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Influencers: Rob Legato Created a Virtual Toolbox For Scorsese, Cameron, and Favreau

Jon Favreau on how the VFX supervisor is one of IndieWire's craftspeople shaping the art of cinema today.

rob legato

Rob Legato

Three-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Rob Legato (“The Jungle Book, “Hugo,” “Titanic”) has translated virtual production into a live-action methodology that serves as recognizable filmmaking tools for such directors as James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, and Jon Favreau. That’s because Legato, who’s also a cinematographer, has emphasized photographic realism in VFX.

After successfully morphing live-action footage with VFX on “Titanic,” Legato tackled virtual production more forcefully on Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic, “The Aviator.” He had to photograph a plane crash for the first time, so he ingeniously used animation software and a hand-operated pan-and-tilt wheel to photograph a plane crash live in real-time.

Rob Legato

Rob Legato

Then Legato took a bold step with his “director-centric” workflow for “Avatar,” which enabled Cameron to make his revolutionary sci-fi hybrid. With a customized hand-held virtual camera, Legato gave Cameron a powerful tool for camera layout on a motion capture stage.

Legato refined the virtual production process further with Scorsese on “Hugo.” The turn-of-the-century love letter to cinema was a complex integration of live-action and CG pieces that looked quite seamless.

But Legato made a photorealistic breakthrough on Favreau’s remake of Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” blurring the lines further between live-action and animation with Mowgli (Neel Sethi) as the only real person. Cinematographer Bill Pope shot him on stage with puppets against a blue screen, and Legato used pre-vis with great authority to determine the edit. MPC then created most of the photorealistic environments and character work, with Weta Digital adding the King Louie sequence voiced by Christopher Walken.

For Favreau’s re-imagining of Disney’s “The Lion King,” Legato created a paradigm shift with the concept of  “live-action animation.” The entire movie was CG but contained a photorealist aesthetic that made it look remarkably like a narrative documentary shot in Kenya. Team Favreau shot the whole movie in virtual reality on a Los Angeles stage with a live-action crew (including six-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel). They used a customized version of the Unity game engine with all animation assets created by MPC. Going back and forth between low-res and  high-res assets made the workflow more collaborative and proficient. Favreau put it best: “Rob’s knowledge of cutting edge technology, combined with his eye and his expertise in classic analog filmmaking techniques have made him an invaluable partner in advancing the tools we’ve used to tell stories for the big screen,” he said.

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