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PP-Supervisor Series-The Aviator


By Mark London WilliamsIf you ask Rob Legato how being a visual effects supervisor on Martin Scorsese’s epic Howard Hughes bioflick, The Aviator, differed from the other jobs he’s had, he pauses—only for a moment—then tells you “one thing is the caliber of the filmmaker, coupled with the lowest budget I think I’ve had.”That gave him what he describes as his first daunting task: how he could make the most of the money?The solution came, in a sense, with the source material: How would they have done it back when Hughes himself was balancing making movies about World War I aces and later Jane Russell’s cleavage, with bagging defense contracts from the War Department?“People in general had to be much more clever than they do today,” Legato opines.But Legato has proven himself no slouch on modern techniques—many of which come from what he calls a “voodoo box” (that is, computer)—on such shows as the first Harry Potter flick, Titanic, Apollo 13, and the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine TV series.But he didn’t rely solely on the voodoo box this time out. Well, okay, maybe just a little.One of his first tasks was to bow to one of Scorsese’s semiotic ideas for the film by replicating the kind of contemporaneous film stock that a Depression and WWII-era film director like Hughes would have to use—which is to say, two-strip, and then three-strip Technicolor.Legato considers those early color films a kind of voodoo unto themselves. “It’s almost like a magic trick—three black and white strips with a color filter,” each of which would have to be developed separately on “essentially giant printing presses,” with the corresponding reds/blues/greens for each separate strip dyed in later, as a facet of postproduction.“That bit of cleverness is mostly lost to us today.” But not to Legato, who was able to replicate both versions of the saturated color look for his notable auteur, precisely by recreating them digitally in the aforementioned voodoo box.But not all was shamanistic reliance on pixels and digits. Some things boiled down to simple math, coupled with in-camera effects techniques pioneered in the days when “avid” meant to have a lot of enthusiasm for something. For instance, Legato found himself building miniatures for use in front of the camera: parts of various Hughes planes, and later, buildings and pieces for the reclusive aviator’s near-fatal plunge into a row of Beverly Hills homes during a test flight.The math in those days, Legato asserts, was simpler: You built a quarter-size miniature, you moved it four times closer to the camera than everything else that was “normal” sized—actors, for instance—and you let perspective take over from there. It was all about “using your head,” he says. Especially when there’s more head than budget to go around.Of course, mechanical and in-camera effects weren’t the only “old school” techniques Legato used. He rediscovered some that he’d had a hand in inventing himself. Especially “some software used to create water for Titanic”—at a cost of thousands of dollars—“that is now a $200 plug-in.”But that was voodoo box stuff again. Legato also deployed a matte artist for various backgrounds, and found, between the miniatures, the use of perspective, and the mattes, that he was able to pare down the work in post. There’s less to do, post-wise, he avers, the more realistically you can shoot things in-camera.Someone as wary of the bottom line as Hughes would no doubt approve.Of course, Hughes himself went overboard in the “wariness” department, spending the final years of his life holed up in a Vegas penthouse imagining germs and microbiotic assaults that weren’t there. Legato’s concern about things unseen is more prosaic, and audience-friendly: He doesn’t want viewers to be taken out of the movie’s carefully worked-out look by “an effect that is ‘post-Matrix.’”Hence, not only the miniatures and the mattes, but a lot of radio waves—as in radio-controlled models of the various aircraft filmed and piloted by Leonardo DiCaprio in the Hughes role, caught by a helicopter flying “incredibly close.” The planes were “piloted” from the ground, while being filmed in the air.“Probably the hardest (scene) to come up with was ‘Hells Angels,’” he notes, talking about the recreation of the dogfighting film the young Hughes produced and directed—twice—to make his Hollywood bones.“You want to get a shot with 60 planes in it,” à la the Hughes original? “Get 60 planes. The shot almost looks unbelievable—even if you saw the real thing, you’d question it.”Legato didn’t get 60 full-size planes, either, but the idea was to make things feel as “true” as possible. The sequence combined Legato’s back-of-old and new-school effects with “real Hell’s Angels footage—we were matching the craziness that was done that day,” he says, referring to a seminal aerial battle sequence.But the task he and Scorsese undertook was literally larger—to match shot sequences authentically, but “pull back” to show the cameraman trying to capture craziness from an airborne perch.Legato’s edict—to help the director “tell the story as simply as possible, instead of trying to make it fantastic or spectacular,” was also applied to the intense sequence where DiCaprio must recreate Hughes’ near-death plunge when a prototype stalls out in midair.The intensity of the sequence comes from recreating the fall from the sky, the wings sheering the roofs of house, and the eventual crash landing in an alley, all with a “kind of documentary style. Shoot it for real.”“For real,” meaning “movie real,” of course: Not digital animation, but with actual quarter-scale houses getting clipped by actual quarter-scale wings.It came down to conscious decisions not to have 100-percent shot matching: “I wanted the sun to be different in every shot,” as it would be, even subliminally, when movies are filmed in the real world. “Nothing really matches,” he says. Clouds and sun are all going to move, even if just a little. To clean that up digitally, in post, would be “artificial—too pristine.”It wouldn’t look, in other words, the way movies looked for most of the 20th century.“Obviously, people are going to do these beautiful, pristine things,” Legato adds, referring to Hollywood’s emerging digital aesthetic. “But it’s not my art form. I don’t want to light anything anymore. Just shoot it now.”A seat-of-the-pants, gut instinct approach that a young, pioneering aviator named Howard Hughes would no doubt approve of.

Written by Mark London Williams

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