Despite the huge part they have to play in today’s cinema, visual effects are often overlooked as the integral aspect of film-making that they are. Often, performance or direction overshadows the more technical art of visual manipulation as the defining factors of a film.
Whilst this is usually correct in many instances, occasionally a film will come along that showcases visual effects in a way that shows their immense importance to a film, and how they can be used in service to story, instead of for idiotic and simplistic purposes (Michael Bay, we’re looking at you).
Hugo is such a film. With the Oscar success of The Artist at the 2011 awards in more of the mainstream awards (best director, actor etc.), Hugo’s impressive five wins in the technical categories were perhaps overlooked. However, no other film deserved these awards as much, as the use of its visual effects to aid story and characterisation showed how CGI could be used properly, even suggesting that 3D could be used to benefit a film, instead of merely causing a headache.
With this year’s London VFX Festival came a lecture by Christoph Malessa, head of Pixomondo in London, the principle supplier of the Oscar-winning special effects for Hugo, who demonstrated that much more work, and skill, went into bringing these effects to the big screen.
If you’ve not seen it (which you really should), Hugo is the story of an orphan boy living in the walls of a train station in 1930’s Paris. He spends his time fixing the station’s clocks in place of his deceased father, whom he is only connected to via a lifeless mechanical automaton. To get it working, Hugo must find a special key, which leads him on various adventures round the station. However, the real pleasure of the film comes from its special effects, which are responsible for creating the fairy-tale type world that Hugo lives in.
Pixomondo contributed 800 VFX shots to Hugo, an extremely large amount that used 10 of Pixomondo’s 14 facilities around the world. The sheer volume of work that went into these shots is immense, from environmental effects to set extensions, as well as constructing the Paris landscape. Perhaps unknown to some is that any shots seen outside of the station, which contains the majority of the film’s action, is all computer generated, as is the majority of the sets inside. A particularly revealing showreel demonstrated how layers upon layers of CGI were placed together like a jigsaw to put a shot together seamlessly.
Malessa’s talk also gave an insight into the workings of director Martin Scorsese, who was apparently adamant that the visual effects work should contribute to Hugo’s narrative as well as its visual style. Many may have been concerned when it was originally announced that the film would be in 3D. However, Scorsese’s use of it to serve as part of the film’s narrative progression, instead of mere spectacle, is one of its strengths. For example, using the technique to enlarge the space around Hugo to symbolise isolation is extremely effective.
The effects provided by Pixomondo were also used to pay homage to the history of film, with shots being constructed to imitate classic moments such as the Arrival of a Train in Paris from the 1895 Lumeires film, or the reconstruction of the great work by Georges Méliès.
With the London Film Festival, Raindance, and all the other smaller festivals going on in London at this time of year for film, it’s hard to find somewhere that is celebrating film anywhere close to this much. But with even specialist interests catered for by the London’s VFX Festival, which offer a rare look at exactly how these are made for top blockbusters as well as award-winners, there is truly no better place to be.