Take a closer look at HUGO in 3D.

Hugo Poster

Using 3D as a method of storytelling.

I would like to introduce you to the idea of using 3D as one of the many tools of film creation. Are you able to look past the technical aspects of 3D and see the illusion for what properties of communication and expression it possesses?

I need you to consider 3D for exactly what it is, an illusion. It is not physically there, what you see are images your brain has automatically assembled to observe a world in the way we observe real life.

William Hazlitt remarked back in 1817on the function of theatrical illusion,published in Characters of Shakespeare’s plays.


The romantic, visionary definition of dramatic poetry demanded a stage that should contrive to lose its identity in the service of this absolute illusion and make the spectators forget – for as much as possible of their time in the theatre – that they knew a world more ‘real’ than that placed before them on the stage.” (Jackson,1989,p.1-2)


Actor manager, Sir Herbert Beerholm Tree, declared in 1913 that:

Illusion is the first and last word of the stage; all that aids illusion is good, all that destroys illusion is bad.”

(Thoughts and After-thoughts, 1913, p.57),(Jackson,1989,p.2).

These are two key concepts I strongly believe in when considering any art form of narrative entertainment. Published approximately a century apart, these separate quotes both target the need for the use of illusion to aid our storytelling. Most important of all, if you are to use illusion, do not introduce factors that will destroy it. I believe Sir Herbert Beerholm Tree was referring to the use of disturbing factors that would remove us from the story being presented to us. Like William Hazlitt so precisely remarked now almost two centuries ago, that the audience should experience “a world more real” than where they were watching the stage from.

I am introducing you to some of my ideas that I present in my dissertation* regarding the use of 3D in narrative feature films. I have to admit that I am in lack of many good examples of use of 3D in feature films. Although, there is one current prime example where 3D was implemented as the function of storytelling. Where 3D was not “that cool effect”, but rather the key element of communicating the story. I am talking about Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011).

Most of all the story line of Hugo is captivating for any film enthusiast, as it is for a 3D filmmaking nerd, or for a visual effects expert. The magic of film is rediscovered as “The inventor of film illusions” George Méliès’ life is portrayed before us.

Hugo is the first 3D movie I have seen to give characters their own 3D profile in negative space. Meaning, each character has a fixed maximum amount that they pop out of the screen; Now, why is that? To consider this, it is important to consider why at all the decision was made to make the film in 3D. One reason could be as Mr. Mendiburu so plainly explains it in his book of 3D movie making Stereoscopic Digital Cinema from script to screen, (2009):


Because 3D is our natural way of seeing, it brings a feeling of realism to the audience. With 3D, we no longer have to rebuild the volume of objects in the scene we are looking at, because we get them directly from our visual system. By reducing the effort involved in the suspension of disbelief, we significantly increase the immersion of experience.” (Mendiburu, 2009, p.3)


Personally I do feel that I am able to connect stronger emotionally with a screen projected person who looks exactly like I would view him or her in actual real life. However, there are limits of which point the “pop out” effect is for me considered comfortable and emotionally compassionate. The main character Hugo Cabret, played by Asa Butterfield, has a “3D face profile” that only just pops out of the screen. I consider this to be comfortable 3D. It is neither straining or confrontational to watch. A good choice and creative decision to portray a main character.

hugo cabret

While watching the movie, his function of 3D makes me feel for Hugo Cabret, yet not exactly able to be aware of why. It took me a second viewing of the film to pinpoint the exact use of the stereoscopic effect responsible for adding my emotional reaction. The most extreme profile belongs to the Station Inspector , played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who is a threat to Hugo Cabaret`s freedom.

station inspector

The Inspector is portrayed with a much more confronting and aggressive effect of 3D. With the distortion of space that 3D allows, he is removed from his background and becomes much more confrontational for me to watch. When the Inspector does confront Hugo, the 3D is so strong that it physically hurts to look at him. I turned away both times watching this scene, which caused an emotional effect within me of being inferior to the Station Inspector. The genious stroke with this use of 3D being: although I did turn away from the screen was I at no point removed from the storyline of Hugo, I felt more like I was living the experience of the Station inspector through Hugo!

This effect of bringing the characters gradually out of the screen and into the audience (negative space) is also used when accentuating the emotion of a dialogue. The experience is one where I gradually feel as if I could touch them myself during the intensification of the emotion behind the dialogue.

 Chris Condon, one of the early 3D filmmaker from the 50`s through to the early 80`s explain his vision on using 3D in narrative feature film:

It has to be a film with stereoscopic elements that are used as part of the entertainment. (…) Most people don`t realize that if you show the 3D version of a picture, it`s more enjoyable. You don`t realize it, because it`s subconscious. (Zone, 2005, p.8)

In Hugo the use of 3D must have been meant to be “forgotten” while experienced. The 3D illusion has its function of showing real life. There is particularly this one scene in the film where Mama Jeanne, played by Helen McCrory is confronted with her husband George Méliès’ “one and only” surviving film from his immense film career. This is an amazingly emotional scene to watch, and in addition the film discovery seems even more real because the characters POV of the only surviving film being projected is in 2D! While our view of them watching the film is in 3D.


This scene is particularly admirable because on the one hand it supports Chris Cordon’s statement of most people not realizing that if you show the 3D version of a picture, “it`s more enjoyable”. On the other hand this scene does not remove me from the story when I do realize that I am watching 3D, compared to a 2D film that I am used to watch screened in a cinema. At this point I have actually forgotten that I am watching a 3D film, and I am reminded that I am watching 3D only when I see the 2D image on screen. This does not remove my attention from the film, simply because it is the most natural thing to expect. In real life I see people in 3D and I watch a film in 2D. This scene is perfectly imitating real life.

What I discovered working in 3D is that it enhances the actor, like watching a sculpture that moves. It’s no longer flat. With the right performances and the right moves, it becomes a mixture of theater and film, but different from both. That is something that has always been exciting to me…I’ve always dreamed about doing a film in 3D.” (M.Scorsese, 2011, p.18) Quote taken from PDF “Production Information” sent to my by DDA public relations handling press release for Hugo (2011)

Maritn Scorsese`s Hugo hit the nail on the head. It was as if my 3D filmmakers prayers had been heard. It is the first major 3D feature film I have ever seen to prove the unity of narrative story and 3D effect. It actually uses 3D for what it is capable of, and that is to move you, effect you, shock you, and make you feel the story told as well as seeing it.

«Hugo» is to be released in Norway 16th March 2012.

*My dissertation is not published as I feel my dissertation to be yet incomplete. Missing a confirmation quote from the key creative crew, being Director Martin Scorsese and Stereographer Demetri Portelli, regarding their intensions of deliberate use of 3D that is so obvious in Hugo (2011).