Hugo is an adventure, fantasy, children’s film directed by the prestigious director Martin Scorsese. Hugo film is adapted from a book named The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written by Brian Selznick. The story is about an orphan boy named Hugo Cabret, who lives behind the train station’s walls, and his duty is maintaining the clock tower. His father was a clockmaker, and his last project was to restore an automaton that he found in the museum, Hugo feels like repairing it will reconnect him to his decedent father. Therefore, He has a passion for mechanical systems and fixing them. However, Hugo isn’t the only one interested in mechanical systems at the train station. The same passion enabled Papa Georges, who had a toy shop at the train station, to reconnect with his past. The character introduced to the audience as Papa Georges at the beginning of the film is none other than the legendary Georges Méliès, the man who created the special effects.

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Georges Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, Greeting the Audience  ©


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Hugo Looking from Window ©
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Martin Scorsese Speaking with Child Actors Chloë Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield ©

Production Design | Hugo The Movie

Hugo Film’s opening scene establishes that the movie was promising. First, audiences saw where Hugo was living. Cogwheels surrounding the place, smoky pipes reminded me of Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin. All the corridors and rooms that Hugo uses to reach the clock tower seems like an amusing labyrinth with slide, zig-zag corridors, and rotating parts of the clock’s machinery.  The set design’s color creates an atmosphere similar to a fairy tale, yet it is not entirely magical; it is a little bit polished version of the real world. That is the thing that makes cinema fantastic because by the set design, color and music, the audience does not realize the tragic situation that Hugo is facing.  

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A Sketch of Hugo’s Secret Apartment © GK Films
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A Miniature Model of the Train Station © Luca Tranchino
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Technical Drawing of the Train Station © LucaTranchino

Dante Ferretti and his team made the movie’s production design. Scorsese used the source material’s illustrations to create the movie’s storyboards and scenes during the entire film. However, the movie has its own style. The train station was the reconstruction of the old Gare Montparnasse in Paris. Reconstruction took place in Shepperton Studios in the UK, and the station consisted of platforms and shops, and restaurants. The team put too much effort into making the set seem like a station from Paris in 1931 and creating a magical atmosphere. Hugo’s secret house seems like one of the most magical and prominent designs for the film; however, the production design team put much effort into small details like toys in the shop where Méliès works. They belong to 1931’s Paris, but they look more magical than actual toys like the clockwork mouse repaired by Hugo. There are many smaller details that most of the audience will not notice, and while they contribute to the atmosphere, they give little hints about the characters. The effort put into the design was appreciated by the audience and the academy members; therefore, the production design team received an Oscar for best production design.

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Hugo and Isabelle Looking Over Paris ©Brian Selznick
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Hugo Looking Behind the Clock ©GK Films
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Papa Georges’s Toy Shop ©GK Films

The Reason the Movie Was Shot in 3D

Méliès’s Glasshouse was also rebuilt in the studio from existing design and measurements. It was the place where the fascinating scenes of the film were shot. The audience sees Georges Méliès applying his magician tricks in the cinema. The scene opens with a scene from Méliès’s movie, Kingdom of the Fairies. While you are fascinated by the magic of the scene and the underwater view, the camera slowly turns to the man throwing fish into the aquarium, revealing how this scene was made, and it shows how similar Méliès’s illusionist tricks with the cinema. Like Méliès, Scorsese uses one of the newest technologies of that time, 3D, to mesmerize the spectators. Obviously, as someone who doesn’t like to watch movies in 3d, I admired the idea that the movie was shot in 3D because it creates a connection between Scorsese and Méliès.

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George Méliès’sGlass Studio ©GK Films
Kingdom of the Fairies ©GK Films

In addition to shooting in 3D, the movie also benefited from visual effects. In the train station, the place that Hugo lived, and Paris panorama scenes, the visual effects were used to enhance the atmosphere. Also, Hugo’s dream, a train crash scene, referenced an actual accident in Gare Montparnasse in 1895. The team was determined to create the crush scene with CGI, but the visual-effects supervisor, Rob Legato, who had experience working with models, proposed to demonstrate the accident on a model.  The designers and engineers have prepared the train and the train station’s model on a 1/4 scale for four months. The accident lasted only a second and a half seconds; however, it was slowed down in the movie. In the end, the result was almost like a real accident. Furthermore, when it is considered that the movie was released in 3D, the crush scene aimed to thrill the audience by train flying towards them. The same thing also happened in the film. When the Lumiere brother’s The Arrival of a Train was released, audiences screamed because they thought they would be run over by the train. This shows how Scorsese respects the cinema’s legends, and he salutes them.

Model Train Crushing the Model Train Station ©GK Films

In my opinion, Hugo’s production design was very inspiring. The documents that I examined from the film production phase show that architects have good potential to tell a story since they use the same language as the set designers: drawing and modeling. Moreover, as a cinema lover, I loved the scenes shot at Glasshouse because it shows the movies’ behind the scenes for the films like The Palace of the Arabian Nights and Kingdom of the Fairies that every cinephile would like to see; and I enjoyed seeing old footage like A Trip to the Moon. Most importantly, it made me remember why I was charmed by the cinema and set design so much. Like Papa Georgessaid in the movie because films are where dreams come true.

If you would like to watch the movie, you can find it on Google Play, and if you have already watched the movie, you can check Martin Scorsese’s interview on CBS Sunday Morning.

References | Hugo Movie


MügeElmas is currently an architecture student studying at Ozyegin University, Istanbul, in the senior year. After graduation, she aspires to continue her masters. She is interested in all forms of art, but is specifically passionate about movies and set designs, and always seeks new experiences to widen her knowledge about art and architecture.