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

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.

"You don't expect a Neil Jordan film or a Ron Howard film to be an effects-laden production," says Mr. Legato. "That's not what they do, and they don't want to compete with the likes of Jim Cameron ['Alien,' 'True Lies'] and Steven Spielberg, where you expect to see something really big going on. But now they can use the technology to expand their vision beyond what's in front of the camera in a very subtle way that's appealing to them."

As special effects become an integral tool to more film directors, F/X specialists are being treated as collaborators rather than contracted technicians, says Mr. Legato. With Neil Jordan, director of "Interview," and Ron Howard, "We were treated like art directors or directors of photography."

Hired last summer to begin work on "Apollo 13," Digital Domain executives at first thought they would make good use of the ample stock footage from the 11 manned lunar missions. Within weeks, the decision was made to discard it all in favor of computer-generated rockets.

"Stock footage always sounds better than it is," says Mr. Legato. "There are some really great scenes in NASA's vaults, but when you want to use it, there's always something wrong with it. They made those films in slow motion so they could study the vehicle and the effects of liftoff. Many were made in a military format that wasn't supposed to make the rocket look cool."

After deciding to go with models, Digital Domain contracted with space enthusiasts around the country whose technical expertise about the Apollo hardware exceeded that of the studio's own research library. "These guys are incredible," Mr. Legato says.


Several visits to Cape Canaveral and Houston's Manned Space Center, to see if any usable hardware from the era existed, filled Mr. Legato with a sense of awe. "It was a time of bizarre ingenuity," he says. "They build a first stage of the Saturn and know that it's not big enough to put a rocket on the moon, so they build another big one and put it on top. It's still not big enough, so they build another one. Then they have to construct a building large enough to house four of the rockets at any one time, 500 feet straight up. And finally a massive crawler that can carry the whole thing out to the pad. But it's so heavy, a special road has to be built because the crawler will crush anything it rolls over. It was just massive stuff."

With actual-size replicas out of the question, two models of the Saturn V were built for the film. The 5-foot version was used for distant shots; an 18-foot copy, mounted on its side so a camera could move by it on a traditional dolly, was used for close-ups.

"It was an interesting filmmaking lesson," says Mr. Legato, whose 11 months of work were transformed into less than 25 minutes of film time. "If you strayed too far with all the effects you would confuse the story; the flash and all this other stuff would begin to have no meaning. Nothing was glamorized, except maybe the launch itself. The whole thing is done to make it look just as it existed and that we weren't particularly interested in studying it or seeing it for very long."