International visual effects company Pixomondo has created over 800 shots as the primary visual effects provider on Martin Scorsese’s 3D kids movie, Hugo, which opens in cinemas in the UK tomorrow. The film is about an orphan who lives in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris and stars Asa Butterfield as the title character alongside a wealth of British actors including Ben Kingsley, Ray Winstone, Jude Law, Christopher Lee and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Hugo is Scorsese's first stereo 3D film, and he wanted to use it as a narrative device driving an immersive audience experience. Pixomondo says that Scorsese was intent on pushing the capabilities of 3D filmmaking to extremes. The company developed custom workflows not only to handle complex challenges in VFX, but also to capture in painstaking detail all of the live action production data required to accommodate the VFX demands of this project. Pixomondo began working on Hugo in July of 2010 and was integrated into the production from the outset with VFX supervisor Ben Grossmann and digital effects supervisor Alex Henning on set in England and France working alongside the film's visual effects supervisor Rob Legato and Scorsese.
The film is a lushly art-directed blend of detailed sets, miniatures, matte paintings and CG VFX, which combine to evoke the look of Paris re-imagined on a 1930’s film set. The shots are framed to draw parallels to great filmmakers like Méliès and Lumière peppered with stop-motion animation, time-lapses, morphs & stereo transitions, flipbook animation, motion-captured and hand-animated CG characters, and use of miniatures throughout.
Pixomondo’s London facility completed a heavily-CG opening fly-through sequence and shots involving the inside of the train station; Stuttgart handled most of George Melies’ apartment, graveyard sequences and Paris exteriors; Berlin managed complicated fire and debris VFX simulation scattered throughout the film along with portions of the train crash sequence; Shanghai completed shots focused around the clock tower staircase and green screen composites (below).
Beijing worked on a magic show sequence, crowd duplication, match-moving and wire removal; Burbank created a magical animation sequence of flying papers, character animation and CG face replacement; Toronto and Frankfurt worked on train station coverage, with Frankfurt executing Hugo’s nightmare transformation into the Automaton. Pixomondo’s Los Angeles team completed specialized shots throughout the film, and Hugo’s nightmare in the train station, while also acting as the hub for all VFX work and editorial for all vendor shots.
“Marty has encyclopedic knowledge of cinema history and working with him on a project that used the dawn of filmmaking as a foundation was incredibly inspiring. In this movie every shot was composed with stereo as a primary consideration, laying the groundwork for very demanding visual effects. I’m incredibly proud of what the Pixomondo team achieved,” said Grossmann. “This film hops through cinematic styles all portrayed through a child’s vision — it was easy to get caught up in the art and flow of that sentiment. Working with over 400 artists around the world all embracing that same sentiment has been the most rewarding experience of my career.”
Pixomondo’s standardized VFX workflow allowed the company to make changes quickly and efficiently. With shots that demanded quick turnaround, Grossmann could provide VFX direction from LA, handing off creation of CG elements to Shanghai to pass along to the VFX team in the UK for compositing, and have it back for review and approval in LA by the next morning. In addition to leveraging their global workforce, Pixomondo devised a process to embed highly-detailed metadata in every shot — everything from the stereo values, focus, convergence distance, interocular separation, time of day, source reel and conform reel, timecodes, etc to automate what typically requires at least three rounds of manual labour.