"Hugo's" the 3-D film we've been waiting for: the one we were promised by James Cameron and the other true believers when this so-called stereoscopic revolution began; the one that was going to alter our perception of moviegoing the way the coming of sound and color did.
So leave it to Martin Scorsese to boldly pave the way with his storybook valentine to Georges Méliès and early French cinema and every other voyeuristic delight that has inspired him. Indeed, as the wondrous opening demonstrates -- a complicated fly-through into the Paris train station and Hugo's eye through a clock --this movie's about 3-D. Hell, even Roger Ebert liked it.
In fact, the opening is the touchstone for Scorsese's whole approach to 3-D, which was to place us smack on the set with Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and experience everything up close through his point of view. That was his take-away from viewing all those 3-D classics, including "House of Wax," "Kiss Me Kate," and "Dial M for Murder." The sequence not only took more than a year to complete, but was finalized just two weeks before the movie's release. Designed and previsualized by VFX supervisor and 2nd unit director Rob Legato ("Shutter Island," "Avatar," "The Aviator"), it is comprised of live action, CG set extension, and full animation. Pixomondo provided the VFX, spread across nine of its facilities across the globe and rendered on 1,000 computers.
"The lure of 3-D was originally not that great for me," Legato admits. "And then I had a prejudice, like most people, about drama being 2-D. I couldn't picture "The Godfather" or "Raging Bull" or "Chinatown" in 3-D. And then you do it and realize that it can enhance drama to a large measure. You now have another tool in your toolbox to present, block, and act within a scene that is not distracting by what other people would term the gimmick of 3-D. I think we're all believers now. You have to be careful about objects: they're not just throwaways. The depth now means something; it's not just something else in the frame. It has some relevance. Everything has a different relevance, a different charge to it. And where you place somebody in the frame is not just in the 2-D portion, but in depth, where you place them in the set; how close to another character; how far away from somebody. It changes the grammar a little."
With Hugo's mysterious connection to forgotten French film pioneer Méliès (Ben Kingsley), the movie takes on a marvelous Dickensian flavor, and each moment becomes a dynamic use of space, enhanced by the addition of smoke, steam, dust, or snow. As Legato suggests, the movie had to be viewed on set in 3-D to make all the right artistic choices and adjustments. Otherwise, many of the movie's most memorable scenes would not have been as dramatically effective, including the recreation of Méliès's famous glass studio. "You feel like you're in the same room during the birth of this moviemaking with the enthusiasm that Kingsley brings to the role," Legato says. "The sparks are around you and the smoke and the cameras are in your face and there's the dragon. You get caught up in the thrill of discovery. You're in the frame with them."
Scorsese was even inspired to add such flourishes as the flip book-style animation to Méliès's drawings that are accidentally flung through the air. Some of the connections Scorsese makes are awe-inspiring, especially when he introduces the seminal "Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat" by the Lumiere Brothers from 1895. The audience gasps at the apparent realism. Then Hugo has a train nightmare that makes us gasp right along with him because of the intensity of the 3-D. And then we experience it a third time as reality and it becomes even scarier.
"For a lot of our big stereo shots we matched the camera separation to the human eye," explains Pixomondo's Ben Grossmann ("Shutter Island"). "Most 3-D movies have a 1/4 of an inch or a 1/2 of an inch. And a big stereo shot would be about an inch. On 'Hugo,' a big stereo shot was 2.2 inches. That's unique. It takes a lot of refining."
But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of 3-D is how it affects performance. It brings you intimately closer to the actors, who are sometimes right up against your face. It takes us into the very soul of Christopher Lee's tender bookstore owner; it makes Sacha Baron Cohen's clownish station inspector much scarier; and it induces a sublime moment from Kingsley's Méliès.
"You now use space to alter their performance," Legato adds. "It's not masked by the 2-D representation of something; now you can feel the curvature of someone's face when it moves slightly. It's closer to you. Even a foot away, you perceive the physicality. It alters your direction of a scene and gives you another element that provides a clue as to what the drama should be. You don't need to use as many acting tricks. Less is more."
Indeed, it's pure cinema and takes us back to the roots of moviemaking. No wonder Scorsese embraced it so enthusiastically. I can't wait to see what Ridley Scott ("Prometheus"), Alfonso Cuaron ("Gravity"), Peter Jackson ("The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"), and Baz Lurhmann ("The Great Gatsby") do with the medium.