Hugo: a study of modern inventive visual effects

Visual effects supervisor Rob Legato.

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo tells the story of an orphan living in a 1930s Paris train station. But it is also a story of the birth of cinema and the film itself used a wide range of inventive solutions to both tell its tale and pay homage to the earliest masters of cinema. To help bring Hugo to life, Scorsese called on long-time collaborator Rob Legato as the film’s visual effects supervisor. “The whole film really is celebrating persistence of vision,” says Legato, “and what it meant to early filmmakers, and the film is so rich with homage and appreciation of that.”

Visit our fxpodcast page to listen to Mike Seymour’s in-depth fxpodcast with Oscar winner Rob Legato.

Our Hugo coverage below is divided into:

– Deconstructing a signature Steadicam shot
– The film’s homages – how many did you spot?
– Stereo workflow – including de-aging, re-graining and miniatures in stereo
– The 24 hour effects cycle


1203 frames: deconstructing a signature shot

One of the most famous Scorsese shots in cinema history is in Goodfellas; it follows the arrival of Ray Liotta and his date as they enter the nightclub through a back entrance, tracking through the hallways, kitchen and eventually the crowd to a seat at the front of the stage. The ‘a night at the club’ shot, as it is known, was originally filmed by Larry McConkey and it is one of the best-known Steadicam one-shots in cinema history. McConkey, a SOC Lifetime Achievement Award winner, returned to help Scorsese and Legato create a similar set of sequences in Hugo. But unlike Goodfellas, these could not be filmed on set with stereo cameras in one shot.

Instead, Rob Legato and Pixomondo visual effects supervisor Ben Grossmann – who oversaw more than 800 effects shots – devised a series of transitions and tricks that allows the audience to see Hugo’s mastery of his environment and skillful weaving of the secret world of the train station as if done as a single shot, while in reality it was shot over days on multiple sets. “The shot is not just a cool shoot,” explains Legato, “it is telling a story of what it is to be this kid – where you live, you have complete control over it, you can go places and do things no one else can, you know secret hideaways, passages, and short cuts, no one else does.”

While Larry McConkey did build a Segway Steadicam rig, the main ‘one shot’ in the middle of film required the camera to rise and drop levels, descend a coal chute and traverse stairs and impossible spaces. Even if the camera rig had not been stereo or a smaller lightweight unit, safety requirements and stage limitations would most likely have rendered the shot impossible, but with a double ARRI Alexa camera rig, it was completely out of the question.

The shot needed to work as a seamless shot but it also needed to work in stereo, with matching and complimenting convergence and interaxial separation. Stereo not only added a layer of complexity and creative opportunity to the shot, but removed some 2D tricks that any other company could have reasonably deployed. Pixomondo achieved the shot spectacularly, with visual effects direction and live-action second unit (effectively first unit) direction by Legato, who Scorsese called on to film the entire incredibly complex sequence.

1. Start of the shot

(Click for larger version)

“There were five separate sets, built at five different times and built on five separate stages,” explains Legato, “so you have to have a pretty firm idea of how you are going to glue it all together to create this one ‘Goodfellas-esque’ shot that tells the story.”

The shot starts with Hugo looking through a clock high above the station, kneeling down and surrounded by gears, which was filmed in a partial set. Steam is used to help fill the stereo volume along with careful shot design and propping. Hugo rises and leaves the room, running towards a reversing camera, shooting towards a greenscreen. “The easiest way for me to film it was to use a Louma Crane,” says Legato, “so everything could be mapped out in X,Y and Z space, so when we were done with this setup we needed to find transitions to the next piece.”

2. Ladder

Hugo runs to a ladder, as the camera rises and looks down on the head of Hugo from above. As Hugo passes under a pipe, the shot effortlessly transitions to a nearly total greenscreen set where another take is used of a different ‘Hugo’ standing on a flat raised greenscreen platform. To the viewer, the real Hugo slides down the vertical ladder by having his feet run down the outside of the ladder arms while allowing his hands to control his descent. Says Legato: “He skids down it, ’cause if I was a kid I would not want to climb down. Plus it would take too long, but more to show off his exuberance and mastery of his environment. You’d slide down it like a fireman’s pole.”

In reality, the stand-in ‘Hugo’ steps onto a platform and Legato has the actor just rest his heels on the there to safely support his weight. The platform descends controlled by the physical effects guy, and ‘Hugo” appears to descend. But the actor was always standing on the dropping platform – supporting himself on the only other real prop, the sides of the ladder (even the rungs have been removed for safety). Once at the ‘bottom’ of the ladder, the actor creatively jumps his legs out wide and turns and runs. The rest of the ladder, floor, walls, and elements were all added later.

The next corridor

Another Hugo runs down the corridor and as he jumps through a small and impossibly small opening for the camera, we transition to the next shot. The wall of course and its door were added and removed in post-production.

3. The coal chute spiral

Once Hugo and the camera move through the small door, the visual effects team really had their work cut out for them, since the next shot involved the camera following Hugo down a spiral slide. Legato points out “there was no physical way to get the (stereo) camera to go down the coal chute.” So a very clever solution had to be found. Apparently Legato and Grossmann got so animated and loud creatively trying to work out how to do this shot in a restaurant before principal photography, that the two friends were asked to quieten down or leave by the owner. The solution that they came up with was both effective and complex to stage. The stereo camera rig was on a Louma Crane, and while it did move up and down, it never circled around the way Hugo appears to do as he slides down the chute.

Instead, Legato had an entire greenscreen room built that would rotate and with it the spiral chute. Hugo does actually slide around a real spiral, but for each inch, he would move forward the set moved in the reverse direction. He effectively stayed a fixed distance in front of the lens, since the set moved to perfectly counter his forward circular motion with an equal and opposite counter move. But as Hugo is really descending a real spiral, albeit moving clockwise to his counter-clockwise motion, the net effect is that Hugo and the camera just move vertically lower but always effectively in the same spot.

Needless to say, to rotate a whole green screen set at the exact speed a child is sliding around a slippery slide is a highly complex exercise. Rotate too fast and the camera catches up with the actor and bumps into them. Move the set too slowly and Hugo would escape around the corner away from the camera. Legato knew instinctively that the set needed to be manually controlled, both for safety and also so that the operators could react to the actual speed the actor achieved in each take. “I knew it would work,” he says. “It hard to work – I mean it couldn’t not actually work, at some point, it’s just physics. It may just not work very well!

Pixomondo VFX supe Ben Grossmann

In post, Grossmann’s team at Pixomondo would take actual rotational data recorded onset by an encoder and build in a whole set. But the problem was not even that simple. If the room was not meant to be rotating, just the camera, then all the lighting on Hugo and the coal spiral would have to move with the rotating room. If the lighting seemed to be flying around it would be impossible for Pixomondo to sell the composite. But rigging the entire studio lights to also rotate was a huge problem. Here Legato reasoned that if the lights could be made to turn off and on, and one 20K master light was rigged from above, then when the stereo greenscreen was composited, the shot would look real. He was proven correct.

The room needed to turn as Hugo lands in the greenscreen room and the film’s coal room was fully added as part of the same shot. The slide drop sequence took two days alone to shoot.

4. Pipe run

Hugo then runs off to the right of screen and in parallel with a moving camera running alongside him but separated by a series of vertical pipes. These pipes both played well in stereo but also allowed Legato to transition through several takes of the actor running through steam and over pipes before emerging to jump through a large rotating cog element, designed to be just big enough for a small boy to jump through. Here Legato decided to have the art department actually fully build the giant wheel and just time the camera move and Hugo’s run to perfectly match.

Spiral staircase

Hugo then runs up a spiral staircase that of course required the camera to crane up to match. Hugo passes through yet another door, allowing for yet another careful matchmoved transition.

5. Final hall to the clock

The camera then needs to Steadicam down a hallway to the final new clock interior set, where Hugo looks through the spaces of the numbers to see a train station below – actually, a greenscreen stage replaced by Pixomondo. The final sequence is some 1203 frames or 50+ seconds of screen time.

The sequence was actually more lengthy in previs but Scorsese decided that he did not want to spend as long in the film’s structure with this shot. The carefully structured shoot and post-production allowed not only for a commanding reveal of the boy’s control over this environment, but a great stereoscopic signature shot that Legato deliberately intended as an homage to Scorsese’s own previous cinematic masterpieces.


The film’s homages

Throughout Hugo, the filmmakers deployed techniques and shots as homages to the very films being discussed and shown. Here are just some of the complex visual references and deliberate stylistic choices. Some are visual, some are recreations, and some just use the original techniques discovered by cinema’s pioneers. “There are so many one-off shots, and I guess I did not realize until the film was done but we really did a check list of all classic cinema tricks,” notes Ben Grossmann.

In no particular order, below are just a small handful. How many did you spot?

The mouse is wound up, after being repaired

Mouse: A mechanical mouse is rebuilt by Hugo at the Montparnasse station shop. When it comes to life the mechanical mouse is hand, stop frame animated in stereo. Imperfections such as movements in the felt from the animator’s hands were deliberately left in. (Note: even the QA process at Pixomondo flagged the shot as having a lack of motion blur – to which Grossmann replied – it has no motion blur as it was not meant to have motion blur). “It was hand animated for hours and hours,” says Grossmann, “so we could have done a totally CG mouse which would have been a piece of cake, which is what everyone would have expected, but instead we decided to make it an homage to classic technique.”

Skyline of Paris: the actual Paris skyline matches exactly the skyline of famous films of the period, most particularly from Rene Clare’s Under The Rooftops of Paris (1938).

Hero clock shot: The ‘poster shot’ was an homage to Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock high above the street in Safety Last!(1923).

Original plate.
Final shot by Pixomondo.

The train: The train in the film shown by the Lumière Brothers is the sequence from Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat – L’Arrivée d’un Train à la Ciotat (1895). Not only was there a shot recreation in the circus tent scene when Georges Méliès first sees a projected film, Grossmann also points out they went much further. “There are two other scenes in the film where we exactly matched that same shot,” he says. The same lensing and camera angle were used of two completely different shots in the actual station shown in the film. In each case the separate and seemingly unrelated shots had all the extras, lines of sight, and train position perfectly matched by the effects team to the original 1895 film.

The train crash dream sequence: This was a recreation of the famous derailment of the Granville-Paris Express at Gare Montparnasse in 1895. (See below)

A trip to the moon:  The visual effects team also helped recreate some of the most famous films from the period including Le voyage à travers l’impossible, 1903’s Kingdom of the Fairies and 1902’s Le Voyage dans la lune, which is the basis of the VES logo/awards even today, and others.

Train driver and engineer: The train scenes on the engine between the train engineer and assistant are referencing the train scenes from Jean Renoir’s 1938 film La Bete Humaine.

Star Studios: Georges Méliès’ glass studio was really built and where possible the cinematographer Robert Richardson filmed there with only the natural light the building afforded. When it came time to have the studio fall into ruin, Grossmann led a team to film a simulated time-lapse of the whole building collapsing. Ironically, while the team did painstakingly film stop frames of the art department aging the building on a pair of stereo aligned Canon DSLRs, the result was deemed too distracting in stereo and the sequence was re-created in digital form with a more complex ruin, but one that flickered less.

Flicking paper: In the falling and fluttering paper scene in Méliès’ bedroom, the pages form a traditional animation sequence in the air.

Station Master being pulled along the station: For this very funny gag in the film, the idea came by Sacha Baron Cohen himself. To solve it, Legato did not have a moving train drag the actor down a platform. He had a stationary train and he slid the floor under him – to give the illusion the train was moving. The train was not leaving the station, the station was leaving the train. “We had the art department build a track and put the station on it,” says Legato. “It is an old idea – the first guy who ever thought of this was a genius, and we wanted to do it to hark back to the old-style effects.” Legato’s solution was faster, more cost-effective but also safer, than moving a real train. “In Titanic, Jim (James Cameron) did the same thing,” he points out, “but in Titanic, you did not see the actual ground itself move. The shot framed out the ground.” In Hugothey had a floor 40 feet long that could move. “We worked it all out,” says Legato, “and in a very short period of time and we loved using an old illusionary gag. With the station (beyond the train) being added as a stationary greenscreen element, it triple-helped sell the gag.”

Motion controlled magnets in the desk controlled the drawing

The automaton: The robot or automaton was not CG, although there were some CG doubles for some complex shots such as the train line fall. Prop builder Dick George constructed 15 automaton versions and some that actually could draw on paper. The VFX and special effects team solved the complex task by using magnets. Below the paper was a motion-controlled magnetic system that traced the hand encoded drawing. The arm then moved to match the magnets and draw the famous picture. In a couple of shots if you could pause and really study the frame you might see that the pen nib, at those points, “is a ballpoint and not an ink well pen,” comments Legato.

Buildings: Many of the buildings in the film in Paris are actual buildings filmed by Méliès when he discovered the technique of jump cuts. Grossmann’s team faithfully reproduced these exact buildings to be the digital buildings around the train station house. “We found out the location in Paris where he (Méliès) was filming when he discovered the jump cut, by accident,” says Grossmann. “His film broke and when he reloaded it shot it again. And then when he sliced it back again later, he discovered it did the jump cut – ‘Oh I can see the buildings did not change but the people suddenly jump’ – and that was the basis of a lot of his magic effects in his movies.”

Melies’ hand tinting work.

Hand tinting: In the flashback to the death of Hugo’s father, Scorsese was keen to explore hand painting the film, as Méliès had done to introduce color to his films. Grossmann’s team agreed but rather than hand paint actual 35mm film frames, the team hand-tinted the fire on the computer. They scaled the Alexa 1920×1080 frames to the size of 35mm on the screen – while not reducing the actual file resolution – then hand-tinted the frames, in stereo. Effectively, this meant matching left and right eye by hand at 35mm negative size on the artists’ screens. So impressed was Legato that he amplified the stereo effect of the sequence for greater impact.


Shot matches: Grossmann points out that “if you watch in the film there is a bit with the train driver that seems a little different.” Well, if you were to watch The Human Beast / La bête humaine (1938) by Jean Renoir, you will see that Hugo’s unusual depth of field compared to the rest of the film is a match to shots from this film, as is the shot framings, lensing and even the wardrobe. “Any point that the framing seems a little odd or unusual it is probably a reference or homage to a classic film,” adds Grossmann.

And there are many more. For example, there is a triple cut coming right at the lens and that is a reference to Buster Keyton’s The General (1926). Hugo also contains, as Grossmann reveals, “morphs, jump cuts, motion changes, cross dissolves, split screen, overlaid two shots on top of each other,” all deliberate homages to the techniques and films of Méliès. “In some cases,” he says, “we just went to town and had fun with it!”


Stereo techniques

Demetri Portelli  stereographer with Scorsese

The stereo design of this film has universally been praised. The film is completely designed and conceived to be seen in stereo. “I just can’t over-estimate how important the stereo was to Marty,” says Grossmann. “I remember some of the first sets, Marty would take the department heads and he does a walk through so they can discuss where they are going to stage the story. We would walk through the set, it would be very quiet, we walked around, he looked at everything, it is a very serious moment, very quiet, as this is his first impression of the set. I mean, he had done his first impression of a scene, he’s gone through his notes, and he’s studied the scene and he’s now on set and it is just a handful of people in the room.

“There will be 300 people outside the studio,” continues Grossmann, “but you will just be in there with five other people and Marty and we’ll walk around quietly and then say, ‘Bob what is the single coolest thing that will look beautiful that we can shoot in here in stereo?’ and Bob will go ‘Well if we had a train and we move over here, and a train here that would look nice.’ ‘OK,” Scorsese would say, ‘I can see that. It would come out nicely here. OK, OK and what if we had some steam here, and some feathers? Can we have some feathers here? OK, cool, good,’ and so he would go on.

“His favourite thing to yell out after a take was ‘Demetri dont skimp on the Pâté!’ (to Demetri Portelli, the stereographer) which was his code for ‘you are shooting it too flat, and I want everything!'” says Grossmann. This would lead to Portelli having to push the stereo to make the 3D effect bigger and stronger in stereo, almost to a point that Portelli was concerned that it would strobe or not work, but in reality the film’s stereo works brilliant – a point made by director James Cameron right after the film’s first showing in New York when he lavished praise on the film’s stereo craftsmanship.

Legend3D was the primary stereo conversion house on the film.


Stereo: anti-aging

Proving again that they are the go-to company for this kind of work, Lola delivered not only anti-aging but did it in stereo. The shots, featuring actor Ben Kingsley, were filmed in stereo and the effects work was done in stereo. Lola worked on 51 shots for Hugo.

“All the de-aging work we did on Hugo was in stereo, and this was far more challenging than doing a post-conversion,” explains Lola’s visual effects supervisor Edison Williams. “Hugo has so much dimensionality in principal photography, that we could not take shortcuts by only working on one eye.  We have created digital cosmetic effects for several 3D post-conversion movies, and on those movies, we only worked on one eye, and provide production with relevant mattes.”

Lola developed a new workflow to help with the process and discovered a few new tricks along the way. One thing that really helped was rotoscoping in 3D. “We created a 3D model of Ben Kingsley, and stuck the rotoshapes onto the 3D tracked model,” says Williams. “We then created a second camera (using the correct interoccular distance) in Flame and roto shapes were then aligned in both eyes. A few roto shapes needed to be adjusted, but most of the shapes transferred without any errors, it was more than a time-saver, it allowed us to finish on schedule.” The work was composited in Flame, and 3D tracked in PFTrack. The latest version of Flame has incorporated some great 3D tools, and this allowed Lola to embrace stereoscopic digital cosmetics without having to use Nuke.

“If our work had slight variations between eyes, we would get a shimmer in the affected areas, almost like a mirage,” notes Williams. “It was a big surprise the first time we saw it, and when we would flip back and forth between the two eyes we would almost always see a brightness difference. The amount of density variation that caused the mirage effect could be minuscule and would be completely undetectable unless you viewed it on a large 3D screen.”

Williams really respected the work he was seeing from first unit and the effects team on set. “Hugo has the best spatial 3D cinematography I have seen,” he says. “Before working on this film, I had spent significant time studying and testing the rules of 3D filmmaking. One law that must be obeyed is quite simple, if an actor or object travels past the edge of the frame, it must be behind the screen plane, much like looking into a house through the window. I discovered Martin Scorsese and Rob Lagoto created a masterpiece by ignoring the old rules, and creating their own.”


Stereo: re-graining

For old film sequences in Hugo, some shots needed to be viewed as ‘grainy old film’ but in stereo.

In stereo if you add film grain you normally have only one of two choices:

1. Add different grain to each eye, which produces an annoying stereo effect.

2. Add matching grain, but this makes the grain seem to sit at a flat plane in the cinema – like a shower curtain or a dirty flat plane of glass that sits between you and the film.

So the production came up with a third solution – the grain was applied in three dimensions. The grain is matched in left and right eye but it is wrapped over the objects in 3 space. The grain exists in z depth at the level of the object it is over. “Just that took us weeks and weeks in R&D,” joked Ben Grossmann.


Stereo: miniatures

The derailment of the Granville-Paris Express in 1895 was accurately recreated by New Deal Studios and Pixomondo for a dream sequence in the film. In reality, the actual engine careered across almost 30 meters (100 ft) of the Gare Montparnasse concourse, crashed through a 60 centimeter (2 ft) thick wall, shot across a terrace and sailed out of the station, plummeting onto the Place de Rennes 10 meters (33 ft) below, where it stood on its nose. Real photos exists of the fallen train and Scorsese requested the VFX team match this exactly. Legato is certainly no stranger to miniatures, having shot many, from the wreck of the Titanic to the wrecking of the experimental plane in Scorsese’s own Aviator. While it was the right decision for the film, the VFX supervisor was also keen to include some miniature work in the film to flesh out the vast breadth of techniques the film used. And of course another new element was shooting the miniatures in stereo.

Comparison between the real crash and a still from on the set of Hugo. (Above: Matthew Gratzner,co-founder of New Deal Studios, is reviewing the result after a take)

Interestingly, as an aside, only two of the original 131 passengers sustained injuries when the crash happened. The only fatality was a woman on the street below who was killed by falling masonry. Wikipedia reports that the real accident was caused by a faulty Westinghouse brake and the engine drivers who were trying to make up for lost time. A conductor incurred a 25 franc penalty and the engine driver a 50 franc penalty. For the film version, the train crash was staged using a detailed quarter-scale model by New Deal Studios (and no one was hurt during filming). New Deal visual effects supervisor Matthew Gratzner oversaw the construction and filming of the miniature train and station balcony. The process started with digital builds in Rhino that were CAD-accurate and directly used to construct the scale models, and were also shared with Pixomondo along with photos of the finished pieces for their digital work on the sequence.

The miniature train crashes through the window.
New Deal’s miniature train and station section.

The train station section included real glass for the windows, separate window panes and hand-soldered lead work, with plaster standing in for the stone block look. The locomotive and carriages were built from multiple materials, including CNC’d billet aluminum for the wheels. New Deal even created a ‘smoker’ system connected to a cam drive to produce the right kind of chimney steam. The crash sequence was filmed – twice – on New Deal’s stages on the ARRI Alexa at 52 fps with Cameron-Pace stereo rigs over three days to allow for pre-lighting, prep and re-dressing. New Deal engineered a track, while the train remained on rails with the baggage car connected to a physical skate. All this was connected to a large pneumatic piston called a cable cylinder with a 3:1 pull ratio – something usually used to through full-scale automobiles – to allow for the train to be slowed slightly before it crashed.

New Deal also filmed various inserts for the train crash as it knocks over newspaper stands and other objects, and the studio was responsible for another other key sequence – the fiery death of Hugo’s father (Jude Law) seen in flashback. In this scene, a huge fireball races through a hallway door, actually a miniature set constructed at one-third scale and built to survive multiple takes and tests (the fresco paintings on the roof, for example, were printed out of fireproof material and glazed clear). New Deal produced the fireball using butane mortars off-camera that were timed to fire with prima cord and an air mortar to blow out the window.

Certainly, New Deal was proud to be involved on Hugo – its fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese and Rob Legato. “In miniatures,” notes Matthew Gratzner, “there’s still a certain amount of imperfection and spontaneity that will happen – that’s what makes those shots much more real. And although I always say with miniature effects it’s a big cheat, because we get the lighting for free, the inertia for free, the gravity for free and don’t have to figure out what it does, we still do have to engineer it and do a lot of testing.”

Click here for our fxguidetv episode with New Deal Studios about their miniature effects for Hugo.


Pixomondo’s workflow and the 24 hour effects cycle

The effects team was on set in the UK from the beginning. In particular, Pixomondo had a seven person team on set and made a digital copy or reference of absolutely everything. At 150 feet long, 120 feet wide and 41 feet high, the train station set filled an entire soundstage but was still vastly extended by greenscreen. This meant on-set tracking and calibration data was key, as was accurately logging and recording all the props and sets.

Original plate.
Final shot, with Hugo given mechanical automaton legs by Pixomondo.

“We brought the Pixomondo team into Shepperton and set up offices there,” says Grossmann, “so any blueprint that the construction department made they would bring to the visual effects department, and we’d build up a digital mock-up for them. Then we’d LIDAR scan every single set, shoot and photogramatize every single prop, every single poster on the walls, every menu, every piece of wardrobe was photographed and cataloged so the digital crowds we created later would have the actual wardrobe and actual props, including every umbrella, every paper, every car. We had digital copies of everything in the visual effects department.”

“We had one of the most amazing data wranglers I have ever worked with,” adds Grossmann, “and because of our real-time encoding system, in addition to a recording of every single camera move that was happening, at the start and end of every camera shot, our data wrangler would have a Total Stations Leica set up and he would triangulate and record the beginning and end of every single camera position so that at the end of a shoot day I would have a Maya scene that would have a laser survey of the set we’d just shot in with all the locations of all the props and they would have locator nulls in Maya named with the slate of the shot, and the take number.

“So if they made an adjustment over the course of filming then I would know where they had moved the camera to. So I would have this Maya file that was all prepped out with data so that when we went into it in post I could look at any shot that had been done, open up the Maya file, see exactly where the camera was, and I would load up the metadata that was recorded in Motion Builder and then I would load up the Cameron-Pace rig stereo metadata and then I could set up a stereo Maya rig based on all the data that had been recorded to match.”

The movie had to be done faster than any other movie Scorsese had done – he normally has 58 weeks just to edit a movie, but in this case, the team had just 38 weeks to finish it. So the global presence of Pixomondo’s offices came into play.

The vast global Pixomondo team worked in one of two ways:

1. Sometimes the various Pixomondo offices would be allocated a sequence of shots and work in relative isolation, and this would also be based on each office having an area of expertise.

2. On faster turnarounds or bigger shops, all the offices would work together around the clock – each contributing in their own area of expertise.


For example (approx):


Imagine a shot is turned over out of New York at 5pm.

(TIMEZONE LA  (~2pm-4pm) -3 hours behind NY)

An EDL was sent to Ben Grossmann in Los Angeles, where the material would be pulled. The material would then be put on the Pixomondo server, available to all the offices around the world. LA is a few hours behind NY so it gains time to prep the shot.

(TIMEZONE China (~6am-8am) +13 hours ahead NY)

The Beijing office would then start doing the matchmoving in the morning when they arrive as they are almost exactly day when LA is night and vice versa.

The office in Shanghai would do any modelling adjustment that was needed based on the data model set library.

(TIMEZONE Europe (~6am-3pm) +6 hours ahead NY )

By the time they were done, the offices in Europe would be coming online. The Berlin office was exceptional at effects animation – steam, snow destruction – while Frankfurt was exceptional at character animation and Stuttgart was good at compositing,

(TIMEZONE London (~2pm) +5 hours ahead NY )

The London office was the main European hub and picked up all that work and put it together into a shot. As London is a hour behind Germany, the London office gained an hour. Or, London could hand it all on to Toronto.

(TIMEZONE Canada (~7am),  0 hours ahead NY)

Toronto could also start compositing or finishing off shots.

(TIMEZONE NY before lunch back around to NY)

So, by the time a shot was done, it was ready to hand back to New York having been worked on all around the clock, and it is not even lunchtime in New York!

This was happening while each facility was also doing an entire sequence by themselves. For example, in the chase sequences camera limitations combined with set limitations meant some shots were fully CG. Some of the chase sequences had full motion capture and body doubles of the main cast, such as the station master and his dog, and these were composited into full digital sets. In this case Beijing just completely handled that sequence from start to finish.



The original plate of the train station.
Final shot.

Clearly, the loyal team members and companies Scorsese has worked with and built relationships with who stay with him project after project served both the director and his film very well. So successful is this level of trust that the visual effects shots, while exacting and complex, rarely required extensive revision, as everyone not only trusted each other but could second guess the work and thus shots could be very efficiently shot and posted. Still, even with a well-oiled machine, shots were being worked on until after what seemed like the deadline in typical Scorsese fashion. The film stands as a wonderful inspiration in inventive filmmaking both in the story that it tells and in the way it is told.

For this article, we spoke to Rob Legato, Pixomondo, Lola VFX and New Deal Studios. The film also includes visual effects by Uncharted Territory, ILM, Matte World Digital, With A Twist Studio and Big Film Design.

All images and clips copyright © 2011 Paramount Pictures.

8 thoughts on “<em>Hugo:</em> a study of modern inventive visual effects”

  1. La Bête humaine by Jean Renoir, starring Jean Gabin, not by Jean Gabin.
    Your article is very interesting. Scorsese (os should I say your neighboor at Canon’s show) is so knowledgable about Cinema and loves it to death. His dvd series about Italian and American cinema is really interesting.

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