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Hollywood effects on the desktop

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Scorsese film relies on independent visual effects artists armed with Adobe® After Effects® and Photoshop® for more than 300 shots

A forced perspective shot on the set of the Aviator

Images copyright © 2004 Miramax Film Corp. and Initial Entertainment Group

Legato and his team played an integral role during the filmmaking process. Instead of shooting the main unit and leaving a space for the effects, the effects team was part of the main unit.

Hailed as one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, Martin Scorsese is renowned for his ability to elicit searing, iconic performances from his actors; for virtuosic and unflinching camerawork; and for productions rich in both lush detail and gritty realism. While he is not generally known for an extensive use of visual effects, as an innovator and a consummate storyteller, Scorsese is quick to adopt whatever new tools become available in the interest of realizing his ultimate vision. In the case of The Aviator’s re-creation of the high-flying world of Howard Hughes, that included the use of over 400 effects shots.

"Before After Effects, there were other powerful effects tools, but who could take the time to learn a proprietary software package like the ones used at big visual effects houses?"

-Rob Legato,
visual effects supervisor, The Aviator

Stunning visual effects on a modest budget

To oversee this painstaking effort, Scorsese turned to Oscar® winning visual effects supervisor Rob Legato, whose numerous credits include Titanic, Apollo 13, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In an effort to cost-effectively create the most realistic effects possible, Legato used a hybrid approach including traditional techniques such as miniature models in forced perspective (a method used by Hughes himself in the hugely expensive Hell’s Angels) and high-end computer graphics tools. Amazingly, however, the majority of The Aviator’s effects were created by Legato, effects editor Adam Gerstel, and a team of independent visual effects artists using desktop computers loaded with Adobe After Effects, Adobe Photoshop, and other off-the-shelf software packages.

"In the past, visual effects films went to either Industrial Light & Magic, Sony Imageworks, Rhythm & Hues, or Digital Domain," says Visual Effects Producer Ron Ames. "This was a big budget movie, but the effects budget wasn’t huge — it had to look like it was though."


A hands-on approach, on the desktop

While about 70 of the most intricate computer generated effects were handled by Imageworks and the midsized shop Café FX, more than 300 were created on Mac and PC-based systems by Legato, Gerstel, and several effects boutiques including DNA, Pixel Playground, Ockham’s Razor, and Buzz. The ability to do the lion’s share of the effects this way is a testament both to Legato’s skill and creativity and to the power, flexibility, and ease of use of the newest generation of PC-based digital imaging products. "What’s revolutionary is that one person can do all these things," says Legato. "Before After Effects there were other powerful effects tools, but who could take the time to learn a proprietary software package like the ones used at big visual effects houses?"

three images

Images copyright© 2004 Miramax Film Corp. and Initial Entertainment Group

By using Adobe After Effects to “previsualize” many of the scenes before and during production, Legato and Ames enabled Scorsese to see how a final sequence would look. This technique enabled Scorsese to get the most out of relatively expensive live-action shots.

Using desktop systems also allowed Legato to remain hands-on throughout the process. Instead of having to verbalize his requests to a computer artist and hope the shot would come back as he intended, Legato could play with the material himself until he got just the look he wanted. Then he could show it to Scorsese and quickly make changes based on the director’s feedback.

Additionally, the desktop environment let Legato and his team play a far more integral role during the filmmaking process, notes Ames. “The way it has usually been done is to shoot the main unit and leave a space for the effects, so the effects team is not part of the main unit.” Instead, Legato used After Effects to “previsualize” many of the scenes before and during production, allowing Scorsese to see what the final product would look like before committing to more expensive live-action, model, or CGI shots. “It’s like an animated version of storyboarding,” explains Legato.

For example, in one scene where Leonardo DiCaprio, as Hughes, directs a dogfight from the cockpit of a biplane, it was essential to the integrity of the film that the aerial choreography match the battle as it later appears in a clip of Hell’s Angels. Legato and digital artist Oliver Hotz were able to “previz” the scene using a digital video camera, After Effects, and Alias|Wavefront’s Maya software, another popular effects program that runs on Macs and PCs.

Color timing using Photoshop

Many of The Aviator’s effects shots, however, are more subtle than the spectacular aerial stunts. For instance, Scorsese wanted The Aviator’s color palette to reflect the look of movies from the period being portrayed onscreen. Hence, when the action is set in the years 1927-1937, the film emulates Technicolor’s two-color dye transfer; for the period 1937-1947, the film’s look changes to Technicolor’s three-color dye transfer system.

2 sets of before and after images of digitally emulating historic Technicolor processes

Images copyright© 2004 Miramax Film Corp. and Initial Entertainment Group

Rob Legato “previsualized” color palettes by scanning black and white stills and using Adobe Photoshop to digitally overlay cyan, magenta, and yellow filters, digitally emulating historic Technicolor color processes.

"This is how all filmmakers will work going forward. It's not an effect anymore- it's another tool, like a special lense or filter."

-Rob Legato,
visual effects supervisor, The Aviator

After consulting with one of the oldest color timing experts at Technicolor, Legato was able to "previz" the palettes by scanning black-and-white stills and using Adobe Photoshop to digitally overlay cyan, magenta, and yellow filters, digitally emulating historic Technicolor color processes. "The software can be used in ways never imagined by the people who invented it," observes Legato.

Although Scorsese may have started filming The Aviator without a great deal of visual effects experience, he was, not surprisingly, a quick study. "Pretty soon, he was asking us to change the color of a dress here or to remove a shadow there," laughs Legato.

Because After Effects is virtually ubiquitous within the digital effects community, the software package became a common format or "pipeline" for transporting images between the production’s various departments and outside vendors. "Everyone has their own pet system," says Legato, "but everyone has a copy of After Effects. It’s a standard tool."

The future of filmmaking

And there was another benefit of using a personal computer–based system: Legato could work whenever and wherever he needed to. "I could whip something up in my hotel room on my laptop and then show Marty on the digital projector in his screening room," recalls the visual effects supervisor. Ames says he has seen the future of effects and it is just the type of inexpensive computers and nonproprietary software used on The Aviator: "This is how all filmmakers will work going forward. It’s not an effect anymore — it’s another tool, like a special lens or a filter."