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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Making | Hugo: a study of modern inventive visual effects

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo tells the story of an orphan living in a 1930s Paris train station. But it is also a story of the birth of cinema and the film itself used a wide range of inventive solutions to both tell its tale and pay homage to the earliest masters of cinema. To help bring Hugo to life, Scorsese called on long-time collaborator Rob Legato as the film’s visual effects supervisor. “The whole film really is celebrating persistence of vision,” says Legato, “and what it meant to early filmmakers, and the film is so rich with homage and appreciate of that.”

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Final shot, with Hugo given mechanical automaton limbs by Pixomondo.

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Final shot by Pixomondo. (click on any pic for a bigger image)

Comparison between the real crash and a still from on the set of Hugo. (Above: Matthew Gratzner,co-founder of New Deal Studios, is reviewing the result after a take)
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Final shot. VFX by Pixomondo.

Pixomondo’s workflow and the 24 hour effects cycle

The effects team was on set in the UK from the beginning. In particular, Pixomondo had a seven person team on set and made a digital copy or reference of absolutely everything. At 150 feet long, 120 feet wide and 41 feet high, the train station set filled an entire soundstage but was still vastly extended by greenscreen. This meant on-set tracking and calibration data was key, as was accurately logging and recording all the props and sets.

“We brought the Pixomondo team into Shepperton and set up offices there,” says Grossmann, “so any blueprint that the construction department made they would bring to the visual effects department, and we’d build up a digital mock up for them. Then we’d LIDAR scan every single set, shoot and photogramatize every single prop, every single poster on the walls, every menu, every piece of wardrobe was photographed and cataloged so the digital crowds we created later would have the actual wardrobe and actual props, including every umbrella, every paper, every car. We had digital copies of everything in the visual effects department.”

“We had one of the most amazing data wranglers I have ever worked with,” adds Grossmann, “and because of our real time encoding system, in addition to a recording of every single camera move that was happening, at the start and end of every camera shot, our data wrangler would have a Total Stations Leica set up and he would triangulate and record the beginning and end of every single camera position so that at the end of a shoot day I would have a Maya scene that would have a laser survey of the set we’d just shot in with all the locations of all the props and they would have locator nulls in Maya named with the slate of the shot, and the take number.

“So if they made an adjustment over the course of filming then I would know where they had moved the camera to. So I would have this Maya file that was all prepped out with data so that when we went into it in post I could look at any shot that had been done, open up the Maya file, see exactly where the camera was, and I would load up the metadata that was recorded in Motion Builder and then I would load up the Cameron-Pace rig stereo meta data and then I could set up a stereo Maya rig based on all the data that had been recorded to match.”

The movie had to be done faster than any other movie Scorsese had done – he normally has 58 weeks just to edit a movie, but in this case the team had just 38 weeks to finish it. So the global presence of Pixomondo’s offices came into play.

The vast global Pixomondo team worked in one of two ways:
1. Sometimes the various Pixomondo offices would be allocated a sequence of shots and work in relative isolation, and this would also be based on each office having an area of expertise.

2. On faster turnarounds or bigger shops, all the offices would work together around the clock – each contributing in their own area of expertise.