When we say we’ll only believe what we see, do we realise we also see what we believe? Rob Legato gives an insight into human nature as he describes how he created illusions in iconic films

It was only after some deliberation that this talk by Rob Legato was chosen for review. The reason for this hesitation stems from the fact that the speaker is one who creates surprising and creative visual illusions for movies. The movies are the like of “Apollo 13”, “Titanic” and “Hugo”, not to mention others. So his talk is illustrated with clippings which are captivating. Would a review be able to capture its magic?

The decision to write about it in spite of it all finds reason in the fact that with or without the visuals, the manner in which illusions are created is mindboggling. Legato talks of three kinds of illusions he has worked to create, and the observation about human nature that is overarching is, “...when we’re sort of infused with enthusiasm or awe or fondness...it changes, alters our perception of things. It changes what we see. It changes what we remember.”

So when he was recreating the launch of Apollo 13 he did so by collating memories rather than imitate the real thing. And how did he do that? “I basically shot everything with short lenses, which means that you’re close to the action, but framed it very similar to the long lens shots, which gives you a sense of distance...” says Legato. He shot his scenes from a parking lot, “...basically a tin can and I am recreating a launch (of space ships) with fire extinguishers. I have wax which I threw in front of the camera to look like ice...”

Even more fascinating is his description of the sets for Titanic. Says Legato, “Jim Cameron actually photographed the real Titanic...the real thing, a Mir sub going down, or actually two Mir subs going down to the real wreck, and he created this very haunting footage. It’s really beautiful, and it conjures up all these various different emotions, but he couldn’t photograph everything to tell the story... I automatically wanted to see this ship, this magnificent ship, in all its glory...when you see my footage you are seeing a bunch of guys flipping a ship upside down, and the little Mir subs are actually about the size of small footballs, and shot in smoke. Jim went three miles down, and I went about three miles away from the studio and photographed this in a garage.”

Naturally when he could make the world believe footballs were submarines, Legato observes that all that we emote to in the pictures is actually artificial and totally make believe. “Hugo” is a film about film illusions and in this there is a shot when one of the characters gets his leg brace caught on a moving train. That was impossible to effect because there is no space between the train and the platform, says Legato. But he turned around the problem by placing a moving platform on the static platform and when the ground beneath the character moved, it created the illusion of the character moving.

The last illusion he shows is of a young boy who, “... lives behind the scenes in the bowels of this particular train station that only he can navigate through...we had to make it feel normal,” says Legato, and that is a challenge because he shows the boy go through all kinds crevices which are part of some huge machinery. The challenge was to take the entire route of the boy in one shot for the sake of continuity and to give the viewers a feeling that it was his natural way of life. And he shows the scene which seems just as he had wanted — continuous and as though the character is actually going through all the ups and downs. More unbelievable is when he divulges, “It’s actually five separate sets shot at five different times with two different boys...in a crazy rig we built for the purpose.” When one boy ends that other takes over and so there is smooth transition and movement. No end to illusions!

Web link: Rob Legato: The art of creating awe

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