‘I like the idea of doing a real place, underwater tank, LED screen, animatronic and CG, and then glueing them all together’

How ‘Emancipation’ VFX supervisor Rob Legato designed the Will Smith vs alligator scene.

At one point in Antoine Fuqua’s Emancipation, the character Peter (played by Will Smith) seemingly escapes his enslavers, only to confront an alligator in a swamp. 

Visual effects supervisor Rob Legato worked with several departments and with Legacy Effects and Wētā FX to bring the alligator attack to life. This included shooting elements in an underwater tank with an LED screen set-up to project underwater Unreal Engine-made swamp footage.

Legato shares his thoughts with befores & afters on designing the visual effects for the scene and ensuring it was a surprising and terrifying moment in the film.

b&a: What were some of the first conversations you had about that scene with the filmmakers?

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Rob Legato: Just before I met with Antoine, I downloaded some footage of a crocodile snatching a leopard from the shore. It’s one of those scenes where you’re looking at something fairly innocent, and then in a heartbeat, it becomes this super-violent thing where the leopard is ripped from the land and into the water. That was my impression about what I wanted this scene to be like, and that’s what Antoine liked as well. That was the idea, that we were going to do something that was unexpected and super fast.

I mean, it’s a little bit expected because he’s in the water where there’s alligators. We decided to film it in such a way that he was about to be in total freedom. He was hiding out from the trackers, you think that maybe he’s free and clear, and then he gets snatched. 

b&a: In those initial conversations, did you also start talking about how you would perform the actual stunt and pull off the shot? 

Rob Legato: Well, my approach was to do it as a mixture of everything to create the most interesting version of something. You could just say, ‘Okay, it’s going to be a CG alligator, CG Will.’ Yes, you could do that. But you also want some of what the actor brings to the party. You want some of the haphazardness of live action photography that’s not so perfect. 

The plan was that we’d shoot him in close-up in a swamp wrestling with something. That way, you get little bits and pieces of things that, for the 18 to 24 to 36 frames they’re on, convince you that it’s real. But if a shot was 48 frames, perhaps it would probably not as convincing. Or, five seconds, it probably would not, either. 

I like the idea of doing live action, real place, underwater tank, LED screen, animatronic and CG, and then glueing them all together. You can create an editorial flow to cherry-pick the best moments. CG is very difficult, in that you can do anything, but anything tends to look a little too animated, studied, perfect. So you try to sandwich it in once you shoot the live action. 

b&a: Is it a sequence that you wanted to have boarded or even previs’d? 

Rob Legato: No, not boarded. I’m not a storyboard fan. Sometimes that means you are forced to draw something, and that drawing that you’re forced to create is too stiff. It can force you into something that I think makes scenes like that too stiff, too regimented, too planned, where what you really want are happy accidents. You want the surprise. 

It’s something I learned from Lion King and Jungle Book, especially in dealing with animals, is that you go through YouTube and everything else and you cherry-pick. That piece of action looks really interesting, this one looks really scary. You start to categorize them. Okay, that would be for this moment, that would be for that moment. You litter the scenes with real behavior that you then glue together. Weta Digital, who were wonderful to work with, by the way, created these animations that glued together behavior and movement that we liked.

In terms of previs, I like to do that literally here in my basement. I previs it and walk around with a handheld camera and then say, ‘Well, this shot will only work for this moment. This shot will only work for that moment.’ You break it up as you would have if you were to photograph it for real. You get this angle and then you get that angle and you get that angle. You just keep on shooting it until you pick everything apart, as opposed to trying to get everything in one. Sometimes getting everything in one is the way to go, of course. But most action scenes are a series of cuts.

b&a: How was the live action filmed?

Rob Legato: We shot a few shots in the real swamp with a Will stunt double coming up out of the water and stabbing at a Legacy Effects-made tail that was swooshing back and forth. That becomes the above water moment.

And then we matched whatever the stunt double was doing by shooting Will in a tank. Interestingly, we built an aquarium in front of a TV set, which was basically an LED wall with the swamp background and clear water for Will to be able to swim around in comfortably, yet still be suspended underwater. And then we had the convenience of being able to shoot outside the tank to do our camera work.

Then we had a ‘sandwich job’ to do, where we’d put some CG ferns in the foreground. So we had Will in the water, and then the background behind him, which was an Unreal Engine version of the swamp. You see just enough to satisfy the fact that you’re seeing something. You don’t overly highlight it, you don’t overly light it, you don’t do any of that stuff. In fact, you want the murkiness and you want all that stuff to confuse the eye.

In the tank, we shot with an animatronic from Legacy. Then we shot some stuff where the live animatronic was going to be replaced, and then we shot some without it. Then more with the stunt double who could jump in and dive and spin around. Then, the CG alligator was added to that. For some shots, Weta did a full CG Will and full CG alligator, although that was used very sparingly. There’s only a handful of shots that I used it in. They were always in the middle of action. 

b&a: That LED screen approach sounds really interesting.

Rob Legato: It was fun to do. I don’t think anybody’s ever done it before. I wrote to James Cameron and said, ‘Hey, you might want to do this with your underwater tank.’ It was 25 feet long. A clear front, clear back, so you could put an LED screen in there. You could act like you’re swimming and then just change the background to make it look like you’re swimming and traveling 50 feet, if you wanted to. 

I thought, ‘Well, this is the way to do Aquaman and all these other films where you’re suspended like you would be underwater.’ You could then swim what appears to be great distances by the illusion of the background moving and nothing more, because you could swim in place. 

It seems like it’s a cool way of creating these scenes and using an LED wall to get in-camera work. It really helps because there is some murkiness in the water, there are bubbles, there’s all the micro things that tell you it’s real, because they are. And then to get it in-camera and not have to try to matte it.

b&a: I think that is your modus operandi in many films that you’ve worked on, as you’ve mentioned, where you do it so many different ways that, really, the audience is a bit unsure of how it was done.

Rob Legato: Yes, certainly animation-wise, that’s why I always want to shoot a live person doing something. I don’t want a live person on wires doing it, because that’s also artificial and you tend to see that as well. So I try to do as much in-camera as possible with the real physics and then cut my way out of it, as opposed to try to get one smooth, physics-defying swing or jump or something that now turns you into kind of a superhero if you see it all in one than a typical action scene.

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