A 3-D Journey Back to the Future: Behind Robert Richardson’s Work on Hugo

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo takes audiences on a 3-D journey inside an underground train station in Paris during the 1930s.

The story revolves around a 12-year-old orphan named Hugo, who makes a home for himself behind a wall at the station after his father dies. Hugo interacts with the owner of a small toy booth in the station, an eccentric girl, passengers on the platform and a mechanical man that his father created.

The movie is an adaption of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a 526-page young adult book published in 2007. More than half of the book consists of illustrations drawn by the author, which blend with his words in order to illustrate the evolving story. Selznick says he was inspired by films produced and directed by George Méliès in France during the dawn of the industry from the 1890s through the early 1920s.

Hugo is the sixth collaboration between Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC. Their previous co-ventures include 1995’s Casino, 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead, 2004’s The Aviator, the 2008 documentary Shine a Light and 2010’s Shutter Island.

“When you are working with Marty, it is almost like there is an electrical input coming from him,” says Richardson. “He has an unique understanding of how lighting and camera movement can augment the performances of the actors and actresses. He is also very open to discussing ideas.”

Scorsese and Richardson both brought deep pools of experience to the project. Scorsese took his first turn at the helm on Boxcar Bertha, a now-classic Roger Corman film produced in 1972. He has compiled more than 50 credits for writing, directing and producing narrative films and occasional documentaries, and won a Best Director Oscar for directing The Departed in 2006.

Richardson began his career shooting documentaries after he earned a graduate degree at the American Film Institute (AFI). A documentary that he shot about the civil war in El Salvador led to an opportunity to shoot Oliver Stone’s Salvador, his first long form narrative film, in 1985. Richardson earned an Oscar nomination for Stone’s Platoon in 1986 and JFK in 1991 and for his work with Scorsese on The Aviator in 2004. Hugo is his 34th long form narrative film credit.

Martin Scorsese behind the camera on the set of Hugo. Photograph Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Martin Scorsese behind the camera on the set of Hugo. Photograph Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

Hugo was produced by GKFilms, primarily on sets at Shepperton, Longcross and Pinewood Studios in London. A few scenes were staged at practical locations in France and England. Asa Butterfield portrays Hugo. Familiar faces in the ensemble cast include Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Sacha Baron Cohen and Ben Kingsley.

“I believe Marty’s decision to produce Hugo in 3-D was based upon his desire to provide the most accurate and inspirational translation of the source material for the audience,” Richardson says. “There is a narrative movement within the book where words step seamlessly into illustrations which continue the narrative.”

It was the first 3-D project for both filmmakers. In addition to researching contemporary production technology, they arranged to watch classic 3-D movies from what Richardson describes as “the golden age of cinema” during the 1950s, including House of Wax and Dial M for Murder, to get a tactile sense of what made them special.

“It was a vast learning curve for everyone,” Richardson says. “Marty planned shots that took advantage of the unique characteristics that 3-D provides.”

Richardson and Scorsese discussed the pros and cons of shooting in 2-D format and converting to 3-D after editing and shooting in 3-D. They chose to produce Hugo in 3-D format with two digital cameras rather than converting to 3-D during post-production.

“The principal reason was that the results were immediately visible to everyone through 3-D monitors,” Richardson says. “That enabled Marty to decide whether to alter shots to make better use of 3-D images that were right for shot or scene.”

Richardson credits production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Sandy Powell with helping to transport audiences to the time and place where the story unfolds.

“Production design and costumes can speak to audiences as effectively as words,” he says. “In respect to colors, it was Marty’s idea to use Autochrome for inspiration. Autochrome was an early form of color photography where the plates or negatives were coated with starch dyes. The Lumiere brothers, in France, patented the process in 1903. We were inspired by viewing Autochrome plates in museums. There were 3-D Autochromes, or what at that time were called Stereoscopic.”

Richardson assembled a multi-national crew. Gaffer Ian Kincaid, key grip Chris Centrella, first assistant Gregor Tavenner and Steadicam operator Larry McConkey made the journey from the United States. The English crew members included gaffer Lee Walters and his brother rigging gaffer Gavin Walters.

“Cinematography is a team effort,” he stresses.

The Alexa cameras and Cooke lenses they used were provided by ARRI Media.

The Alexa cameras and Cooke lenses they used were provided by ARRI Media. Photograph Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

“Film and digital media both have inherent merits,” Richardson says. “Digital production and the Alexa camera were right for this project, but shooting 3-D scenes with two cameras on a Steadicam was extremely challenging. Larry [McConkey] was able to find paths that put the audience in scenes with the characters, but the weight of two cameras on a rig was more than an operator should endure.”

They spent 10 days shooting scenes in France at practical locations at La Sorbonne, another theater and the Biblioteca Nacional de Paris library.

“The practical light at the library was particularly dramatic on the day we were there,” Richardson says. “The only location in London was the Victoria and Albert Natural History Museum, where we filmed for one day. It was an extremely rare opportunity. We are all deeply grateful. The rest of the time we were shooting on sets at Longcross, Shepperton and Pinewood Studios.

“The crew was fantastic,” he stresses. “Everyone contributed to creating 3-D images that look and feel as natural as the way we see the world with our eyes.”

Scorsese was generally with Richardson or in a small tent near the cameras, where he and the script supervisor watched shots on a 3-D monitor. There was also a video village with two 3-D monitors for make-up, hair and other people on the production team.

“Hugo has both dreams and memories of earlier and happier times prior to the death of his father,” Richardson says. “His memory scenes have a distinct look that was driven by the research we did about Autochrome. The look of his dreams were inspired by another early color process… tinting and toning. The British Film Institute very graciously allowed us to view numerous restorations of early films by Georges Méliès and other pioneers who used toning and hand-tinting.”

Photograph Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) Photograph Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Greg Fisher, a veteran British colorist, set up a small media lab at Shepperton Studios, where he graded dailies and displayed them for Scorsese and Richardson. In addition to his workstation, there was an HD projector, an 11- foot wide silver screen and a place for storing digital files, to ensure that they were readily available.

Scorsese’s long-time collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker, edited Hugo. Visual effects shots created by Rob Legato and his team are seamlessly integrated with live action footage. This was Schoonmaker’s 14th co-venture with Scorsese, beginning with Raging Bull in 1980. She won Oscars for Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed and other nominations for Gangs of New York and Goodfellas. “One of these days, I really want to hear what Thelma has to say what it like editing Hugo in 3-D format,” Richardson says.

After the final cut was ready, Fisher put finishing touches on the look while timing Hugo with Scorsese at a DI facility that Laser Pacific set up in New York.

Looking back retrospectively on this unique project, Richardson says, “I believe that the future of 3-D is dependent on many factors, beginning with the need to tell strong stories that brings people to theaters. Most 3-D feature films are conversions from 2-D. I believe that a good number of those conversions are less than adequate.

“By that, I mean the director it is more difficult for the director to visualize what enhances a shot and what distracts from it while its being filmed. They can make these decisions after the film has been edited, but there is generally little flexibility for altering what was done when the images were captured on film or in digital memory.

“It is imperative for filmmakers to decide for themselves whether the inherent attributes of 3-D are right for each story. In my mind, it is another tool that if used correctly can add significantly to a story. But, blatant commercial hustling of 3-D will not result in the best outcome.” MM

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