It’s easy to reduce Hugo (2011) to a charming Parisian adventure story with the creepy robot and the clocks. Starring a fresh-faced Asa Butterfield as the titular Hugo, along with Chloe Grace Moretz as his bookworm companion Isabelle, it’s easy for people to forget what all the fuss was about.
On the surface, the film seems like nothing more than a simple adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2007 novel. As the film celebrates its tenth anniversary today, it is worth remembering Hugo as one of the most concentrated efforts to reinvigorate 3D as a storytelling device, led by the legendary director Martin Scorsese and his team. It is a success that rises above the film’s otherwise disappointing performance at the box office, and makes it worthy of fresh reconsideration.
What potential could Scorsese have seen in something like 3D? 3D has experienced a tumultuous affair with the general public, surged by brief waves of interests before dying down. The first golden age of 3D began with Man in the Dark (1951), which essentially used 3D as a predictable gimmick – poking the viewer with various objects and spooking them. It wasn’t until films such as House of Wax (1953), Kiss Me Kate (1953), and Dial ‘M’ for Murder (1954) until directors started to integrate 3D to wider artistic effect.
By the time Dial ‘M’ for Murder arrived, the trend had passed. In fact, it was only appreciated as a 3D movie until it was retrieved from the vaults during the second wave in the 1980s. This wave started off with the infamous Comin’ At Ya! (1981), which was more concerned with shooting every available object at the viewer instead of, well, the plot.
Martin Scorsese grew up during the first wave of the new technology. However, by the time Hugo was being filmed, James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) had experienced record-breaking levels of success in 3D, heralding an entirely new wave itself. Having watched films such as House of Wax (which he cites as a direct inspiration for Hugo in the movie’s companion), Scorsese was interested in the use of 3D to heighten perceptions of emotion and space. “Every shot”, as he told Mark Kermode, “is rethinking cinema… I’m not saying we use it as a gimmick, but it’s liberating. It’s literally a Rubik’s Cube every time you go out to design a shot, and work out a camera move, or a crane move. But it has a beauty to it also. People look like… like moving statues. They move like sculpture, as if sculpture is moving in a way. Like dancers…”
This sculptural quality lends itself beautifully to the elaborate world in which Hugo is placed. Each scene is an elaborate attempt to convince you that what you’re watching is reality. To see Hugo jump from the stark graphite sketches of the book to sets filled to the brim with people and props is a treat totally enhanced by 3D. Scorsese consistently referenced the illustrations throughout filming, which is why 3D is so important to its creation. The narrative itself is inherently visual.
The opening sequence of the camera swooping over Paris, into the bustling train station, and finally zooming into Hugo’s world of the clock innards conveys a greater, more realised sense of depth than 2D could ever afford. In fact, Hugo’s journey running through the clock tower took massive pains to make use of Scorsese’s interest in 3D and sculpture. From sliding down a ladder to the joyous slippery-slope, 3D added whimsy and wonder in Hugo’s world to establish the overwhelmingly mechanical yet magical tone that characterises the film.
At other points, 3D is employed to push responses from the audience to extreme heights. One of the illustrations in the original novel is of the clock reflected in Georges Méliès’ watchful eye. In the film, we are uncomfortably close to Ben Kingsley (who plays Méliès), watching his every pore and muscle fixed onto the clock. It elevates the sort of surveillance you’d expect from Méliès into something deeply unsettling, bordering on terrifying. The transfer of emotion from Méliès’ face to Hugo’s own panicked expression feels so smooth yet potent that the audience can’t help but empathise with Hugo’s intense fear.
Scorsese takes this one step further in another scene involving the Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). As Baron Cohen peers into the camera, closer and closer, the boundaries between film and audience are increasingly blurred, until we feel more disturbed than we would watching the film in 2D. To achieve this in a single shot is a testament to Scorsese’s dedication to thinking about pushing the conventions of 3D to new levels.
Ultimately, the film is a love letter to film itself. Georges Méliès, Isabelle’s godfather, is one of the technological pioneers of 20th century cinema. Méliès, a former magician, used trickery and special effects to create humorous, fantastical tales that parallels the techniques Scorsese uses in Hugo. A scene in Hugo that demands repeated viewing is when you watch Méliès making his films during a particularly successful period. An enveloping experience of the different layers of the film set and what tricks Méliès hid—whether it was film crew or giant dragons—is a powerful inspiration, and watching it will further your interest in film and narrative. It is an inspiration that clearly rubbed off on Scorsese.
Hugo forces us to understand the kind of financial and emotional investment that creatives go through in order to pursue artistic innovation and risk. Méliès pours his money into his studio, oversees every element of the filmmaking process, and even acts in his own films. Rewatching the heartwrenching shot of the ripped-up drawings that float around the room, animated by past stills from Méliès’ career and made painfully clear to us through 3D, represents the enormous sacrifice that Méliès made to pursue his obsession with film. In an almost poetic similarity, Hugo can look like a creative and technical risk that just didn’t pay off. It made $185 million at the global box office against its $150 million budget (which had already run significantly over the original $100 million). Following Hugo‘s release, the advent of 3D televisions and the consistently inflated ticket prices charged for 3D cinema trips seemed to cement the technology’s downfall.
The impact of Hugo upon 3D storytelling is yet to be seen, but it should be rightfully celebrated for its incredible vision, fearless ambition, and deep respect for the origins of film itself.
Words by Alex Rigotti
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