VES Awards: Honoree Rob Legato Reflects on 'Titanic' and Advances in Virtual Production

Rob Legato on a set of Hugo.
Courtesy of Katie Legato/Paramount Pictures

Rob Legato on a set of Hugo.

One night during production of 1997’s Titanic, visionary VFX supervisor Robert Legato got a call from Jim Cameron, asking for reassurance that the motion-captured CG actors that would populate sweeping shots of the ship and digital stunt performers employed during the sinking would work. Legato remembers that the call followed an on-set accident involving a stunt performer while shooting a sinking scene, even though safety measures were in place. “He said, ‘Just tell me you can pull it off. Cause I can't injure anybody.’ And I said, ‘Well, it's going to work.’ And I kept my fingers crossed.”

Legato — a three-time VFX Oscar winner for Titanic, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book — has spent his career helping directors do what might otherwise have seemed impossible, from innovating in areas such as motion-captured digital actors and realistic CG water for Titanic, to, most recently, advancing virtual production techniques that helped Favreau make Jungle Book and The Lion King. This evening, the multihyphenate, who has served as a VFX supervisor, VFX director of photography and second unit director, will be feted with the Visual Effects Society Award for Creative Excellence, during the 19th VES Awards. Also during the virtual ceremony, which begins Tuesday at 5 p.m. PT, Peter Jackson will be honored with the VES Lifetime Achievement Award.

Legato's additional credits include Ron Howard's Apollo 13 and Scorsese's Shutter Island and The Aviator — for which Legato did some early work in virtual cinematography, using MotionBuilder software to help make the film's plane crash sequence. "Other people [had] done little bits and pieces of it, but the idea of doing a whole sequence was not generally done," he says. "I showed Jim this whole idea of shooting in real time... and the fact, if you expanded to go in a motion capture stage, you could direct all the various parts of the virtual scene live," Legato remembers. "He financed [the development of the workflow] and he was going to do a Battle Angel and he decided to do Avatar."

And Avatar's pioneering advancements are now known as virtual production, though the techniques have changed and evolved since then. "When Jungle Book came up, Jon Favreau was interested in what we did on Avatar,"  Legato says, adding that they built on the techniques. "And then on Lion King, we just went whole hog."

Amid the pandemic, Legato continues his impactful development of virtual production techniques, using them remotely from his home on various projects, including some upcoming work for Michael Bay, including Ambulance, as well as a demonstration for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "This will never really totally go back to the way we used to work, because people became more empowered," he projects. "Everything that you can do on your computer for your work is now shareable and also collaborative."

"It's available to everybody," he adds of virtual production techniques. "They just have to choose to do it. Like anything that's ever happened in my career, it's a force of will."