'Hugo': How Dante Ferretti brought George Melies' silent films to life
Each year, the Oscars recognize A-list talent we regularly see on-screen, on the red carpet, and in tabloids. But the Academy Awards also reward those who work behind the scenes: the writers, editors, costume designers, and others who help create trophy-worthy movie magic. This Oscars season, we’ll be toasting those off-screen artists by delving into the hidden secrets that helped create the on-screen magic that we — and the Academy — fell in love with. For more access backstage during this Oscars season, click here for EW.com’s Oscars Behind the Scenes coverage.
When you talk about range, Dante Ferretti should be Exhibit A.
The legendary production designer’s career spans forty years, from his work on 1975’s Salò: Or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notoriously gruesome study of depravity, to Martin Scorsese’s warm, kid-friendly love-letter to movie history, Hugo. This lush adaptation of Brian Selznick’s 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret proved to be, by Ferretti’s own admission, the greatest challenge of his 20-year collaboration with Scorsese. Not only did the Italian-born designer have to execute the vision of perhaps America’s greatest living filmmaker, he also had to conjure up the fantastical dreamscapes of another movie maestro, pioneering filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose background as a magician led to eye-popping sleight-of-hand in films like Kingdom of the Fairies and A Trip to the Moon that few of his successors were able to match until the advent of CGI. And recreate 1930s Paris on soundstages at England’s Shepperton, Pinewood, and Longcross Studios. And be faithful to Selznick’s novel, which itself had over 200 pages of detailed illustrations.
It’s enough to make an art director’s head spin, even if he has his wife and set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo at his side, plus four decades of experience, 10 Academy Award nominations, and 2 Oscar wins (for The Aviator and Sweeney Todd) to his credit. “Well, you always think the most recent one is the most difficult,” Ferretti says. “But this really was the toughest because we’re melding the actual sets we’ve built with CGI backdrops, and trying to emulate the style of Méliès and be faithful to the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. So it’s a very specific tone we had to hit.”
For a deep dive into the magical world of Hugo, check out a video about the production design after the break, plus an annotated photo with details on how Ferretti recreated Méliès’ Kingdom of the Fairies set for Hugo’s memorable flashback sequence, plus a gallery of images from the production with notes from Ferretti himself.