Why Oscar-Winning VFX Wizard Rob Legato Deserves the VES Award for Creative Excellence

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Bill Desowitz
·4 min read
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 IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line
IndieWire The Craft Top of the Line

Three-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Rob Legato (“The Jungle Book, “Hugo,” “Titanic”) — a visionary in translating virtual production into a live-action methodology for directors James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, and Jon Favreau — is the latest recipient of the Visual Effects Society’s Award for Creative Excellence. The award will be presented at the 19th Annual VES Awards, streaming worldwide on April 6.

“As honored as I am to receive the VES Award for Creative Excellence, I am humbled by the knowledge that this would not be possible without the dedication and creative excellence of the many artists I have had the fortunate opportunity to work with over the years,” said Legato, who is also a cinematographer and second unit director. “I am so very grateful for the continued generosity of this community for their camaraderie and willingness to share their unique vision and valuable secrets of their successes.”

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“Throughout his career, Rob Legato has shown a rare talent for using cutting-edge technology to engage us in deeply visceral storytelling,” added VES Board Chair Lisa Cooke. “A highly visual storyteller, Rob has consistently elevated not just the technical aspect of visual effects, but also the emotional. His pioneering work has truly raised the bar and helped redefine entertainment on a global level. He is a defining force of the visual effects community and we are honored to award Rob with the prestigious Visual Effects Society Award for Creative Excellence.”

Legato has always emphasized photographic realism in visual effects. 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.

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. 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.

“The achievement for me is the ease in which we can now see and play with what was previously an abstract concept or only an imagined finished construct and work with it as a living, breathing and iterative piece of live inspired art,” Legato told IndieWire.

Legato, who’s most recent film was the acclaimed “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” where he served as co-second unit director and VFX consultant, has also worked on Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” and “The Wolf of Wall Street, Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” and Robert Zemeckis’ “Cast Away,” and “What Lies Beneath.” He started his career as an Emmy Award-winning VFX supervisor on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” He began his film career at Digital Domain and worked on Neil Jordan’s “Interview with the Vampire,” and later joined Sony Pictures Imageworks.

Previous winners of the VES Award for Creative Excellence are visual effects supervisor Sheena Duggal and creators-executive producers-writers-directors David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

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