The newest stereo 3D film sensation promises to be Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, just in time for the holidays. The film is the director’s first 3D venture and is based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a children’s graphic novel written and illustrated by Brian Selznick. It’s the story of twelve-year-old Hugo, an orphan who lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station. Hugo gets wrapped up in the mystery involving his father and a strange mechanical man.

Scorsese – who’s as much a film buff as an award-winning director – has a deep appreciation for the art form of past 3D films, like Dial M for Murder. In adapting this fantastical story, Scorsese and his Oscar-winning team have an ideal vehicle to show what stereo 3D can do in the right hands and when approached with care. Unlike the groundbreaking Avatar, which relied heavily on motion capture and synthetic environments, Hugo is a more cinematic production with real sets, actors and is based on the traditional language of filmmaking.

Hugo started production in 2010 using then-prototype ARRI ALEXA cameras, which were configured into special 3D camera rigs by Vince Pace. The ALEXA was the choice of cinematographer Bob Richardson for its filmic qualities. Camera signals were captured as 1920 x 1080 video with the Log-C color profile to portable HDCAM-SR recorders. Hugo will be the first 3D release produced with this particular equipment complement. With post for Hugo in its final stages, I had a chance to speak with two of Scorsese’s key collaborators, Rob Legato (visual effects supervisor and second unit director of photography) and Thelma Schoonmaker (film editor).

Developing the pipeline

Rob Legato has been the key to visual effects in many of Scorsese’s films, including The Aviator. For Hugo, Legato handled effects, second unit cinematography and, in fact, developed the entire start-to-finish stereo 3D post pipeline. Legato started our conversation with the back story, “I had done a small film with the ARRI D-21 and Bob [Richardson] loved the look of the camera. He liked the fact that it was produced by a traditional film camera manufacturer, so when the ALEXA came out, he was very interested in shooting Hugo with it. In order to make sure that the best possible image quality was maintained, I developed a DI workflow based on maintaining all the intermediate steps up to the end in log space. All effects work stayed in log and dailies color correction was done in log, so that no looks were baked in until the final DI stage. We used LUTs [color look-up tables] loaded into [Blackmagic Design] HDLink boxes for monitoring on-set and downstream of any the visual effects.”

“The original dailies were color corrected for editorial on a Baselight unit and that information was saved as metadata. We had both an Avid Media Composer and a Baselight system set up at my home facility, The Basement. Thelma cuts on Lightworks, but by mirroring her edits on Media Composer, I had the information in a form ready to disperse to the visual effects designers. I could load the color grades developed by Marty, Bob and the colorist for each scene into my Baselight, so that when I turned over finished VFX shots to Thelma, they would have the same look applied as those shots had from the dailies. That way a VFX shot wouldn’t be jarring when Thelma cut it back into the sequence, because it would match the same grade.”

Working in the language of stereo 3D

The key to the look of Hugo is the care put into the stereo 3D images. In fact, it’s very much a hand crafted film. Legato continued, “All the 3D imagery was done in-camera. You could never accomplish this type of look and emotional feel with post production rotoscoping techniques used to turn 2D films into 3D. Stereo was designed into the film from the very beginning. Not 3D gags, but rather a complete immersive style to the sets, lighting, camera moves and so on. Marty and Bob would watch the shots on set in 3D wearing their glasses. Performances, lighting, stereography and the position of items in the set were all tweaked to get the best results in 3D. The sets were designed for real depth, including elements like steam and particles in the air. You feel what it’s like to be in that space – emotionally. In the end, the story and the look are both a real love affair with motion pictures.”

One of the common complaints stereo 3D critics offer is that cinematographers cannot use shallow depth-of-field for storytelling. Legato responded, “Marty and Bob’s approach was to create those depth cues through lighting. We erred on the side of more focus, not less – more in the style of Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane. Monitoring in stereo encouraged certain adjustments, like lighting little parts of the set in the background to gain a better sense of depth and control where the audience should focus its attention. That’s why stereoscopic post on 2D films doesn’t work. You cannot put off any part of the art form until later. You lose the taste of the artists. You lose the emotional advantage and the subtlety, because the process hasn’t been vetted by decisions made on the set through staging.”

A tailored approach

At the time of this interview, the film was in the final stages of stereo adjustments and color grading. Legato explained, “Unlike a 2D film, the finishing stage includes a final pass to tweak the 3D alignment. That is being handled by Vince Pace’s folks with Marty and Bob supervising. When they are done, that information will go to the colorist to be integrated into the grade. Greg Fisher has been our colorist throughout the film. Often you don’t have the same colorist for dailies as for the DI, but this is a color workflow that works best for Bob. By establishing a look during dailies and then carrying that data to the end with the same colorist – plus using Baselight at both ends – you get great continuity to the look. We tailored the most comfortable style of working for us, including building small 3D DI theaters in England and New York, so they could be available to Marty where he worked. That part was very important in order to have proper projection at the right brightness levels to check our work. Since the basic look has already been establish for the dailies, now Greg can concentrate on the aesthetics of refining the look during the DI.”

Cutting in 3D

Thelma Schoonmaker has been a close collaborator with Martin Scorsese as the editor for most of his films. She’s won Best Editing Oscars for The Departed, The Aviator and Raging Bull. Some editors feel that the way you have to cut for a stereo 3D release cramps their style, but not so with Schoonmaker. She explained, “I don’t think my style of cutting Hugo in 3D was any different than for my other films. The story really drives the pace and this is driven by the narrative and the acting, so a frenetic cutting style isn’t really called for. I didn’t have to make editorial adjustments based on 3D issues, because those decisions had already been made on set. In fact, the stereo qualities had really been designed from take to take, so the edited film had a very smooth, integrated look and feel.”

Often film editors do all their cutting in 2D and then switch to 3D for screenings. In fact, Avatar was edited on an older Avid Media Composer Adrenaline system without any built-in stereo 3D capabilities. Those features were added in later versions. Hugo didn’t follow that model. Schoonmaker continued, “I cut this film in 3D, complete with the glasses. For some basic assemblies and roughing out scenes, I’d sometimes switch the Lightworks system into the 2D mode, but when it came time to fine-cut a scene with Marty, we would both have our glasses on during the session and work in 3D. These were flip-up 3D glasses, so that when we turned to talk to each other, the lenses could be flipped up so we weren’t looking at each other through the darker shades of the polarized glass.”

Thelma Schoonmaker has been a loyal Lightworks edit system user. The company is now owned by EditShare, who was eager to modify the Lightworks NLE for stereo 3D capabilities. Schoonmaker explained, “The Lightworks team was very interested in designing a 3D workflow for us that could quickly switch between 2D and 3D. So, we were cutting in 3D from the start. They were very cooperative and came to watch how we worked in order to upgrade the software accordingly. For me, working in 3D was a very smooth process, although there were more things my two assistants had to deal with, since ingest and conforming is a lot more involved.”

Prior to working on Hugo, the seasoned film editor had no particular opinion about stereo 3D films. Schoonmaker elaborated, “Marty had a very clear concept for this film from the beginning and he’s a real lover of the old 3D films. As a film collector, he has his own personal copies of Dial M for Murder and House of Wax, which he screened for Rob [Legato], Bob [Richardson] and me with synced stereo film projection. Seeing such pristine prints, we could appreciate the beauty of these films.”

Editing challenges

The film was shot in 140 production days (as well as 60 second-unit days) and Thelma Schoonmaker was cutting in parallel to the production schedule. Principal photography wrapped in January of this year, with subsequent editing, effects, mix and finishing continuing into November. Schoonmaker shared some final thoughts, “I’m really eager to see the film in its final form like everyone else. Naturally I’ve been screening the cuts, but the mix, final stereo adjustments and color grading are just now happening, so I’m anxious to see it all come together. These finishing touches will really enhance the emotion of this film.”

Hugo is a fairy tale. It is narrative-driven versus being based on characters or environments. That’s unlike some of Scorsese’s other films, like Raging Bull, Goodfellas or The Departed, where there is a lot of improvisation. Marty injected some interesting characters into the story, like Sacha Baron Cohen as the station inspector. These are more fleshed out than in the book and it was one of our challenges to weave them into the story. There are some great performances by Asa Butterfield, who plays Hugo, and Ben Kingsley. In fact, the boy is truly one of a great new breed of current child actors. The first part of the film is practically like a silent movie, because he’s in hiding, yet he’s able to convey so much with just facial emotions. As an editor, there was a challenge with the dogs. It took a lot of footage to get it right [laughs]. Hugo ends as a story that’s really about a deep love of film and that section largely stayed intact through the editing of the film. Most of the changes happened in the middle and a bit in the front of the film.”

From the imagery of the trailers, it’s clear that Hugo has received a masterful touch. If, like me, you’ve made an effort to skip the 3D versions of most of the recent popular releases, then Hugo may be just the film to change that policy! As Rob Legato pointed out, “Hugo is a very immersive story. It’s the opposite of a cutty film and is really meant to be savored. You’ll probably have to see it more than once to take in all the detail. Everyone who has seen it in screenings so far finds it to be quite magical”.

Some addition stories featured in the Editors Guild Magazine, Post magazineanother from Post and from FXGuide.

And even more from Rob Legato and Thelma Schoonmaker.

Written for DV magazine (NewBay Media, LLC)

© 2011 Oliver Peters