All about HUGO (Martin Scorcese, 2011)

All about HUGO (Martin Scorcese, 2011)


  • This article addresses Hugo and the difficulties of doing advanced visual effects in 3D.
  • A great article about Hugo‘s visual effects, its homages to early cinema, and the film’s “miniature” model effects.

Hugo made a splash on movie screens in 2011.  It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture), and it won 5: Visual Effects, Cinematography, Art Direction, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing.

Hugo was controversial at the time because it was known as Martin Scorcese’s $200-million 3D kid’s movie, a seemingly strange break after dark, adult films like The Departed and Shutter Island.  (It also went over budget by nearly $50 million.)

But in addition to being a rather melancholy kids’ movie, the film also provides a primer on early film history and serves as an editorial for film preservation.  The film stands as an homage to early cinema, particularly that of Georges Melies, the original magician of cinema, whose films will be featured by the Emory Cinematheque next week.

At the Oscars this year, The Artist beat out Hugo to win Best Picture.  The Artist was another tribute to early cinema, but unlike Hugo, itemulated the look and sound of old films: it was black and white and primarily silent.  Hugo did the opposite, using state-of-the-art computer graphics and new 3D technologies. It contains so much digital animation, it could almost be considered an animated film.

As you can see in the following clip, which juxtaposes the original footage with the digitally enhanced scenes, Hugo integrated live-action shots of actors on sets (including the enormous train station set, which at 150 feet long, 120 feet wide, and 41 feet tall, took up an entire soundstage) with digital set extensions created to fill in where the original set used a greenscreen.

The incredibly detailed visual effects create amazing sequences, like the dreams where Hugo turns into an automaton and a train crashes through the station.  Five sets were constructed and then pieced together with digital animation to create an extended shot in which Hugo run through the inner workings of the train station.  Scorcese in the clip below calls it a “Goodfellas-esque shot,” referring to the famous Steadicam long take in that film following the main characters through the back door of a nightclub.

Scorcese’s team also used some old-fashioned techniques, such as stop-motion animation for the mouse toy and scale models for the train crash.

One might argue that Scorcese’s use of digital effects was paradoxical—using “new” media to pay respect to the early days of “old” media.  But when Melies was making his films, cinema WAS new media. Like Melies before him, Scorcese is experimenting with new technologies to see what he can do with them.  Scorcese is attempting to be a pioneer of digital filmmaking, just as Melies pioneered early cinema.