the pristine ship in full sunlight, shooting it again with all the match moves on it and the water and everything else. Then we'd shoot it again in an underwater-simulated environment which is usually shot in smoke with blue lights and things like that. Then we took the wreck model and shot it in full sunlight. And then we also shot it in its normal underwater environment. And because we had the ability to bring on any one of those pieces at any one time, you can match the shots and all of a sudden you see the rail start to rust, etc. And it makes for a seamless, sort of a magical transportation between one state and the next, because we have complete control over all of the elements.

Your eye is focused on your center of attention. And your peripheral vision starts to change. By the time you notice your peripheral vision start to change, then the middle of the frame that you were viewing before is now different. And with the help of the music and her telling the story, it all comes up like more of a seamless affair.



Question:

How do you adjust the lighting on the actors in front of a green screen in the background plate already filmed so that it's an exact match?

(name witheld by request)



Response from Rob Legato:

That is just a skill that you develop over time. If you were around while the live action was shot, you have a pretty good understanding or notes of where the sun was and light conditions. We call them reference plates. And you fake it. Usually in this case you're matching sunlight. You find where the light sources would be and where they're coming from.



Question:

Did you make any really big mistakes? And did you ever get frustrated when you made a mistake?

(name witheld by request)



Response from Rob Legato:

Well, in any endeavor like this you make a lot of mistakes. And, hopefully, you correct most of them before people get a chance to see them. But, mistakes are part of the daily process. It's very infrequent that you do something that doesn't have a problem. And basically what you do is make your best stab at it. It's sort of like doing a first draft of a story. You write it and then look for grammatical mistakes and errors. You just keep on doing polish after polish until you believe it's ready. And even then, you may have made a mistake or two that is unnoticed. And mistakes are very frustrating. You don't like to see any of them get out to the public to see, but there are some. And if you see it over and over again, you'll find some.



Question:

What was your toughest special effects challenge on Titanic?

Theresa
Chicago, IL



Response from Rob Legato:

The toughest one is actually making every shot feel like it was real and not artificial. Because you deal with sometimes 200 separately filmed, artificially created elements which all have to blend together to make it look like one single filmed event. That's very difficult to do. You keep on doing it, and you look for tiny, minute mistakes that make your eye believe you're seeing something phony instead of seeing something real, if the shadows are the wrong density or they're not tracking with the person. Or, the birds are flying in a peculiar way, or the smoke looks odd. Any number of things will cue your eye that it's wrong. Those are probably the hardest. And then the sheer volume of work and the type of complexity every shot requires was the toughest thing. There wasn't one thing that was almost impossible to do. It was all possible to do, except it's all done on a schedule with a budget. And that actually ended up being the hardest thing.



Question:

Your productions use the latest hardware and software. As a professional animator, I have access to similar or less resources. On a personal level I find the events in desktop animation really inspiring. How do you feel a desktop software may effect the larger world of entertainment? Do you see a trend towards this type of production or will the high end still dominate?

Tom Miecznikowski
Chicago, IL



Response from Rob Legato:

You know, it's really not the software. Some have more advances than others, and all that stuff. It's really the art of the person doing it. Going back to the story analogy, you could have the hottest word processor around, but unless you have a good ear for dialogue, a good way of telling a story, it's no good. The art is in the person. And the software doesn't really make that much difference. You could take somebody who has the crudest animation software possible, but yet they maximize it by their abilities to entertain you. You could be entertained with a stick man doing something really clever and funny as you would with the highest tech and latest chrome version of the same thing.

Eventually it will get cheaper and cheaper, so that people can produce their own films on desktops. Even on Titanic, the computer set extensions were done on an NT platform computer, basically no different than Windows 98 or Windows 95, a personal computer with a fast chip in it. And more and more people are going to gear towards that because it's a fairly inexpensive way of doing it. And now with storage becoming cheaper and more plentiful, and memory becoming cheaper, you can have a pretty souped-up workstation. Any person using a home computer now is ten times faster than the SGI machines and the various computers we used four or five years ago for professional effects work.



Question:

I'm wondering how you think the freedom of being able to create any shot a director or writer can imagine will effect filmmakers creatively speaking. Do you think tomorrow's filmmakers are going to effectively use visual effects to tell convincing stories in context? Titanic seems much more of an exception than the rule in these terms.

Jon Lawrence
Burbank, CA



Response from Rob Legato:

Again, it's the people. If you wish to tell a story on film, it really doesn't make any difference how you tell it as long as the end product is the same. If you choose to shoot on the real location, that's one thing, if that helps you tell your story. If you choose to shoot it on a set for whatever control reasons, and you still make it look like it's the real location, then it really doesn't matter that one was a set and one was a location; it's all the same. And if you take it one step further and decide to shoot it on a green screen with a miniature background or a computer-generated background, and yet the end product looks the same, it's all just storytelling. Visual effects are just a tool that now more and more people, especially if they're wiser, will use to help tell their stories.

If you want to shoot a shot that has 10,000 people in it, now you can do it on a computer much the same way we did it on Titanic. And the sum total of it, if it's done well, is to make you believe the epic scale of the shot.

Movies are all illusion anyway. The actors are not the real people; they're putting on a performance. It should be treated that way. Titanic took advantage of it. I like to think the other film I worked on, Apollo 13, took advantage of the same thing. It doesn't matter if it's computer generated or if it's a model. If you believe it to be real, then it is real.



Question:

How much storage can your compositing and computers handle? How much off-line storage did you need for the movie?

Mike Bosdet
Burbank, CA



Response from Rob Legato:

It was a fantastic amount. And we had almost two terabytes of disk storage space. And even that wasn't enough. A terabyte is a thousand gigabytes. With the size of the files, even that's not big enough to hold the entire effects portion of the movie on the computer at any one time. It's all done in segments. That's why as disk space becomes more and more plentiful, eventually they'll basically digitize an entire movie and have it online. But, right now you can't do that.



Question:

Do you see a future in film Hollywood where computer animation will totally replace on live human actors. If this would be possible, do you believe the audience would accept it?

Richard Pfefferkorn
Austin, TX



Response from Rob Legato:

My answer to that is you can get to a point where you can basically make a computer-generated version of an actor but the art form of acting is not going to diminish. I believe that the sum total of all the choices that an actor makes needs to be left intact, because it's the way they interact with other humans, and the chemistry with other people on-set that makes it happen. That's what charges you and gives you the juice to make certain choices.

Even though you can replicate it all on a computer, if you remove some of the energy that is normally present in live-action, the performance may be less energetic and may be just less interesting because you've removed a whole portion of input. It helps you create spontaneity, and spontaneity is very difficult because of the complexity of filmmaking. So, when you remove it one step further, you may have this pristine world that is boring to watch because it's so different from your own life, which is full of nuance. Eventually people just see a story being told by someone that they can relate to. And the further you remove it from a person you can relate to, the less you believe it.

There will be computer-generated characters in movies. And that will even happen fairly soon. But, they're never really going to be a person, another Marlon Brando, another James Dean or Humphrey Bogart. Because those people are so unique. That's why there's only one Humphrey Bogart and there's only one Marlon Brando. It's the sum total of their lives and all their choices they've made that make them an interesting person. When they're filmed, the camera catches all that. And to say that an animator can replicate all that stuff—you'll miss the magic that attracts you to someone. There will probably be a hybrid approach. But, an interesting person is always going to be behind the curtain.


(back to Wizards of Ahs Q&A)


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