The Illusionists — Rob Legato

by Graham Edwards

Open up our 40th anniversary celebration issue, Cinefex 169, and you’ll find The Illusionists, a giant roundtable discussion in which 21 Oscar-winning visual effects supervisors debate the past, present and future of cinematic illusions. We recorded over 14 hours of interview material for the article, and inevitably some of it ended up on the cutting room floor. In this series of short blogs, we’re pleased to share a few of our favorite outtakes. To read the full roundtable, pick up your copy of Cinefex 169.

The Cinefex Illusionists - Rob Legato

CINEFEX — When did your interest in visual effects begin? Did you enjoy watching effects movies when you were young?

ROB LEGATO — Quite frankly, whenever I saw movies that had something odd or fanciful in them, I just knew I didn’t like it very well. I know this is a blasphemy, but even when I saw the Ray Harryhausen stuff, like the skeletons fighting, it looked kind of strange to me. I guess I was starting to identify that things looked weird without motion blur — not that I knew what motion blur was at the time. But there were also things that were incredibly well done, like hanging miniatures and the Schüfftan process, all those things the masters did so many years ago.

CINEFEX — Early in your career, you made a name for yourself working on Star Trek: The Next Generation. How did that come about?

ROB LEGATO — I started out working in commercials, using videotape compositing in standard definition — more analogue than digital. I also became pretty proficient in shooting miniatures with motion control against bluescreens. I was recommended to the people doing the television remake of The Twilight Zone. To make their show on time, they switched from film opticals — where you could only do two or three shots per show — to doing it this more expedient way. When Star Trek was reborn as this new television show, they were looking for ways get the right production value in a short amount of time, and I was the only one around who had the requisite skillset: I had on-set experience, I knew visual effects, I knew postproduction compositing, and I had already worked on a television show.

CINEFEX — You were essentially a one-man band.

ROB LEGATO — Yes. I was shortcutting the system because I could shoot eight ship shots in a day, make the shots up, supervise every composite. I learned that the more you do yourself, the more you can do it expediently and inexpensively, and hence get much more production value. That show became my training ground to try things out. If an idea didn’t work, I’d just try another one next week.

CINEFEX — These days, easy access to the latest technology means almost anyone can become a one-man band.

ROB LEGATO — Absolutely. When I first started, there was only a handful of people who could do this stuff. Now, there’s amazing films coming out of film school by people who are self-taught. It’s like, “Holy shit, you would have had to be a genius to do that when I first started.” You can do almost anything at home on your laptop and in just a few months get experience it took us years and years to get. There’s lots of Mozarts out there right now waiting to flourish.

Cinefex is a bimonthly magazine devoted to motion picture visual effects. Since 1980, it has been the bible for effects professionals and enthusiasts, covering the field like no other publication. Profusely illustrated in color, with in-depth articles and interviews, Cinefex offers a captivating look at the technologies and techniques behind many of our most popular and enduring movies.

Cinefex 169 - The Illusionists