Oscar 2012: Rob Legato Talks 'Hugo'

VFX supervisor Rob Legato discusses the game-changing Martin Scorsese best picture nominee.

Martin Scorsese tackles 3-D for the first time. All images © 2011 GK Films. All Rights Reserved.

Bill Desowitz: So what's your take on Hugo's great acclaim?

Rob Legato: Just the journey, the ride, has been kind of great and that it's been so well-considered. The fact that anything can happen [with the Oscars] and the fact that people have been so kind and considerate and respectful of the work means there is no fear.

BD: And Hugo has certainly distinguished itself among the VFX nominees.

RL: It's such a different type of movie. The other ones are hardware-driven and much more at the forefront than ours. To create the film you had to create an art form in and of itself about the subtlety of what you're doing. And the more subtle, the more it goes into the fabric of the film, and it becomes filmmaking, which is a thing I particularly like.

BD: But you can't divorce the great stereoscopic achievement from the VFX.

RL: Yeah, I keep forgetting, but that's also part of the thing. It got the chance to incorporate the art form of depth and that's huge. That's another part of the equation: the experience in 3-D is akin to another art form. It's as tangible as the set itself or the setting or the way it looks, the tone.

The clocks of the station play a big role.

BD: It's a meta-experience.

RL: It almost creates its own art form. There are 2-D movies and now a three-dimensional experience of a film and what is heartening in doing the movie too is the fact that it didn't detract from drama -- it added to drama.

BD: You were able to generate an excitement at a time when there was 3-D fatigue.

RL: It's part of the design of the movie and it needs to be for you to want to experience a three-dimensional film. With this particular movie, it was done with art, taste, and skill and in the hands of someone with Marty's caliber to play against. He gave it instant credibility and then what he did with it means that it can be done and be something that other filmmakers can aspire to.

BD: At one point did you realize that you nailed it?

RL: It was along the way as you start seeing the numbers of the work being incorporated back into the movie and then seeing how it changes the scene. The very interesting thing for me is you go back to try and pay homage to the genius of the past with the genius of the future at your fingertips, and I got as much joy out of something so simple that was the appropriate past version of how you would do something with the latest 3-D technology and the latest compositing tools. It becomes seamless again and it just works. If happens once, you consider it a rarity, but if it happens more than once then you continue to say, "I think I licked the challenge that I built for myself." It takes a while but until it's actually proven to you, you can't stand back and appreciate it.

The other thing is the response of people who see it for the first time, and I was talking recently with some who brought their six-year-old and he said that when his son got home he got on the internet with the help of his parents and researched all the movies that were referenced in movie and now has a greater appreciation for Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. And it opened the window to the past for someone to enjoy as it was enjoyed back then in the day. And I thought that's a wonderful by-product of what we did, which is: revere the people who came before us for their talent and originality and expose it once again to a new generation. And the kids who saw this movie really enjoyed watching the films of Méliès in the middle of this film: the imagination, the painted backdrops, the colorful costume and the outlandish action. They had never seen anything like it before and just responded to the pure imagination, which was very heartening. I'm not sure I would've predicted that, but they did.

Ben Kingsley plays effects pioneer Georges Méliès.

BD: It's so interesting that you had Hugo and The Artist come out in the same year.

RL: It's basically saying that with all the technology art is still art. It really is the illusion of Mozart. It's timeless and spectacular no matter when it's played. And then it falls out of favor with more modern music and then it gets rediscovered. And if you watch The Artist and then go back and watch City Lights, you realize what an art form it really was.

BD: Where do we go from here with 3-D?

RL: I think it's still in the infancy, cumbersome stage, but pretty soon it'll become sort of second nature to shoot it in 3-D. And part of the nature of what's going to drive it is my own personal prediction is, if you've ever seen any sport on television in 3-D, you wouldn't want to see it in 2-D anymore. It's a new experience: it's not seeing it in the ballpark; it's not seeing it in 2-D on television; it's another thing. And that other thing is worth doing. Then 3-D becomes a natural thing and now you want to see something of that caliber when you go to the movies in a theater.

BD: What about creating a new vocabulary for 3-D?

RL: Well, we used a new set of tools and one of the tools was a three-dimensional dolly shot where you play somebody fairly deep in the screen, and without changing the image size, you slowly converge them forward so they start going from behind the screen to in front of the screen. And if you do it over a long period of time, you don't see it but you feel it. And it changes how you view it in the shot. The art right now is figuring out how we use it on a dolly basis. There was a shot that Jon Favreau really liked is when Papa George is going through the flip book and then it's speaking to him in some way, and I slowly lifted it off the page, so it went from being two-dimensional on the page to being three-dimensional, so it's really what he's perceiving, and is a little piece of storytelling just by the nature of how you're using the 3-D.

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. His blog is Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), he's a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and he's the author of the upcoming James Bond Unmasked (Spies), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of the iconic superspy from Connery to Craig.

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