Rob Legato has a rich history of collaboration with director Martin Scorsese. He has worked as both a visual effects supervisor and second unit director on Scorsese’s The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island, Hugo (for which he won an Oscar) and now The Wolf of Wall Street. Along with visual effects producer Mark Russell, Legato oversaw more than 400 shots for the film, which centers on the life and times of New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). We explore just some of the major VFX shots involving yachts, helicopters, tennis courts and...midgets.

Click here to listen to Mike Seymour’s in-depth discussion with Rob Legato about digital cameras, film, shooting second unit and on-set VFX supervision.

Aerial plates

DOP Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC chose to shoot The Wolf of Wall Street in a hybrid manner with both film and on digital using the ARRI ALEXA. In his role as second unit director, Legato also filmed with the ALEXA, as well as a then-prototype Canon C500 rigged to an Octocopter / Gemini set-up for aerial plates of a shot approaching a beach party in the Hamptons. After a minor hiccup with the first attempted shot where a full 4K image had not been recorded, the UAV shoot proved extremely successful. “It is a very great device,” says Legato, “and once it’s hooked up with the Canon 4K camera and you could record this stuff, the possibilities are extraordinary and you can come up with some really unique shots and help tell the story in a really unique way which of course I’m really interested in. I found it to be the first go round, less pleasant, and everything after that, terrific.”

Watch the film's trailer.

Yacht building

Final shot.
Final shot.

For scenes of Belfort and his entourage aboard a luxurious yacht moored in an Italian harbor, production filmed on a soundstage at Kaufman Astoria Studios. The boat required in the film did not exist as a real ship - and ultimately had to be sunk - and so became a mostly CG build. The actors were filmed on a boat set surrounded by greenscreen and with lighting to replicate daytime. “For the most part if you do the formula I came up with on Apollo 13,” explains Legato, “which is imitate sunlight - 2 stops over, 2 stops under - and you place your exposure anywhere in between that, that’s really mimicking sunlight, and backlight is much easier to try to match to than sunlight is. It’s much more forgiving.” A small VFX crew then acquired backplates in Italy, with Method NY handling composites supervised by Marko Forker.

Original plate.
Original plate.

Method Studios also delivered a number of composites for scenes on board the yacht, which were filmed in a mock-up greenscreen set and required ocean and coastal backgrounds. These were particularly challenging as the camera was often moving.

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final comp by Method.
Final comp by Method.

Yacht-sinking and helicopter-crashing

Belfort takes his yacht out in the Mediterranean in the middle of a storm, necessitating a major rescue operation, before the boat sinks. Live action plates were captured in the parking lot of Steiner Studios in Brooklyn on a gimbal set doubling as the bridge. Legato envisaged the sequence in previs form at Universal’s Virtual Stage using virtual cinematography techniques he had pioneered on The Aviator and which had later been used by James Cameron for Avatar. “The virtual stage let me conceive the shots, and cut them together and show Marty, and that was the template for what we were doing for the rest of the movie,” notes Legato. “I would figure out what the action was and cover it six ways from Sunday until I found a rhythm of the sequence that I liked, then present it to Marty, then back and forth on I think this shot should be wider, this should be longer.”

Scanline, under the VFX supervision of Joe Farrell, assisted Legato with previs and motion capture and camera moves, and then implemented its unique fluid sim capabilities to realize the storm and rescue. The studio modeled the ship from archival photos and made that into a hybrid boat to blend with live action plates of a modern mega yacht and gimbal set piece. Artists then designed an extreme storm environment and several rogue waves that cause the ship to break apart.

“I got to do probably one of the most favorite shots I’ve ever done,” Legato also notes as part of that work. “There was a rescue scene where I shot it in the New Deal parking lot in an 80 foot crane that hoisted me and the partial helicopter set in the air, and there was a guy in the very foreground and there was raining and lighting and wind and two guys being hoisted up on a winch. Then Joe Farrell and Scanline put in a very realistic looking background with a raft and a searchlight going through. And I was hand-holding the camera as I’m photographing the thing, so it has that verisimilitude of kind of being there - that’s how I would love to have shot the scene anyway.”

Scanline was also instrumental in creating two CG helicopter crash landings. Again, these were previs’d using the virtual stage approach.

The filmmakers on the set of The Wolf of Wall Street.
The filmmakers on the set of The Wolf of Wall Street.

Anyone for tennis (and prison)?

A pullback transition featuring Belfort playing tennis and then in prison required special digital augmentation when it was decided to speed up the final shot. “Originally it was a slow pull back on a crane in Brooklyn,” explains Legato, “and then you have to match it to a prison I shot in California. And then you’re kind of married to the speed of what you shot, because they’re playing tennis and as the camera’s pulling back, more and more people are revealed playing tennis.”

Since a traditional speed-up would show the people playing tennis to also be moving too fast, it was decided to remove all the background players, then film new players on greenscreen. “We roto’d out Leo and Tim (his tennis partner),” says Legato, “put them back on the same tennis court, sped up the camera move but left them on cards at the same 24 frames per second, then shot these other people separately on greenscreen, on the roof, the guys lifting weights, the X number of tennis players in the background, and re-created a shot made to order that didn’t have to live with the live action limitation of what we shot.”

Brainstorm Digital, under supervisor Eran Dinour, handled the work, which also required 2.5D and 3D matte paintings and significant re-projections.

Above: watch Brainstorm's VFX highlights reel. The tennis sequence is at the end.

Midget toss

As part of Belfort’s office antics, he arranges a midget tossing contest. The sequence was filmed with actors connected to wires for the toss. Legato then had Lola VFX remove the wires, correct the trajectory to be more accurate and re-create the crowd of people behind the midget. Interestingly, Scorsese ultimately requested that the original trajectory be re-instated. ‘I think Marty liked it being not totally nailed and being a little off,” says Legato. “The film is just a little bit off, it’s very funny comedic stuff.”

“Marty was not really satisfied with the fact that when we shot the dwarf toss, there was no dwarf tossing,” adds Legato. “He felt like that’s crazy to do it, so the only shot was the one on the wire. And the other shots he was either on the target or him being pulled off the target, but there was never a shot of him hitting it, so Marty wanted him to hit.

“I love the discussions - how are you going to do it? I’m going to throw him at the target. He’s going to stick on it with velcro. It’s like the sunlight thing - you just go out with your light meter and imitate it. It’s not that big of a deal. And in this particular case, it’s not a big deal except that the set’s long gone, or the location is. So I had to shoot it all greenscreen at New Deal on the same day that we shot the rescue, and shots from the commercial at the beginning.”

Crazy Horse Effects, with work supervised by Paul Graff, carried out a series of composites of people, backgrounds and stock signs.

Dual roles

Certainly, Legato has proven that he is able tackle productions with an enormous number of complicated visual effects, as well as those that, although just as challenging, have a lower shot count. He credits this with approaching both VFX supervision and second unit photography as “another unit figuring out how to best shoot a particular item. There’s a lot of things I can figure out how to shoot in camera, that if you’re just the visual effects supervisor, you tend to solve your problems with visual effects, as opposed to, you know what, I’m going to change the shot to a better shot and I’m going to do it in-camera because that’s the best way to do it.”

That approach came into use both for large scale scenes as well as much, much smaller ones. For example, a shot of Naomi seeing the yacht as her wedding gift for the first time required a restricted view through a blindfold she is wearing. “Because the boat didn’t really exist but the background plate of the Bahamas existed,” says Legato, “we had to work out how do you get that look to see enough of the blindfold to know what it is and not just be a blur?”

Legato enlisted the help of Videohawks’ Glenn Derry to accomplish the shot. “My son and I then set up a plasma screen, and the C500 and the Gemini, and we photographed this scarf maybe a foot and a half away from the plasma screen with a wide angle lens to get enough focus on the foreground and another focus on the background, and had Method create the composite of walking down the gang plank on the boat to do this very simple in-camera, old fashioned effect using the newest C500 and 4K and plasma screens, but still in-camera.”

“I shot it, color corrected it, sent it to Marty and it went into the movie eight hours later!,” says Legato. "It was so rewarding because it was so simple.”

Another innovative - and last minute shot - concocted by Legato was required to help garner the film’s R rating. “We couldn’t get an R rating unless we fixed some very egregious shots, so in the DI in the last two days, I had to shoot a chair in the lobby to go in front of the gay orgy to block some egregious gyrations that were happening."

"I then brought in Paul and Xina Graff (from Crazy Horse) and they composited literally in the kitchen, and so we did five or six shots of adding this chair. That was immediately released to the MPAA and they gave us the rating. There’s something about it being so home grown and ending up in a feature film that costs $100 million and no one’s the wiser.”


Rob Legato and Mike Seymour talk cameras, greenscreen, lighting and much more in our RC Xmas Special Podcast. Click here or search for RC fxguide in itunes to subscribe.

Thanks so much for reading our article.

We've been a free service since 1999 and now rely on the generous contributions of readers like you. If you'd like to help support our work, please join the hundreds of others and become an fxinsider member.