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Few people have shaped the VFX industry as much as Rob Legato has. On top of his three Visual Effects Oscars – for Titanic (1997), Hugo (2011), and The Jungle Book (2016) – he also provided the effects for Apollo 13 (1995), Armageddon (1998), and the first Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001). But before all of that, he was the guy who brought USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) to life. His background of studying cinematography and shooting commercials gave him the hands-on, all-rounder approach needed to cope with the demands and pressures of launching Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I caught up with him over Zoom during the Coronavirus lockdown to find out how he achieved such impressive visuals on a TV budget, how he maintained an indie approach to effects on a network show, and how he finally figured out how to make the Borg Cubes terrifying.
When ILM did the VFX for ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ (S1, Ep1-2), the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the plan was to shoot enough footage of the model Enterprise to provide stock footage for the entire season. But when the next episode – ‘The Naked Now’ (S1, Ep3) – rolled around, the script called for 15 new VFX shots.
This article was first published in September 2020 and represents the best of The Companion.
We’ve broken it out of cryonic storage in our vault because we reckon it deserves a second look.
Improvised Light and Magic
It was simply too time-consuming, and too expensive, to get a company like ILM to handle the VFX and model photography week in, week out – so The Next Generation’s VFX supervisor had to get creative.
“Instead of it being this kind of mystique that only [companies like] ILM […] could do these big Star Trek model shots, I figured I could do it. What’s the big deal?” Legato shrugs, demonstrating the willing-to-try-anything attitude that has now won him those Oscars, as well as two Emmys for his work on TNG and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Legato developed his fearlessly creative approach to VFX during his time in commercials in the 1980s, where, despite being a film school graduate with no background – or particular interest – in VFX, his willingness to experiment with filmmaking techniques made him the company’s go-to effects guy. His philosophy at the time was: “Try it. It’ll only fail, and then you might learn something from failing.”
It was a philosophy that stood him in good stead when he joined Star Trek: The Next Generation – and a philosophy that was slightly at odds with ILM’s more rigidly organized way of doing things.
Luckily, the TNG producers were happy to let him put his own plans in place, so long as the show came in on time and on budget. Legato tells me over our Zoom chat that the attitude from producers at the time was “shoot as fast as you can, we’ll take just about anything”, but for Legato, the look was just as important as the speed.
TNG launched at the height of the VHS boom, so Legato realized that “in the same TV set that you watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, you could put a cassette tape in and watch Close Encounters, and you can watch the Star Trek feature [films]. You’re used to seeing them in the same venue.”
He wanted to make sure that, while the effects might not quite match those of a high-budget feature film, they would at least be impressive by TV standards.
In the early days, Legato tells me that he “would shoot things in my basement to give it a lot more production value. I knew how to light, so if you shoot in smoke and have a light beam and shadows and shafts, it looks like you have a lot more things than you really have. So you could make something out of nothing. Because there wasn’t really a rule book, and no-one knew what I could do or was doing, I was able to do whatever I wanted.”
The process of shooting the ship and planet models was one of gradual discovery, and Legato and the crew essentially learned and developed the process from scratch. They used motion control, the process by which a fixed camera move could be programmed into a computer, allowing the camera to replicate the exact move multiple times. That move could be used to separately shoot the ship, the stars, and any other element needed in the shot, and they could all be composited together into one shot in post-production.
“The beginning was very tame, we did lock-offs,” Legato says. “The ship would move but the stars wouldn’t move because we needed to motion control those, or create them in some way.”
You might think that a franchise as scientifically forward-thinking as Star Trek would have come up with some sort of advanced technique for creating the spacescapes that Enterprise flies through – but no.
Legato and his team “put a bunch of pinholes in a black piece of paper [and] backlit it.” It’s just one example of the quick, off-the-cuff thinking that was needed to bring TNG in on time and on budget. Legato tells me that they had a week per episode for TNG, and that in the early days he would regularly work 18-hour days, simultaneously handling post-production effects on one episode, shooting the next episode, and prepping for the one after that. Speed and creativity were of the essence.
Feeling the Inch
In the end, once their process was locked in, Legato could shoot “maybe eight shots in a day. ILM would do one shot in a week […[ I could do a tremendous amount of decent quality work. I wouldn’t say it was great quality work, but decent quality work that was different for TV.”
On Deep Space Nine, they brought in a guy who had previously only done features VFX work, who “said that I shot more in two weeks than they would shoot in a year on a feature.” Legato would refuse to storyboard, because he enjoyed the process of discovery and the “happy accidents” that could happen while shooting and lighting models. As well as making the process more creative and flexible, it also made it faster, without having to go through the rigmarole of getting shots approved first. “I just got better week after week, because I was trying new things without having to go through a process,” he says.
Soon, they began to iron out their process and make changes. The Enterprise model that ILM built was six feet across, which limited the ways they could shoot it. Their studio space wasn’t huge, and they could only get the cameras so far away from the model.
“I said that for me to do a better job I need a small, half-size Enterprise that has more detail on it because I used to like to light it to look more like a feature. The original Enterprise, as designed, was supposed to be this sleek, plasticky-looking thing, well of course it makes it look like a model when it’s just a sheet of plastic with nothing to catch the light.”Rob Legato
For $35,000, Tony Meininger (who later did the models for Titanic) built a three-foot Enterprise. “Now I could do much more adventurous shots, because now I can be twice as high, twice as low, twice as far away. It can go from quite a distance and do a brush-by with the camera, [and] bring the camera in closer. It was a real innovation.”
Another time-saving device they hit upon was that instead of painting globes for each new planet the Enterprise crew encounters, they started using a white globe and projecting a slide image onto it. (Legato tells us that Dan Curry, another VFX Supervisor, “called one of them The Dog Shit Planet, because he went and photographed dog shit, and he thought it was so funny that one of the planets on Star Trek was made of dog shit.”)
It’s Ship to be Square
Because Legato was a cameraman and a second unit director, he understood a lot about building drama into his model photography and nowhere is that more evident than in his work on the classic two-parter ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ (S3, Ep26/S4, Ep1).
It wasn’t the episode that introduced The Borg, (that was ‘Q Who’, which was handled by a different VFX supervisor), but it’s the episode that cemented their reputation as one of the franchise’s best villains.
“When I inherited the Borg ship, not to impugn the way it looked, but it was a cube, and if you flat-light it, it just doesn’t look like anything… “Rob Legato
“The model wasn’t great, it was hastily put together with the trees that model parts normally attach to. It was really fragile and funky. I thought graphically it just looked so boring that I couldn’t do it. I would always twist it on its side so I was looking into the angle, and make a hot-lit side on one side and internal lighting. I did whatever tricks I could to make it graphic and make it come to life, and I made it look huge by doing these camera moves where I’m slowly going underneath it and it feels like it’s getting bigger, I used all the tricks of the trade to make the thing seem imposing. If you just shoot it flat-on from a distance you can’t get anywhere.”
By this point in The Next Generation, Legato had built quite a toolbox for creating compelling model photography. Wide shots were ‘informational, but boring’, so to establish a new ship he would usually shoot it over another ship. He would use the sort of wide-angle close-ups that are commonly used to make human heroes and villains look imposing.
“I always liked to keep everything moving. I didn’t like static shots, so no matter what was happening the camera was always drifting and moving and doing something, it always has a mission. And then the closer I am to objects and things, the more the sound people could do something with it. If you’re very far away and there are two ships, the noise of this ship and the noise of that ship kind of meld together, but if you get in really tight next to an engine they get to make a sound. I discovered that if I designed the shots that way, the sound would be better, and the end result would be more impressive because I gave them something to work with.”
As the ’90s wore on, TV shows began to replace models with CGI spaceships. The technology was still new and ropey in places, and Legato says it “felt cheaper to me”, in part because, at the time, you couldn’t light digital models in the way that you could light physical models.
Legato has since adopted digital effects (his most recent Oscar was for The Jungle Book), as have most films and TV shows, but there is still a fondness for model work. Seth MacFarlane was such a fan of Legato’s work on TNG and DS9, that he asked him to film some stock model footage for The Orville “for nostalgia’s sake”.
“[MacFarlane] loved [TNG] when it was on, and loved the photography of the models, he felt like it felt like the real thing.” Legato agreed to do the work but found it a struggle.
“[I]t was bizarre and very difficult to do because all the model makers are gone, people who shoot motion control when that was a more common thing to do, they’re gone. So we had to patch it together and try to make up a unit.”Rob Legato
“There’s no company you can go to that does motion control work, where they build the model and shoot it at their shop. We shot it on the 20th Century Fox stage that they weren’t using at the time, it was almost like one of those things where a restaurant comes in for a day, that kind of mentality, where you ship it in. We shot for a week, and that was some of the ship shots they used in the show.”
These days, Legato relies more on CG than on models, but his time spent working with models on Star Trek, and in his later feature work like Titanic and Apollo 13, has informed how he approaches digital effects.
“Even when I shoot things like The Lion King, I limit it to what a real camera can do, being put on a dolly with a crane and a camera system and an operator, and not do magic CG moves,” he says. “The trick to making it look like it’s a conventionally photographed film is to conventionally photograph it in the computer, and resist the urge to do anything [impossible].”
He finds himself missing the old days of models and working with physical objects, but, like with the switch from shooting on film to digital, he misses “the ritual” of it more than he misses “the limitations” of it. Today’s crop of filmmakers was, like MacFarlane, heavily influenced by the ground-breaking work done by Legato and others like him.
So maybe, despite those limitations, models and practical VFX will continue to thrive alongside their digital siblings.
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Abigail is a journalist and writer currently living in Oxford. She can still quote late-90s films and TV shows at length but has forgotten everything she once knew about maths.
Follow her on Twitter @Abby_Chandler