Rob Legato Emphasizes Innovation, Collaboration

Rob Legato

Throughout his Future of Cinema keynote “The Jungle Book, Photorealism and the Bright Future of Filmmaking,” visual effects expert Rob Legato emphasized the importance of continuous innovation.

Legato has applied his technical mastery and considerable artistic talent to blockbuster films including “Titanic,” “Avatar” and “The Jungle Book,” for which he received his third Best Visual Effects Academy Award earlier this year.

Arriving at visual effects through a longtime fascination with and study of cinematography, Legato said he has always aimed to develop techniques that allow filmmakers to create effects sequences with the same kind of real-time, interactive approach that goes with shooting flesh-and-blood actors in actual locations.

He stressed that he doesn’t like the perception that he works on “CG movies.”

“I don’t want the audience to watch a ‘CG movie’ — I want them to watch a movie,” he said.

He screened some “making-of” clips for the audience to demonstrate how scenes in “The Jungle Book” — evolved from planning; to photography with young actor Neel Sethi as Mowgli; responding to puppets and motion-capture performers, and finally to the finished photorealistic images that audiences viewed in theaters. During the live-action shoot, motion-capture imagery was piped onto set via monitors in real time so Sethi could interact with the talking creatures and the jungle environment as if they were real.

“We wanted [images] to look offhand, not too planned and sterile,” he explained. “This is not a larger-than-life visual effects extravaganza. We couldn’t, obviously, shoot the film [live action]. Animals don’t behave like that, and we couldn’t put a boy in that kind of danger, of course; but we still wanted it to look real, like a National Geographic film, like something you might have seen before. I like the feel of live action, dirt hitting the lens, reminding the audience there are bugs in the air.”

This natural feel, Legato said, comes in great part from the way the work is completed. “I need to look through a camera,” he said. “I can’t draw it. I need to go through the iterative steps of framing the scene and reframing and trying to see what something looks like if I move to another part of the set. There is a chemical reaction.”

Legato terms this creative process “visual cinematography,” explaining, “I don’t like to do that on a computer. It’s not the same thing. It would be like composing music but you could only hear one note every five minutes.”

Legato apologized for showing what he called the “primitive techniques” used on “The Jungle Book.” “This is what we were doing more than six months ago!” he confessed to laughter, noting that he couldn’t yet present material from his current projects, including James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels.

These, he noted, use VR technology on set to build an even more lifelike environment for actors and filmmakers during production of scenes that will ultimately contain a significant amount of virtual characters and environments.

While Legato generally works on films with budgets in the $200 million range, he predicted that the availability of powerful technology will help create a new generation of filmmakers who will be able to practice the craft in ways not seen since the old studio system.

“There are opportunities for someone in high school to be a young Mozart of filmmaking or a Martin Scorsese,” he said. “There are more ways to make films, distribution routes to show them to people and maybe receive feedback and make changes.” People of all ages, he said, can develop their talent to an extent that’s been nearly impossible for many years.

“[Director] John Ford made about 80 movies before he became ‘John Ford,’” Legato concluded. The proliferation of all these new filmmaking tools, he anticipates, will help future John Fords become “John Fords.”

“And that’s why I see the future of cinema as bright.”