A renowned student of film history and craftsmanship, director Martin Scorsese was eager to acknowledge his many collaborators, both present and in name only, for his new fantasy film, Hugo at a special event in Los Angeles on Nov. 5. Flanked by cinematographer Robert Richardson, composer Howard Shore, production designer Dante Ferretti, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and visual effects supervisor Robert Legato, Scorsese described the making of this magical fairy tale, certainly a departure from his métier of personal projects. In fact, one would more likely associate such a project with a Robert Zemeckis, Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg, with its fantastical themes, settings, and characters, save one important aspect: Hugo is rife in cinema history and celebrates the pioneering filmmakers of the earliest period in movies – a hallmark of any Scorsese interview or appearance.
Based on Brian Selznick’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Scorsese’s film, set in Paris in 1930, pays due homage to breakthrough French film artists including the Lumiere brothers, who pioneered the first moving pictures in 1895, and Georges Mélies, whose Trip to the Moon from 1902 is widely regarded as one of the first story-based films ever made and is still heralded as a sci-fi classic (the current incarnation of the Visual Effects Society incorporates an iconic image from the film in their logo). To reveal how Mélies becomes introduced into Hugo’s complex storyline would spoil just one of the film’s many surprises as its narrative unfolds in a clever manner creatively outlined in John Logan’s inventive screenplay.
Surely Scorsese knew, that by lining up the aforementioned top talent in cinema today, he would be able to fully realize the potential of making a movie about movies themselves, and his efforts are on full display throughout the film. He explained how, well in advance of production, Legato would previsualize sequences from the script, then turn them over to Scorsese who would determine his necessary shots with Richardson and Ferretti. Five months of pre-production, Legato added, allowed the key team to fully flesh out all of the intricate shots that the production necessitated. Ferretti further detailed how he built the key train station set in three separate locations in England, each to accommodate different areas of the large set. Many of Scorsese and Ferretti’s points of reference included early French movies and photographs. In point, Scorsese, using his preference of elaborately introducing scenes in his films, offers a breathtaking opening pre-credit sequence where we meet the main character, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), as he winds his way through various passageways hidden across and over the bowels of the train station.
In addition to the clever approach to shooting the film, the look of Hugo’s many scenes was carefully achieved by Richardson using the Arri Alexa camera system, shooting in 3D. Color palettes were based on classic films as well, and recreations of Mélies’ work involved study of many of his actual films, including Trip to the Moon. With great care, Ferretti actually built a recreation of Mélies’ Paris studio, which looked similar to a large greenhouse, with Richardson lighting scenes filmed there with available light, modified only with muslin diffusion. In support of creating Hugo’s reverential look, Scorsese praised the many costumes, created from scratch to accurate period detail by designer Sandy Powell. Of course, much of the film’s success also rests with its fine cast, which Scorsese noted was integrally shaped by casting director Ellen Lewis with support by assistants both in France and England. Much of the film features scenes solely carried by its two key preteen leads, Butterfield, only 13 when filming began, and Chloe Grace Moretz, also 13 during principal photography. The adult leads include reliably memorable performances from Ben Kingsley, Sasha Baron Cohen and Emily Mortimer, with Christopher Lee, long a favorite of Scorsese’s, appearing in a smaller role.
Later in the discussion, Howard Shore, like the others on stage, a Scorsese veteran, spoke of the extensive process of scoring the film, which involved three months of writing, two months of orchestration, and another three months of recording. Nearly the entire 127 minutes of the film included music, which found Shore evoking French café-style themes.
Another effortlessly integrated element in Hugo is the 3D cinematography, which Richardson actuated using a modified version of the process that James Cameron utilized for Avatar. Schoonmaker cut in both 2D and 3D and often had to wear 3D glasses to view the 3D images that came across her monitors in postproduction. Using a Lightworks editing system, Schoonmaker worked on the film from its June 2010 start date until fall of 2011. In fact, some visual effects shots and the end credits are still being tweaked, with a Nov. 23 release date already set.
When finally asked about his delving into this new PG-rated cinematic territory, especially using 3D methods, Scorsese was unfazed about his venturing into the 21st century and its advents of making movies. He compared using 3D to an audience’s experience in live theater. Why wouldn’t a filmmaker have Hamlet literally come out of the screen, when in theater, a director could have an actor walk down a ramp, literally strolling into the crowd? Nonchalantly, Scorsese praised 3D as yet another tool which filmmakers of all types should experiment with, one which merely expands the overall possibilities of movies. And like the cinematic magician Mélies himself in Hugo, who took “trick” shots to new levels in his own early 20th century films, Scorsese forecast that the natural evolution of using 3D in cinema will eventually lead moviemakers to use holograms to tell their stories.
And, with that, the key filmmaking team from Hugo literally disappeared behind the theater’s huge movie screen, leaving the satisfied preview audience to spread the word themselves to their inner circles about the film’s many treats, all of which seem sure to wholly entertain audiences this holiday season.