Directed by Martin Scorsese
The Invention of Special Effects in Films Through The Eyes Of A Magician.
You will find this review of Hugo a little different from anything you may have read about the film. It is mostly known that Hugo is a 3D adventure drama based on Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
I had decided not to read any reviews about the film before I went so that I would experience it without any preconceived notions. All I knew was based on its advertisement’s description. “Twelve-year-old Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity.” Written by John Logan (screenplay) and Brian Selznick (book); I found that the story was cleverly brought to screen with a perfect balance of drama, comedy, intrigue and adventure. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the theatre, watching it, that I realized it dealt with something that was very close to my heart; the history of magic and movie making. I will be focusing on the part of the story you don’t typically read much about in the film’s publicity: Scorsese’s tale of one of the greatest magician innovators of our times.
Last weekend I showed up at the nearest ArcLight Cinema near NoHo to catch Hugo. I stood in line for quite a while waiting to buy a ticket. There were dozens of people in front of me. When it came to my turn they sadly informed me they were sold out. Boo Hoo! and I had already bought my popcorn. So I stood there in the lobby, pacifying my sadness by chugging down as much popcorn that could comfort me, Then from out of nowhere, just like in the movies, a stranger walked up to me and said, ” I have an extra ticket, do you want it?” Graciously grinning like the Cheshire Cat I thanked him and ran off to catch the film which was about to start in moments.
As the previews flickered in the dark, I took my seat and the feature began. But for a moment I thought I had eaten too much popcorn. The screen was all blurry and I wondered if I was getting sick. As my eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness I noticed people wearing 3D glasses. “Oh My!” I remembered, this film was in 3D and since I did not get a ticket from the box office, I had no glasses. So I ran to the lobby, got myself a pair and made it back in record time, just in time for the opening sequence. That sprint alone burned off all the butter calories I had just consumed and I was ready for the adventure.
These were not your typical cardboard red and green 3Dglasses. They were a super comfortable, deluxe, hard framed XPAND glasses with olive green tinted lenses. Now, I have seen over 50 films in 3D and I found that they don’t always integrate 3D technology appropriately. I was thrilled to discover that Scorsese uses 3D the way 3D should and needs to be used, to enhance the story. It not only enhanced the depth of field, it added depth of feeling and gave it a sense of really being there; inside the movie, inside old Paris. Without giving anything away here, some of the scenes take place inside a giant clock mechanism. The 3D version of this film puts you so much inside these clocks, you feel you are one of the cogs in the ticking machine’s wheel. Beyond it being so visually immersive, Scorsese’s 3D helps amplify the emotional connection that the characters have with their environment.
The opening sequence was exquisitely spectacular, worth the price of the ticket alone. Wait, I got my ticket as a gift! OK, you get my excitement. It was breathtakingly sensational, Scorsese directs a track shot through a 1930s train station that totally takes you on an E-ticket visual ride that will drop your jaws and pop your eyes out. To think I had almost missed it. If you are one of those people who miss the beginning of movies, get there early, do not miss the opening. This film is one of the best examples of using effects as a storytelling ingredient and not just for the eye candy of the effect. The effects are part of the story. Very appropriate too, since the story is about the man responsible for pioneering special effects in films.
Let me also applaud Director of Photography Robert Richardson for his visual contribution to this masterpiece. Mr. Richardson goes way back as a brilliant cinematographer to Platoon and image-rich movies such as Kill Bill. His cinematography is goose-bumping transcending, completely capturing the look and feel of Paris in the early 1900s. Having worked together before in Aviator, Scorsese and Richardson make a fantastic team in creating movie magic that makes you suspend the awareness of your current reality and completely puts you inside another very real and believable world. This film is wonderfully successful in not only bringing history back to life, but also in re-creating how some of the earliest motion pictures were made.
Being a filmmaker and magician myself, I was pleasantly surprised that Scorsese chose to tell the story of the father of special effects, Georges Méliès (1861 -1938). Méliès discovered the stop trick and was one of the first filmmakers to use multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves and hand-painted color in his films. Because of his ability to seemingly manipulate and transform reality through cinematography, Méliès is sometimes referred to as the First “Cinemagician.” The role of Georges Méliès is masterfully played by one of my favorite actors, Oscar winner, Ben Kingsley. A fascinating character, Kinglesy is perfect for the role and truly captures the essence of the spirit of a magician-visionary inventor.
The movie takes place during a very important period in the history of stage magic. Méliès was a very active magician during the catapulting era of modern conjurers. He purchased French patriarch magician, Robert-Houdin’s famous theatre, specifically to do magic. Méliès created over 30 new illusions staged with comedy and melodrama, most of which are still done today in one form or another. One of the stage tricks I recently performed at the Experience NoHo event, the headless woman, is probably somewhat a related descendant of Méliès’s Recalcitrant Decapitated Man.
Méliès life changed when e saw one of the very first films ever made shown by the Lumière Brothers. The Lumières are credited as one of the first inventors of Cinema as a mass medium. The short film had a train arriving at a station. People had never seen anything like this and jumped out of their seats in fear believing the train was leaping out of the screen. It’s interesting to note that the Lumière Brothers were trying to achieve a 3D image even prior to this first ever public exhibition of motion picture. Here is yet another reason why Scorsese’s choice to direct Hugo in 3D is so well fitting. Méliès was so stunned by the amazingly realistic illusions created by moving pictures he wanted to buy the machines to make his own movies. The Lumiere’s didn’t think there was a future for movies and refused to sell to him. So Méliès decided to build his own camera and so began our cinematic history.
The greatest illusionists of the early 1900s such as Harry Houdini (1874- 1926), Harry Blackstone Sr. (1885-1965) and many others, probably grew up themselves watching his movies. This was an exciting time in history where people’s minds were being blown away with stage illusions and the new art form of films. As a magician I can tell you that most of us live and thrive to find ways to create illusions that will provoke our audience’s senses. This movie totally captures that passion and gives us a glimpse inside that unique human phenomena that steers some of us to be part magician-part jester and the drive that makes us continue to do so, in spite of life’s ups and downs.
So besides being a fun and entertaining theatre experience, Hugo can inspire all of us artists. Méliès produced over 500 movies, most of them lost or destroyed. Through the eyes of the character Hugo Cabret, played by Asa Butterfield, we gently get the message of the importance of following our dreams and protecting our creations. This is strongly conveyed in how young Cabret is so fixed on re-constructing an automaton left to him by his father. It is through this innocent kid’s raw passion to bring the robot back to life that we learn about Méliès’ life work.
Hugo is Scorsese’s homage to the innovations created by our predecessors. With Hugo he gifts us with the opportunity to be motivated to think of new things. It reminds us that there is much to learn from what has been created in the past. It is a call to the awareness of the importance of perceiving art.
As soon as I left the theatre I called many of my magician friends and filmmakers to urge them to see this movie. Many did not know that the film was so rich in movie-magic history. One of my fellow magic colleagues, Harry Every, went to see Hugo the very next day. As Chairman & CEO at Transmersive, Harry has been involved in the business and innovation of 3D technology for years. He is quite an accomplished producer, effects supervisor and imagineer himself. This is what he wishes to share with us after seeing Hugo.
“It’s a fascinating adventure in its own right that looks into the mind of one of our greatest illusionist innovators of our time. It’s truly inspiring and motivating to just imagine the amazing creations they were able to produce back then. This, without any instructional books or references and with technology that by today standards barely qualifies as nomadic. Illusionists and filmmakers today could be, and should be, wanting to create new effects and run out to shoot new innovative films.”
Brandon Scott is a professional magician and featured performer at the Magic Castle. He is an award winning filmmaker and a resident actor/theatre producer in NOHO. http://storywizards.com/