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'Hugo': Behind the scenes!

Production designer Dante Ferretti guides our peek at the sets and explains the design challenges of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated film (Use your cursor as a magnifier for a closer look.)

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Martin Scorsese’s Cameo
Scorsese’s no stranger when it comes to making cameos in his own films — how could you ever forget him as one of Travis Bickle’s more randy passengers in Taxi Driver? — and Hugo‘s no exception. Here, like in his bit part in The Age of Innocence, he briefly appears as an old-world photographer.

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Scorsese On Set
Not only was Scorsese’s re-creation of George Méliès’ 1903 movie set for Kingdom of the Fairies built in its entirety on the backlot of England’s Shepperton Studios, so was much of 1930s Paris. Additional parts of the train station that Hugo called home were also constructed at Pinewood and Longcross studios. ”In fact, we only shot for five days in Paris,” production designer Dante Ferretti says. ”That’s because the only two sets we didn’t build were the Paris library where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) and Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) discover who Georges Méliès is and the stage at the Sorbonne where they celebrate Méliès at the end. Everything else was built in its entirety.”

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Kingdom of the Fairies Underwater Realm
So how did Ferretti re-create the look of a Méliès film this faithfully? Some research involved digging through blueprints and drawings, but very little of Méliès’ original concept art exists. ”We did a lot of research, but it mostly came from seeing and studying his films,” Ferretti says. ”We saw many, many, many Méliès movies at the Film Academy in Paris with Martin, director of photography Robert Richardson, and set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo. And then the Cannes Film Festival put together a one and a half hour compendium of Méliès films for us to see also.”

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Invasion of the Lobstermen
One of Méliès more fanciful concepts was to have men dressed in lobster suits who’d be placed in the background of his ”underwater” shots. Then they’d look about the same size as the real-life lobsters in the aquarium placed directly in front of the camera in the foreground. For Ferretti that was just one example of how he had to be faithful to both Scorsese’s and Méliès’ respective visions. No wonder he calls Hugo the biggest design challenge he’s faced in twenty years of working on Scorsese’s films.

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Perhaps the single most famous prop in the Méliès oeuvre is from his 1903 masterpiece A Trip to the Moon. In that film the Man in the Moon meets an unfortunate fate when a space capsule from earth lands right in one of his eyes. Originally, an actor’s face was covered in a gooey molded plaster to give the full lunar cheese effect. For Hugo, the moon prop was originally sculpted out of foam to give it that liquid texture. From that, Ferretti made a cast to create both a fiberglass version and a papier-mâché version. It’s the latter that we see when, in despair over financial ruin, Ben Kingsley’s Méliès throws his moon on top of a bonfire.

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Remember how in your school play you’d need two people to get inside a horse costume in order for it to come to full equine life? Now imagine if your school play had Georges Méliès as a production designer and you might have ended up instead with a scaly, fire-breathing dragon. Dante Ferretti’s reimagined version can also fit two people, who can flap the wings from the inside, while stagehands get it to move — the dragon sits atop a track — by pulling ropes just out of view. In case you were wondering, it does not have a propane tank inside to make it breath fire. Those flames were added by the VFX team after production wrapped.

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The striking automaton that Hugo thinks holds a message from his father but really leads to Georges Méliès was patterned on the original description in the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Though some of the movement of the gears was created by the VFX team in postproduction, Ferretti and his design team actually built three different automatons to be used on set. One which was just a shell, like when Hugo’s father first finds it at his museum; a second, after Hugo’s begun tinkering with the clocklike mechanisms inside; and a third that represents the finished product, when the automaton is fully functional and capable of drawing. All three were built out of steel and aluminum, with the final version weighing in at 44 pounds.

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