The best special effects in 'Apollo 13' are the ones you don't know are there

July 09, 1995|By Douglas Bailey | Douglas Bailey,Boston Globe

Rob Legato's favorite astronaut is Buzz Aldrin.

The second man on the moon unwittingly bestowed the highest praise on special-effects supervisor Legato last month after viewing a preview of "Apollo 13." Wandering over to director Ron Howard after the screening, Mr. Aldrin had some questions about the footage used in the film -- particularly the stunning shots of the Brobdingnagian Saturn V rocket lifting majestically off the pad.

Mr. Aldrin had never seen those shots before and wanted to know from what NASA archive the film had been retrieved.

"He never guessed it was fake," says Mr. Legato with a laugh. "I guess if you can fool one of the astronauts, you've done it right."

The launch sequence -- like every other frame showing the space craft exterior in "Apollo 13" -- was created with models and computers at Mr. Legato's Digital Domain Inc., a Santa Monica, Calif., special-effects company that now has three big-time movies under its belt, one for every year it has been in business: "True Lies," "Interview With the Vampire" and "Apollo 13."

For Mr. Legato, "Apollo 13" represents a giant step for special-effects movie-making and a baby step away from the film genre that calls attention to the uncommon talents of the technical wizards who try to awe moviegoers with their mastery. Unlike many of his counterparts in the business, Mr. Legato will be quite happy if you don't notice the effects that Digital Domain worked nearly a year to produce for "Apollo 13."

"The public perception of special effects is 'Star Wars' and 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' " says Mr. Legato in a telephone interview from his office in California. "Now, using digital computer techniques, we are able to create illusions so subtle the audience doesn't even realize they're seeing an effect."

While the violent launch of the rocket is given a dramatic buildup and grabs the first portion of the film, "Apollo 13" is full of more subtle effects that can easily go right by audiences. A sunrise over Cape Canaveral with the giant Saturn shrouded in amber light is a composite sequence: The rocket is really a 5-foot plastic model that's been electronically "painted" into the shot. An interior scene of the vast Vehicle Assembly Building where astronaut Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) conducts a tour for politicians was really shot against a blue screen, a background that made it easier to isolate the actors' forms and scan them into a computer. There, they were combined with computer-generated images of the room's expanse and a disassembled rocket. A view of the astronauts riding in an elevator to the top of the rocket's gantry never happened, except in some high-speed computer at Digital Domain's studios. The model appears again as a backdrop for a night scene in which Mr. Lovell bids goodbye to his wife, Marilyn (Kathleen Quinlan).

"It's a major effects movie that doesn't look like it," says Mr. Legato. "The scene of the guys going up the elevator takes as much time and energy as it does to make flying scooters for 'Judge Dredd.' But the intent here is that in the final image, you won't notice it. The camera doesn't linger on it, doesn't point it out to the audience. It's simply viewed as it would be naturally. Even Hanks asked us where we got that sunrise shot."

Granted, there are bigger special-effects films. "Batman Forever," for example, contains about 300 F/X sequences compared with the 145 in "Apollo 13." But "Apollo 13" represents what Mr. Legato believes will be a growing trend in Hollywood: Using effects generators as an electronic back lot -- tools that can seamlessly and accurately re-create the past or the present on film and deceive viewers into thinking that what they are seeing is real, rather than spotlighting technical capability.

"The ability to embrace it all and get at any image you want to get is just breaking now," Mr. Legato says. "Before, blue-screen shots still looked like blue-screen shots, and matte paintings looked like matte paintings, even if they were dead on. You might not have shot in a particular direction because there were TV antennas or power lines in the way. Now, we just take it out. To get someone to walk in front of the Eiffel Tower, you don't have to go to Paris. And no one can tell."

And while such companies as Digital Domain have far more computer power at their disposal than the entire Apollo program ever had, many of today's effects come from off-the-shelf technology. Some of the moonscapes viewed by the astronauts from the Lunar Lander as the crippled Apollo 13 wends its way around the backside of the moon were created on an Apple Macintosh home computer using Adobe Photoshop, a digital photo program that sells in stores for about $500.

As a result, producers and directors who have eschewed big-budget special effects are having a second look at what the technology can bring to the screen.

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