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An Interview with VFX Maestro Rob Legato, ASC

HPA Lifetime Achievement Award to VFX Maestro

By Debra Kaufman

Rob Legato, ASC, a renowned visual effects supervisor, cinematographer and innovator, is receiving HPA’s Lifetime Achievement Award at its annual awards ceremony on November 21 at the Skirball Cultural Center. Although Legato has received numerous awards since his first Primetime Emmy for Star Trek: Next Generation in 1992 – three Oscars, two Emmys, two BAFTAs, five VES awards, three Satellite Awards and a Tesla Award – he says he still gets a kick out of them. “I don’t aim for awards, so it’s just a gift when it occurs,” he says, noting that it’s a thrill for his parents and other family members.

Legato has most recently been in the spotlight for his groundbreaking work on Disney’s The Lion King and The Jungle Book, but he has also been visual effects supervisor and often 2nd unit director and/or director of photography for a long list of well known movies, from Avatar and Titanic to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Aviator, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Hugo. He is also credited with conceiving and creating the virtual production used by director James Cameron on Avatar.

Legato says that, as a child, he liked mechanics, which fueled his general interest in how things worked. He had no idea this could lead to a career path in the movies, until he saw The Godfather. “I noticed it was an art form, that the cinematographer had a unique vision,” he recalls. “I had an epiphany that someone who was Italian-American like me did it, and I just wanted to get involved.” He was already a photographer so studying cinematography – which he did at Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara – wasn’t a big leap. “It was a big thrill to work with Caleb Deschanel, Vittorio Storaro,” he says. “I had studied their work.”

After school, he got a job as a live-action producer at a commercial production house. Soon he was presented the challenge of how to create a visual effect. “You couldn’t call ILM,” he said. “I was a producer so it fell to me so I gave it a shot.” The result led to a job offer at Robert Abel and Associates, a pioneering digital effects company in Hollywood. When he watched a live Ultimatte, he set himself the challenge of figuring out how to pull two keys. “I went from being a live action producer to being what I didn’t know was called a visual effects supervisor,” he said. With a 1986 episode of Twilight Zone, Legato got his first credit in visual effects.

Then came Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he was visual effects supervisor for over 45 episodes (and got to direct two). “After five years of Star Trek and a couple of Emmys, Legato was introduced to the founders of Digital Domain, and soon found himself on his first feature – Interview with a Vampire – as visual effects supervisor. Next, Apollo 13, on which he was VFX supervisor and director of photography for the VFX unit, changed the trajectory of his career. “It was Digital Domain’s third movie and it became a big deal after it was Academy Award-nominated,” he says. (It also garnered a BAFTA Award.) Director James Cameron, one of DD’s founders, brought him onto Titanic, which earned Legato his first Academy Award. Legato went on to enjoy rich creative relationships with other top directors, including Martin Scorsese, Robert Zemeckis and Jon Favreau.

Legato says he has always gravitated towards naturalistic realism. “The transition from analog to digital was rather painless for me,” he says. “Shooting miniatures and designing multi-layer composites was very applicable to digital.” Conceptualizing and adopting virtual production techniques was Legato’s latest step in marrying technology and creativity for a more realistic end. “The reason we shoot the way we have for 100 years is because it works,” he says. “You need collaboration, you need multiple shoots, you need to get the director, art director, cinematographer in a room and do take after take until everything works together and you get that magical moment.”

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