The Aviator

No. of f/x shots: 405
F/x shops: Six-person in-house unit did 92 shots; also Sony Imageworks, Cafe FX, Ockham’s Razor, Digital Neural Axis, Pixel Playground, Digital Backlot, Legend Films, Buzz Films
Why it will be nommed: Seamless blending of digital and practical effects, used in the kind of serious-minded biopic the Acad tends to like.
Why it won’t: The effects don’t break any obvious new ground and aren’t the center of attention.

Amid the wizards, superheroes, robots and epic disasters of this year’s f/x contenders, one film seems the odd one out: a medium-scale biopic set mostly in old Hollywood, with nothing fantastical in sight.

Yet perhaps no film in history has used a greater range of effects technology than “The Aviator,” the Howard Hughes story from Miramax and Warner Bros. “We used every kind of effect, from those of the silent era to those of today,” says Matthew Gratzner, the film’s miniature f/x supervisor.

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Martin Scorsese, taking on his first effects-heavy film, wanted to evoke the look of such art deco sci-fi pics as “The Shape of Things to Come” and the excitement of Hollywood aerial epics.

But he also had a bigger idea, he says: “a real nod to the spectacle of the golden age of studio filmmaking in the ’40s and ’50s in Hollywood. A lot of that had to do with the shots, the deco feeling of the planes … the use of music, the sense of camera movement, to create the sense of splashy spectacle, a spectacular.”

That’s where effects producer Ron Ames and effects supervisor Rob Legato came in. Legato worked with Scorsese in a previsualization process, then designed a mix of f/x techniques that would include in-camera forced-perspective shots, radio-controlled models, hanging miniatures, digital compositing and CG modeling.

To some degree, he was making a virtue of necessity; the budget and schedule were lean, and in-camera techniques would save money and time in post-production.

There was still plenty of CG to do, though. The “Hell’s Angels” aerial footage had to be re-created in CG, and that movie’s preem sequence includes digitally colorized newsreel footage and digitally composited street scenes. “To re-create the oldest part of the film we had to use the most modern techniques,” notes Legato.

But the pivotal XF-11 crash required every trick in Legato’s book. The effects team did a precise forensic analysis of the crash to establish a second-by-second timeline of Hughes’ ordeal then wove together models, miniatures, CG and live action to bring it to life.

Some shots of Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes were shot against a greenscreen; others were entirely practical. Shots of the plane were mostly done with models, and real gasoline — rarely used in f/x work because it’s prone to explode — gave the on-screen flames an authentic ferocity.

On top of all that, Scorsese wanted to imitate the look of early color processes used in the World War II era. That sent the effects team on a hunt for the last surviving member of the Technicolor team that had worked in that period to learn the secrets of those color techniques. Eventually, the entire movie was digitally tweaked to get the period hues.

Scorsese says Ames and Legato became as important to the film as the editor and production designer. “I dealt with them as another group of filmmakers on this film, employing my designs as much as possible but creating a sense of something very special within these sequences.

“They understood the place of the effects in the movie. But they also had to think as filmmakers, dramatic filmmakers.”