The Aviator Triumphs with Desktop Technology

VFX on The Aviator

At the beginning of last year, I was wrapping up the commercial cut on some Mississippi economic development spots, when the director, Ron Ames, pulled out his PowerBook to show me some pre-visualization shots for a little movie called The Aviator. There I saw a QuickTime movie of what has become the XF-11 crash sequence used in the film. It was an interesting break in an otherwise typical commercial edit session and I didn’t think too much more about it. Fast-forward a year. Martin Scorsese has released his film about the early Howard Hughes. When I saw it in the theaters, right away I recognized the finished version of the scene I was shown a year before. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Ron get a nice credit as Visual Effects Producer. As it turns out, The Aviator effects team made extensive use of desktop tools, which gave me a good opportunity to speak with Ron about some of the technology they employed.


In spite of the high profile and reasonably large budget of The Aviator Martin Scorsese creates his films and builds his team much like any other independent filmmaker. There is a small cohesive team of professionals, which pull off the filmmaking. For the record, Ron Ames was the Visual Effects Producer and VFX First Assistant Director, working in tandem with Rob Legato (Visual Effects Supervisor / Second Unit Director). Together, they helmed the team responsible for producing 405 effects shots, as well as hundreds of second unit shots (inserts of dials, controls, hands doing things and so on). In addition, the film was posted using digital intermediate technology with an unusual approach to color-grading. Scorsese wanted to achieve the look of two-strip and three-strip Technicolor films typical of the 1920’s and 1930’s for many of the scenes. The responsibility for developing this look also fell to Legato’s unit, in addition to the actual effects shots. The Aviator isn’t really viewed as an effects film, but 405 shots is a comparable number to films that are considered to be special effects intensive. This seemed all the more impressive after Ron told me that their total effects budget was only $8 million. This may sound like a lot of money, but it’s truly miniscule when you compare that to other film budgets.


Off-the-shelf Hardware and Software


Howard Hughes was a man who used the cutting edge technology of his day to achieve his vision and much of the film is about that, so it was only fitting that Scorsese’s effects team used today’s cutting edge technology to produce this film. Ames and Legato put together a small in-house unit of effects designers working with a combination of off-the-shelf technology. This included Mac and PC workstations and a small render farm. According to Ron, “We are pretty open to all the tools and used what was appropriate for the task. This included both Apple Final Cut Pro and Avid Xpress DV, but the real ‘Rosetta stone’ for us was Adobe After Effects. Everything went through that at some point. Our render farm was a pretty small affair – about 11 processors. Towards the end, when we were in a crunch mode – if you walked in with a computer, it was usually put to work [laugh].”


Ron explained that the effects load was divided up among several companies. Sony Imageworks and CafeFX handled most of the heavy CGI shots, like the Hell’s Angels (Hughes’ first film, a WWI epic) aerial combat scenes. “The rest we did ourselves with the help of a handful of smaller vendors.” Since Rob Legato is also a cinematographer, the effects unit tried to create as many in-camera, “practical” effects as possible. There was extensive use of models and miniatures, such as in the XF-11 crash scene and the Hercules flying boat finale. The glue that held all of this in-house work together was their off-the-shelf IT infrastructure and a 1.3 TB Medea VideoRaid RTRX storage array. According to Ames, “ We had the SCSI version of the Medea arrays and everything we did went through these drives. They were working flawlessly on a 24/7 basis. Next time we’ll probably take a look at their Fibre Channel versions, particularly the recently released VideoRaid FCR2 or FCR2X arrays; but the SCSI arrays worked great for our needs, including real-time playback of HD dailies.”


High Definition Screenings


The use of HD played a key role in the post of The Aviator. All the film footage was scanned at 2K resolution and delivered as Cineon files. The effects elements were composited and then rendered from 2K to HD-resolution QuickTime movies using After Effects.  These files were then dropped into Final Cut for assembly and playback. Although Legato’s effects team was in Los Angeles, Martin Scorsese was cutting the film in New York with his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. She prefers to cut on a Lightworks system, so I was curious what the workflow was for editing the effects. “It was really pretty impressive,” Ron explained. “We got all the vendors to provide us temp composites in a two-week period for each of the effects shots. This gave Thelma something to place into the rough cut for Marty’s initial screenings, so that everyone had a good idea how the scenes would play out.”


When it came time to really screen the film with more completed effects, Legato and Ames flew to New York and spent a week reviewing and tweaking shots. “We took all the shots with us on numerous FireWire drives, including the Medea G-RAID 500GB drives. In New York we took an EDL from Lightworks and conformed the movie in Final Cut on a G5 installed in the screening room. This system used a Pinnacle CineWave card connected to an HD projector. As we screened the movie, we would address any changes in the effects, since the drives we had brought also included the elements to make up the shots. Some of these changes could be done in New York and others were changed in Los Angeles. So during that five-day period, we would get daily deliveries of FireWire drives. At the same time, both of our laptops were rendering away back in the hotel room. Then we would drop the fixed or replacement shots into the timeline for immediate feedback. During these screenings we were also able to show Marty how the color-grading was going to look by using After Effects and Final Cut. In essence, we were able to make ‘live’ changes for him and immediately see the results in full HD resolution.”


After Effects as the Key to the Technicolor Look


When it was time for initial audience screenings of the film, the 2K files were rendered to a Qubit playback server at HD resolution. These audiences viewed an HD projection, which Ron told me looked amazingly close to the quality of the 2K files. A lot of press has already been given to the two-strip and three-strip color-grading techniques. This was a look worked out between Rob Legato and Bob Richardson (the director of photography). Legato created LUTs (look-up tables) in After Effects which were then used by Stephen Nakamura, the colorist at Technicolor Digital Intermediates, to create the final look of the film. Most people think of the “Technicolor look” as vibrant, saturated colors, which is actually the look of the three-strip process. Technicolor achieved this using three black-and-white films, which – through optical filtering – created a composite color image, not unlike how RGB components of an electronic picture create a single full-color image. The earlier two-strip techniques used two black-and-white elements instead of three. This reproduced flesh tones reasonably well, but not items like green grass. That look is quite a bit harder to achieve electronically and it is here that the combination of work done in After Effects and color-timing paid off, essentially requiring two color-correction passes. This technique is quite obvious in the film’s golf course scenes, when Howard Hughes meets Katherine Hepburn. A more detailed behind-the-scenes look at creating these and other effects can be found online at


Desktop Tools Aid in Fast Turnaround


Another way in which desktop tools impacted the film was the creation of a new scene intended to show the attention Hughes was getting from early Hollywood. This bridge scene between two portions of the film wasn’t in the original script and, therefore not shot, so the effects team was tasked to come up with a solution. In a three-day period, this scene was shot, edited and cut into the film. Moviegoers will recognize this as the montage of newspapers and other shots about Hughes. Several of the effects team members, including the effects editor, cut versions of this using Avid Xpress DV and Apple Final Cut Pro, which were reviewed by Scorsese and Schoonmaker. In the end, a modified combination of several of their ideas ended up as part of the final scene.


Ron Ames summed it up this way, “The Aviator is a film that’s as much about the technology as the man. Without the technology of today, a film like this couldn’t have been made for the budget we had and still deliver the emotional impact we wanted. Processes like the color-grading came about because that was an emotional tie-in to Marty’s youth. It’s how he remembered seeing those films when he went to the movies as a kid. After seeing the result of Rob’s efforts, he was tickled that it looked just the way he remembered it. We wouldn’t have been able to do this just a few years ago, because the lab processes are long gone and the electronic tools didn’t exist. We were also happy that our indie-film mentality worked out well. The workstations, the render farm, the Medea RTRX and G-RAID drives – they all played a part. They cranked around the clock for about a year and a half and performed flawlessly. Today everyone can get access to the tools, but it’s how you use them to tell the story that counts.”


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)