Eye on the Oscars: The Cinematographer

Hugo Cabret, the title character in Martin Scorsese’s much-discussed first venture into family films, lives in a world of deep isolation, a lonely orphan seemingly trapped in a life within the walls of a Paris railway station circa the 1930s. Left by a drunken uncle to spend his days maintaining the station’s countless clocks, with their giant geared mechanisms, while scrounging for food and parts for an automaton he hopes to bring back to life, Hugo is indeed alone. Deeply alone.

The keyword here is deep — and it is that depth that Scorsese and director of photography Robert Richardson strove to capture in their first stab at 3D. “In truth, we just tried to tell a tale,” the cinematographer tells Variety.

While the film takes viewers through the huge station, both in public areas filled with passengers and through the mazes of secret passageways, the filmmakers were careful not to overplay their hand. “We tried very hard not to make this an exhausting experience,” Richardson says — something viewers often experience during seemingly endless 3D action sequences in stereoscopic films.

Instead of falling into the usual trappings of 3D filmmaking, the filmmakers stayed with the director’s trademark character-driven approach. “Hugo’s sense of isolation is always there — he’s constantly peering from inside the train station to the outside,” the d.p. says. “Almost all of the shots are captured by looking through something.

“The main thing for us was to avoid having distracting elements,” says Richardson. “Marty wanted to use 3D more as a tool to tell the story, not fill it with ‘House of Wax’ ping-pong ball moments.”

Not to say Scorsese wanted to avoid them altogether. “He was careful to select them — the way an orchestra’s conductor would take a moment where the drums would come in. We were trying to use 3D to immerse people in this environment, not just to have gimmicks.”

Richardson wanted to place the audience inside Hugo’s world, in the way the character experiences it.

One such example, he says, is the introduction of Christopher Lee’s character, a bookseller named Labisse. Seen as a low-angle “three-shot” as the children meet him, the view looks up toward Lee, with his cat on the left and walls of books beyond and around him. “I remember it was one of the first shots I had done that I stopped when I looked at it on a big screen. I was feeling something I had never felt anywhere in a 2D movie. The room itself became a character. I was immersed in the room, and the entire room took over. I could feel that it had depth.”

There are, of course, established sets of rules for shooting with complex 3D camera equipment. “It took time to figure out what worked and what didn’t, until we began to feel comfortable moving the camera,” Richardson says. “Overall, I think we got quite good at it.”

Ultimately. the movie pays tribute to the work of the earliest of filmmakers, including George Melies and the Lumiere brothers, who themselves had experimented with 3D cinematography.

“For Marty to have taken 3D as a choice to tell this tale, and put it atop those pioneers, I think was all the wiser,” Richardson says. “Because they certainly would have utilized these tools.”

EYE ON THE OSCARS: THE CINEMATOGRAPHER
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