By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 9, 2011 at 11:38AM
The 3-D journey on "Hugo" for Oscar-winning cinematographer Bob Richardson ("The Aviator, " "JFK"), once he got over the growing pains and realized that the digital technology wouldn't hinder his craft, was to confidently embrace it. His director Martin Scorsese was new to this too--he had to suddenly switch gears from prepping Endo's "Silence," in which Jesuit missionaries sent to 17th century Japan endure tremendous persecution, to landing in a 1931 Paris train station with children, dogs, and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Scorsese brought his usual crew right along with him. Yet for Richardson, "Hugo" presented a particular artistic breakthrough, considering the convergence of current technology atop a rich subject about early cinematic exploration. John Logan adapted the PG-rated film from "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," an illustrated black-and-white book by Brian Selznick.
"For me, the thought of recreating the work of Méliès was a daunting prospect," Richardson says. "Beyond which, to do that with digital capture in 3-D (and not film) further inflamed my reservations. For inspiration on how to translate [the book]'s images to color and hold to the style Brian had created, we studied the films of Méliès and his contemporaries both in cinema and still photography. In particular, hand coloring, tinting, toning, and autochrome [a red-orange, green, and blue-violet system]. Hand coloring the images was not one we considered for long due the difficulty of achieving. Beyond which, Méliès's hand colored frames were masterful. No point in attempting to create something inferior."
However, after experiments with tinting and toning interfered with the clarity of the image in 3-D and provided a color palette deemed too cold by Scorsese (who wanted to see into Hugo's deep blue eyes), they turned to autochrome but with a natural skin tone. Ironically, the Lumière Brothers experimented with autochrome in the early 20th century, which looked bewitching when used back then with 3-D. So Rob Legato, the VFX supervisor, and Greg Fisher, the colorist, painstakingly created an autochrome look up table for "Hugo." That's why everything in the train station and in the Méliès flashbacks at his famed glass studio has such a stunning blue hue. Of course, they needed a base blue on set to achieve the full effect, so production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Sandy Powell altered their work to conform to the autochrome aesthetic.
This was also instrumental to the success of the 3-D. "I talked with my gaffer and we set the overhead lights that were currently tungsten with full blue gel," Richardson explains. "That was often used in combination with white light on the floor to light the actors. The autochrome picked up on the blue and shifted it toward what you see in the film. The sense of depth was enhanced by a combination of cool and warm. We tested shooting sequences with one tone and the result was not as strong a sense of depth as when we mixed cool and warm. Within the film we used that piece of knowledge to our advantage. Certain sequences went completely blue or white with no mixture. That can be seen in the second sequence between Hugo and Méliès at the toy store. A cooler base with little mix of white or warm was used."
Aside from conveying a hyper reality with tremendous layers of depth and particulate matter that leaps off the screen, "Hugo's" 3-D also brings us closer to the characters and actually influences the direction of the performances. "I agree with you completely here -- the 3-D gives a sense of intimacy that is not as evident in 2-D," he confirms. "I must admit that it is somewhat of a mystery to me, why, with some, it works better than with others. I felt that Christopher Lee [as the compassionate bookstore owner] took to 3-D in a phenomenal way. His medium shots and close-ups bear his soul to the audience. The same can be said for the Ben Kingsley close-ups as Méliès in and around the toy store. When an actor is in the zone, the 3-D enhances that performance."
Richardson simultaneously studied the films of Méliès and the photographic works from that seminal period while evaluating the Alexa digital camera. He worked closely with Vince Pace (James Cameron's 3-D partner in crime), who supplied the stereo rig, and Legato, who created the 3-D pipeline, as he did for "Avatar." But Méliès gave him strength: If he was able to achieve so much with so little, then creating 3-D for "Hugo" seemed less daunting. But Richardson didn't attempt to measure digital capture against film capture or use digital capture to emulate film. Instead he tried a different approach. After consulting with Scorsese, they both agreed that "Hugo" would be a 3-D experience totally grounded in digital capture, and would have to work within the color space that the Alexa provided.
"The more I went back to the past, the greater my lust became to tackle 3-D," Richardson concedes. "Marty was already there. So he took us on a journey through 3-D films made in the golden era: 'House of Wax,' 'Kiss Me Kate,' 'Creature from the Black Lagoon,' 'Dial M for Murder.' 'Avatar, 'Up', and 'Alice' were out at this time. What became incredibly clear by watching the 'golden era' next to what was being produced currently was the degree to which control of the IO [interocular distance between the camera lenses] and convergence had become a part of the 3-D viewing experience. Greater control. More finesse. But within the original films was a desire to explode out of the theater and Marty wanted to keep that alive. He did not want to renounce the past. Yet he wished to remain bold."
Scorsese got his wish, thanks, in part, to Richardson's keen eye and own spirit of adventure.
[More Bill Desowitz at Immersed in Movies.]