Martin Scorsese revisits the birth of cinema in Hugo and pushes the boundaries of digital 3D in the 21st century.

It may be Martin Scorsese’s eagerly awaited first foray into 3D, but stereoscopic depth is not the only new dimension the director is exploring in Hugo. The film is also Scorsese’s first family project and his first feature to shoot digitally.

Fittingly for such a renowned cinema lover, Hugo looks back to the early days of the medium — a significant character is Georges Mélies, who pioneered special effects in films such as 1902’s A Trip To The Moon — while pushing its 21st-century possibilities. Adapted by John Logan from Brian Selznick’s The Invention Of Hugo Cabret, the 1930s-set film tells the story of a boy living in a Paris railway ­station who attempts to unlock a secret left by his father.

Produced by Graham King, Tim Headington, Scorsese and Johnny Depp, and with a cast that includes Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Kingsley as Mélies, Jude Law, Ray ­Winstone and Christopher Lee, GK Films/Infinitum Nihil’s Hugo was released by Paramount in the US on November 23. Paramount Pictures International is handling international markets excluding the UK (Entertainment Film Distributors), France (Metropolitan Film­export), Italy (01 Distribution), Turkey (Pinema), Middle East (Eagle) and Switzerland (Ascot Elite).

King came across the book before it was published and called Selznick the minute he read it to secure the film rights. “My development executive, Grey Rembert, brought it to my attention,” he says. “We read it pre-publication without all of the illustrations complete. The book was an entertaining mystery, a true love letter to early cinema and just an overall great story about family. I loved the idea of introducing a whole new audience to the wonders of early cinema, especially a pioneer such as Mélies. Through Mélies and his work, a child can see what a person can achieve through creativity.”

The decision to shoot in 3D came from the material. “Marty thought of shooting Hugo in 3D from early on,” King explains. “It was a wonderful way to bring the visual book alive and allow Hugo’s world to become as much of a character as the actors.”

The film was shot in the UK to gain access to the territory’s film tax credit, state-of-the-art studios and film-making expertise. “We knew we had large builds on large stages as well as a complicated shoot,” King says. “There are few places in the world you can find such a talented crew coupled with a great production incentive programme.”

Hugo shot at Shepperton, Pinewood and Longcross studios, with some location work in the UK and Paris. A recreation of Mélies’ glasshouse studio was built on the Shepperton backlot. “We really needed a lot of stage space as almost all the sets were built on stages,” says King. “We specifically went to Longcross because we needed a single stage that was large enough to house the train platform and a locomotive and two cars of an actual period train.”

Scorsese, a fan of 3D who has several 3D films in his collection including House Of Wax and Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder, wanted to use the format to its full artistic potential.

“It’s very important Hugo be recognised as a movie that was shot 100% native 3D,” says stereographer Demetri Portelli. “There was a commitment from Martin Scorsese, because the technology had proved itself, that he could jump in and shoot every shot in 3D. And that was the success, the excitement of Hugo. But it was also the challenge of Hugo.”

ARRI Alexa digital cameras were used, with lenses from Cooke Optics and Pace 3D rigs. The production put 3D and its dramatic potential at the centre of the film-making process, using 3D monitors on set and constructing an on-site lab and a 26ft screen with Real D technology at Shepperton to watch dailies.

“The only way to actually make [3D] part of the art-form is you have to shoot with it, you have to view it and you have to respond to playback on 3D,” says Robert Legato, VFX supervisor, second unit director and second unit DoP.

“There is no question in my mind that it is vital to place 3D at the centre,” says cinematographer Robert Richardson. “If, as a film team, you’re not all working to best enhance in-camera the three dimensions then I would ask why have you committed to constructing a labour of love that someone else will eventually deliver to you via post conversion and say, ‘Here is your film.’ That might work for some projects and directors… but for me that choice felt insanely wrong. Commitment is required.”

Scorsese uses depth to draw audiences into the world of Hugo, rather than just using the format as a gimmick. “He was thinking about the depth constantly and that’s what most people say about this movie, that it’s pulled the characters forward,” says the director’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker. “It’s not so much about stuff in your face — though there are a few wonderful shots like that. But more it’s about pulling the characters forward and feeling you’re in the room with them.”

Though Schoonmaker, like other collaborators such as production designer Dante Ferretti, was working in 3D for the first time, she says the main challenge for her was technical. “The art of it didn’t seem to change to me because we don’t do a lot of fast cutting ,” she says. “I think if you do it’s a problem, from what I’ve been told, but that’s not what this film needed. It was more the technical issues — of getting the dailies and the finishing of the film, which is enormously complicated — that affected me more.”

Hugo contains around 800 effects shots and while some are major set-pieces such as a train crash, Legato says that for the most part the effects work was concerned with heightening the film’s sense of place and story. One demanding scene was a 45-50 second sequence (similar in idea to the celebrated GoodFellas Steadicam nightclub shot) in which the main character is followed through the station’s nooks and crannies. Because of the size of the 3D rig, the sequence was shot in several parts, and pieced together afterwards.

“You carve away a lot of the set to allow this big camera and a crane that supports it, and then you have to put back in the set around the camera to make it tell that story,” explains Legato.

The sequence also involved using rotating sets and building an elevator to make the character look as if they were sliding down a ladder. Breakaway sets allowed the huge camera crane to operate through impossible physical spaces, and the base, arm and operators were covered up digitally to create the illusion of one long Steadicam shot.

“It’s just a highly intelligent approach to it, a well thought-out approach to it, almost a philosophical feeling about what it means and how to use it, which [Scorsese] is constantly thinking about,” says Schoonmaker on the director’s use of 3D. “He just never stops thinking that way. And I think that’s what contributes so much to all of his film-making.”