Generally, if Rob Legato’s been working on something, he emerges in the contender conversation – which seems to happen every other year or so. There were the special and visual effects for Scorcese’s The Aviator, followed by The Departed, after which he headed off to set up a pipeline for this new James Cameron project called Avatar.
And now here we are back in Scorcese mode, as Legato finds himself following the director’s Shutter Island as the visual effects supervisor for one of the year’s most talked about – and well-reviewed films – Hugo, based on the heavily illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick (which itself won a literary award for best picture book the year it was released).
The source material was so visual because the story is, of course, about films. Their invention, their magic, and the reclamation of one of film’s pioneers – Georges Melies (of Trip to the Moon fame).
Unlike Melies, though, Legato was working with both digits – and three dimensions. On the latter front, Scorcese undertook a crash course in classic 3D for his crew heads, including showing his own print of the rare 3D Dial M for Murder (along with House of Wax and Kiss Me Kate.)
“What struck us all,” Legato recounts, was that Dial M always seemed “a little odd in 2D,” and the screening showed him why. It was staged for three dimensions, which was exactly what Scorcese wanted to do with Hugo.
They wanted 3D to be embraced “as art, not as technique – part of the storytelling.” One of best examples of this was the opening sequence set in the attics and gangways of the Parisian train station that Hugo lives in – initially, it seems to be an elaborate tracking shot like the one famously deployed by the director in Goodfellas.
Like that sequence, “the story is unfolding in the journey,” Legato explains, except this journey was filmed on distinct, green-screened sound stages, with a “fairly large camera package hanging from a crane,” which had to be made to moved like a Steadicam.
The trick was a lot of previs, and a lot of light. The latter quality was so that all parts of the stage could been seen by viewers. Normally with 3D, “if you don’t have light on something it doesn’t exist,” but Scorcese and Legato found this method (staging and lighting for 3D in production) to be “better than the post-conversion method.” Even if you do have to move a lot more equipment around to replicate a Steadicam shot.
Scorcese also wanted the film to be a visual journey through film visuals, and though it’s set in a mostly digitally rendered train station (“You’re creating a set,” Legato notes, replete with glass ceilings, train tracks, and circulating dust and smoke, not making “set extensions,” though there were, of course practical sets too), the film deploys miniatures (especially during a spectacular train crash, overseen by Scorcese favorite Matthew Gratzner of New Deal Studios) and stop-motion animation (the main creature technique in the King Kong/Ray Harryhausen era of special effects), among other modes.
Though Legato also kept nearly every worldwide office of main vendor Pixomodo busy – with that work overseen by the company’s own VFX supervosor Ben Grossmann – he doesn’t really consider Hugo a visual effects film, in the way most 3D movies are perceived.
Instead, he – and the director – undertook to make a “drama in three dimensions,” a process that, in retrospect, was “extremely effective.”
“You can expect any film in 3D now,” he says, listing not only the director’s own Goodfellas, but other classics like The Godfather and Chinatown as candidates that could have worked with Hugo’s approach.
“Apocalypse Now could be a wonderful film in 3D,” he enthuses, along with movies like Blade Runner and Alien.
If he’s excited about the process, it’s understandable. The process of making the film was one of both re-discovery and new discovery of cinema’s possibilities. And should he wind up winning a VES award – it’s no accident that their statuette is a replica of Melies’ own man-in-the-moon, complete with the cigar-shaped ship jabbed into his eye.
He laughs when asked if that would represent a certain “full circle” aspect of the film’s story and journey. Or perhaps it simply serves as a reminder, as he notes there’s as “much to learn from looking behind us” in movies, as well as the “looking ahead” which Hugo so masterfully represents.