'Beowulf,' 'Avatar' pushing VFX envelope

With Bob Zemeckis’ “Beowulf” currently in theaters and James Cameron’s “Avatar” now filming in New Zealand for 2009 release, the art of performance capture is finally making its next evolutionary leap. Left behind are the dead-eyed elves, robotic movements and murky teeth of the first performance capture feature, “The Polar Express.”

Visual effects master Rob Legato, who put the first motion-capture humans on the deck of the Titanic and pioneered a new mo-cap technique for “Avatar,” is an ardent believer in harnessing the technology within — not apart from — the live-action realm.

The VFX maverick has quit working for major FX houses like Digital Domain, where he spent six years supervising effects on such pics as “Apollo 13″ and “Titanic.” A passionate believer in the do-it-yourself approach, Legato is no longer willing to stay within the corporate confines of VFX behemoths like Digital Domain or Sony Imageworks, where shots are so rigidly pre-planned, storyboarded, pre-approved and budgeted that any changes down the line cost serious extra money.

“I disagree with the financial craziness of figuring out a pricetag for each effects sequence based on how long and how many people it will take,” says Legato, who now freelances such FX assignments as “Harry Potter and the Sorcer’s Stone” and commercial shoots out of his Pasadena basement. “I like to edit and pick and choose and be flexible. So I opened my own place. I’m set up to do whatever the hell I want, when I want. I do shots on my laptop.”

As FX supervisor on Martin Scorsese’s last two films, Legato was on call 24/7 for the director, shooting second-unit footage and filming, editing and delivering fully realized FX sequences such as the Howard Hughes plane crash in “The Aviator.”

“I don’t do lists of shots,” he says. “I shoot it and cut it and if I need to go back and get another shot, I can. The editors work with what I give them. If it’s good they use it, if not I change it to make it better.”

He lives for on-the-fly last-minute saves like the final shot in “The Departed,” for which he swiftly rebuilt a minimal set, filmed a wider 35mm green-screen shot of the live rat coming down from the balcony railing and iChatted the live video tap to Scorsese, who approved the shot, which Legato then sent to editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

On “Aviator,” when Scorsese was unhappy that he was missing a shot of Leonardo DiCaprio holding a photo, the producers said it was too late to fix. But Legato picked up his HD P2 camera and took a tight shot of a DiCaprio lookalike wearing a hoodie and holding a picture frame. Legato then walked his FireWire drive over to Technicolor, and Schoonmaker cut the insert into the film. “Marty approved it at the premiere,” laughs Legato. “I like the idea that you can be that nimble.”

On the upcoming Rolling Stones doc “Shine a Light,” Legato helped Scorsese be more nimble in editing . He set up a digital pipeline, scanning 35mm dailies to create a digital intermediate so that Scorsese can edit as he goes, switching and altering shots, without being penalized for making changes. It saves money. “He can change his mind at will,” says Legato.

But Legato’s passion these days is finding ways to make motion capture technology serve storytelling while giving directors the flexibility to create genuine moments with their actors.

The reason the hyper-real animation in “Polar Express” and “Beowulf” sometimes looks clunky and stiff, says Legato, is Sony Imageworks’ approach to performance capture, dubbed ImageMotion.

In Sony’s process, actors covered with white tracking dots perform on a motion capture platform surrounded by hundreds of infrared cameras that feed 360 degrees of 3-D motion data into the computer. Afterward, Zemeckis goes in with a viewfinder and picks his camera moves inside digital environments.

“With Bob’s method, they do it like a stageplay,” says Legato. “It’s theatrical, not camera-specific. Later you have everything built inside a computerized environment. You distort the live-action performance and make it mechanical. When you artificially create every last thing, you miss certain things. It’s the equivalent of the performance of an actor in a fat suit. The face can’t move, it’s dulled down, you’re acting through a mask. It’s like an entire movie is based on that.”

“Beowulf” works best as a 3-D event, says Legato: “You’re looking at spectacle, not looking at the scene. But it’s a duller version of Tom Hanks or Angelina Jolie. Movie stars have a magic, larger-than-life quality, something about them makes you look at them, no matter what. They can act through anything, whether it’s Eddie Murphy or someone else. But if it’s a dull performer with no recognition, the artifice of it all doesn’t interest anyone.”

For many moviegoers, that performance capture techniqueis more effective in a film like the more stylized, cartoony Zemeckis-produced “Monster House,” directed by Gil Kenan.

“The less realistic it is,” says Legato, “the greater your chance of succeeding.”

While Cameron is collaborating day-to-day with Weta Digital’s VFX supervisor Joe Letteri (“King Kong”) in New Zealand on the complex alien humanoids in “Avatar,” the director enlisted Legato to set up the mo-cap pipeline for the film after Legato, with help from ILM, created a four-minute demo using crude CG figures in a digital environment to show Cameron how to deploy a different, more flexible technology than Sony Imageworks.

Legato gave Cameron a director-centric system that allows him to look through a camera, change lenses or pick up a Steadicam. “You look through the lens at a virtual world,” Legato says. “But the actors are live through the director’s finder. He can stage them dramatically for the shot, follow them, change the shape of scenes. I wanted to illustrate the point that you can start to create on the fly, with a hand-held camera. Cutting live when the actors are still there, you can grab another piece. It’s a liberating experience.”

Legato made it possible to see the digital environment through the viewfinder while shooting live actors on a bare soundstage — or anywhere else — wearing hundreds of dots and 3-D goggles that show them a set that exists only in the computer. “I helped Jim with a different methodology,” Legato says. “Having done primarily live-action work, the part I find exciting is the daily input, looking through the lens, the way the light hits, interacting with someone else. You need to see it, to wallow in it. Once you are removed from the outside world, working totally inside the computer, you don’t have anything to rub against. You don’t get a fluid, natural rhythm.”

The selling point for Cameron was that the process was much more like shooting live-action, Legato says. “You can stage a scene, translate performances into a shot. You have to put it in context so that everything can open up. Jim takes the ball and runs with it.”

A longstanding member of the Academy’s VFX committee, Legato admits that the thorny issue of just what is animation and what is VFX–raised again by “Beowulf” this year — won’t go away anytime soon. “It’s an age-old fight,” he says. “If it’s the whole movie, it’s animation. If it’s eight scenes, it’s VFX. Bob Zemeckis is trying to come up with a new genre of filmmaking.”

And Legato believes that audiences want real actors up there on the bigscreen, not simulations.

It’s one thing to create aliens, avatars and monsters like “Beowulf’s” Grendel with VFX magic, he says, “but we’ll never replace what people are primarily interested in — the nuances and tics in people’s faces. A computerized version is a facsimile that leaves you cold. It’s another genre. It doesn’t replace anything.”

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