Prop maker Dick George made sure the automaton from “Hugo” runs just like clockwork — or at least appears to work that way.
“An automaton is a mechanical human being or animal that historically worked via clockwork mechanisms because it predated electricity and the electric motor,” he said. “They were used by wealthy people as entertainment pieces that were brought out at functions, parties and gatherings. Ours had to appear to be gears that meshed together and clockwork drives driven by springs, although in actual fact there were 28 separate drive mechanisms and servo systems within the body just to perform all the functions.”
George drew his initial inspiration for making things from his father, a do-it-yourselfer who was equally comfortable repairing his own car and tending to his garden. In George’s childhood home near London, he would play in his father’s greenhouses, workshops and garden sheds.
“They were great playrooms for us as kids,” he said. “If you wanted a gun, you just made it. Or if you wanted a sword and a shield, you got some wood, and you banged a nail in, and there you had it. I’m surprised we didn’t manage to injure each other more than we did.”
His passion for props led him to study industrial design and eventually get a job with the company that made the storm trooper helmets for “Star Wars.” “From there on in, I started pursuing the movie industry and started my own business,” he said.
Since then, Dick George Creatives has worked on projects including the cryptex for 2006’s “The Da Vinci Code” and the razors for 2007’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” But creating the automaton for “Hugo” presented a challenge unlike any other. “It’s unlikely a project like this will ever happen again,” said George.
Moon age Daydream: “In the story, the automaton is actually programmed by the artist Georges Méliès, and it draws the famous picture from his early black-and-white film of the face of the man in the moon, which is a very, very complex drawing. To draw the whole piece from start to finish takes the automaton 46 or 47 minutes, and it draws with an actual pen. Obviously, it is impractical for them to film the whole drawing sequence, purely and simply because that would be two-thirds of the length of the film, and the audience would be asleep. But in reality, it does draw the whole drawing from start to finish.”
The Laws of Attraction: George looked to one of his old toys for a method of getting the automaton to draw. “When I was a child — I think I was either 6 or 7 — I was given a very odd toy for a Christmas or birthday present. It was a table football game, English football, and you had these little sticks, each of which had a magnet in it. You put the stick under the table, and the little football figure attached itself to the magnet. And you slid the stick around, and the football player followed the stick. It occurred to me that possibly this might work because we had a table that the automaton wrote on. And in actual fact, that’s what we ended up doing. So it’s a computer-controlled system that drives the mechanism under the table, but the hand is connected to the mechanism via a series of magnets.”
A Little Droz-y: For the design of the automaton, the “Hugo” team of about 25 people turned to an 18th century Swiss-born watchmaker for inspiration. “One of the main exponents of manufacturing automata was a guy called Pierre Jaquet-Droz, and he made three quite famous automata,” said George. “The design [of our automaton] was based on art department drawings, which were loose copies of the Jaquet-Droz writer, which is one of the famous three automata that he made.”
A Familiar Face: “A lot of time was spent in trying to analyze the correct look and size of the head and the expression. Our in-house sculptor worked on hundreds of different versions and changes of sculpting the face to get the right look. And somebody came out with the notion: Well, what about the ‘Mona Lisa’? It doesn’t get much better than that. And it’s that classic enigmatic smile, and you can’t tell what it is, but it has a beauty about it. She’s not smiling, but she’s clearly not unhappy. So that was used as a basic style reference, and it worked.”
When it came time to bring the automaton to director Martin Scorsese for the initial viewing, George and his team realized at the last minute that it didn’t fit in the car. “It was a massive panic,” George said, “and we had to put it in another vehicle. But it was great. Martin Scorsese’s surprise and pleasure were quite apparent. His words were: ‘Excellent work, gentlemen. Excellent.’ ”