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3-DFeature Film

A Few Thoughts on Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”

Amid Amidi and George Melies

Above right is a photo of me in Paris some years ago standing besides the grave of French filmmaker and visual fx pioneer Georges Méliès. I’d heard that Martin Scorsese’s new film Hugo incorporated the character of Méliès (portrayed by Ben Kingsley in the left-hand photo above), but I didn’t anticipate that the entire film would be essentially about him. More broadly, Hugo, which I saw in 3-D last night, is a celebration of filmmaking magic, the medium’s dreamlike possibilities, and true to Scorsese’s personal passions, the importance of film preservation. That Scorsese was able to package these themes into an entertaining family film is nothing short of miraculous.

The film’s strength is its visuals. I got a real kick out of the imagery, from the main setting of the train station and its cogs-and-gears innards to the intricate mechanics of the automaton who figured prominently in the film. The 1930s train station, which provides a warm and intriguing setting for the film, is almost a character in itself, but like most of the film’s characters, it suffers from broad caricature. In this case, it’s the cliched and tiresome American view of Paris, which was also seen in Woody Allen’s recent Midnight in Paris. The film’s freshest visual spectacles were the scenes that recreated Méliès’ films, appropriately so since the film was a celebration of his genius.

The 3-D must be mentioned. It was not offensive–an accomplishment in itself–but as usual, I’m left wondering how much it truly added. The opening shot of the film (was it all CG?), was contributed by ILM I think, and it was a fun use of 3-D in the roller coaster ride sense of the technology. In some of the early scenes, Scorsese showed motes of dust floating around the screen. The fact that I remember that, but not what was happening on the screen doesn’t speak well of the effect. To Scorsese’s credit, it appeared that he cut back on the 3-D trickery midway through the film, mostly recycling 3-D shots used earlier in the film or simply putting it aside in favor of more straightforward storytelling.

Final verdict: Hugo isn’t necessarily a classic, but it is a memorable children’s film with a refreshing lack of cynicism and lofty ideals.

A couple of animation-related notes:

* The film is an adaptation of Brian Selznick’s quasi-graphic novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. A film based on the book was announced in May, 2008, and was slated to be the live-action directorial debut of Blue Sky co-founder and Ice Age director Chris Wedge. That version, for reasons unknown, was canned.

* A hand-tinted color version of Georges Méliès’s classic “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) was discovered in the 1990s and its restoration was recently completed by French film historian Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films. Bromberg is better known in the animation world as the artistic director of the Annecy International Animated Film Festival.

Voyage to the Moon
  • There are numerous filmic homages throughout “Hugo”; two personal favorites involve Scorsese’s use of color.

    When Méliès and his wife attend a screening of the Lumière Brothers’ early films, the palette imitates early color film (like Cinecolor or two-strip Technicolor) with heavy emphasis on blues and reds. (Scorsese used a similar technique for portions of “The Aviator.”)

    And during a sequence showing Méliès’ studio in its heyday, the color palette is derived from the paints used to hand-color Méliès films (giving the live-action footage an otherworldly quality).

    Since “Hugo” is being presented in 3-D, it’s also worth noting that Méliès built a double-camera — designed to shoot two negatives simultaneously (one negative for European prints, one negative for American prints) — and inadvertently shot 3-D records on several of his films. (Hugo” doesn’t show Méliès shooting with the double camera, but it does show the precursor to the double-camera, namely two separate cameras, side-by-side, shooting concurrently.) Serge Bromberg occasionally screens the Méliès 3-D films and I highly recommend catching his presentation, “Retour de Flamme” (“Saved From the Flames”), if you have the opportunity. In the meantime, go see “Hugo” and enjoy such stuff as dreams are made on.

  • Upstanding Citizen

    Scorsese’s imagery felt culled from the films of Renoir and Tati and the like, so I feel no need for him to incorporate a more “realistic” Parisian setting. Particularly not in a fantasy movie.

    Personally, I don’t think Scorsese has made a film this good in the last decade.

  • Great review Amid. I was on the fence about catching this, but reading your article on it makes me wanna see it. Thanks!

  • Mahesh

    What I thought the 3-D added was a sense of how early audiences felt with those first movies. By seeing those early films somewhat differently in 3-D, we can sort of get a sense of why they would run out of the way of train coming to them on film. That sense of wonder is replicated quite well.

  • This looks great – thanks for the heads up, I wasn’t even aware of this movie. Georges Méliès, Hit-Girl and Sacha Baron Cohen, how can I refuse?

  • Kevin H

    Spoiler alert?

  • I thought it was a beautiful film, totally not what I expected at all. The recreation of Melies films in terms of the costumes and designs were a lot of fun. Plus, just for the fun of it, I got a kick out of seeing a Charley Chase poster at the movie theater :) Great film, a must see for anyone, especially those interested in animation and special effects.

  • Jen

    It’s got lots to look at, but the film is emotionally dry. Not a great movie, but worth seeing. The 3D added nothing but annoyance and dimness.

  • the effects were pixomondo for digital effect and new deal studios for miniatures not ILM

  • Jon

    “The opening shot of the film (was it all CG?)”

    If you’re talking about the shot in which the camera pushes past all the people on the train platform and then stops as it hits the main area, then mostly yes (Plus some green screen). Only in the last part of the shot, when steam covers the frame does it make the switch from 3D to set.

  • I know it’s only a statue… but wow they were really able to make Ben Kingsley into Melies.

    I have yet to see this but plan on seeing Hugo, The Muppets and Arthur Christmas over the next week. Eye candy galore!!

  • Cath

    I highly recommend reading the book. It’s sort of like a flip book/novel. Great story + fun to read.

  • Mike Clark

    The best 3-D shot is the one held longest: A closeup of Sacha Baron Cohen as he encounters Hugo midway through the movie.

    I saw this twice. First time was the downtown L.A. screening with Scorsese and his production colleagues. Second time in a theater…and I enjoyed it even more the second time. The kids are wonderful and Kingsley is astounding. Do not miss this!

  • And that is one cool ‘El Tigre’ t-shirt!

  • epidicus

    Absolutely loved this film. Very curious as to why it’s being marketed as a family film, instead of gearing towards the art-house crowd, who will truly appreciate it.

  • 20 minutes into the film I thought that this was the best film I’d seen this year. But then it sagged down in the middle as it tries to get into its story and educating an audience of people who have never heard of Melies. The film picked up again at the end. It should have been at least 15 mins shorter and stayed under 2 hours.

    I agree with Mike Clark; the best 3D shot is of Sacha Baron Cohen in the middle of the film. The audience laughed at the 3D effect. I found the 3D overall quite a positive for the movie. Scorcese did well in his use of it (including the floating “motes” and snowflakes.)

    Not a bad film but no Goodfellas.

  • Mac

    Wow! I didn’t know about that restored colour tinted version of ‘A Trip to the Moon’. I was kinda grossed out by all the blood when the rocket crashes in the moon’s eye though. Having only ever seen it in black and white, I’d always figured that gunk was just moon cheese! I’m looking forward to seeing Hugo soon, but I’d be more excited to see A Trip to the Moon on the big screen.

  • I liked a lot of the film, but felt it lacked focus for much of the running time. They spent too much time trying to make an antagonist out of the inspector, when he really should have been just more of an obstacle character. The real meat of the story is with the Georges Melies character, and I would have gladly traded many of the Sascha Baron Cohen inspector scenes for more of the Melies story, which was described more than it was dramatized, unfortunately.

  • Greg Chenoweth

    My family and I went and saw the movie in 3-D this afternoon. Absolutely fantastic. The 3-D imagery helps move the story along very nicely and the whole film is an art piece in itself. It is definitely the best film that I have seen this year and I highly recommend it to everyone. I stayed to check out the entire end credits and was surprised to see that the black and white movies shown in the film were the actual ones filmed by Melies.

    Your picture, Amid, with the statue of George Melies was fantastic. The next time I go to Paris, I will want to look it up.

  • I wish they kept the old title of the book…
    Before watching the film I suggest to read the book first.
    The original work is a work of art.

  • Mark Sonntag

    Thanks for the heads up, hopefully it’ll reach Australia. Have you checked out the Melies box set?

  • Lucas

    You don’t even have to spend money on the Melies box set. As all of his work has become public domain, much of it is available to watch on the web. You’ll be amazed at the depth of Melies’ inventiveness and his unique brand of filmmaking energy. His work thrives with a sense of raw discovery over a century after it was made, not the case with most work of his contemporaries. Scorcese of course realized this and it enabled him to pull off some of his most inspired stuff in years with “Hugo.”

    • Actually, that opening shot was done by Pixomondo, and they did probably 90% of the VFX for the film. The studio has 11 studios around the world and each of them contributed to the film. I myself worked on two of the shots. ILM may have contributed to some of the work but the majority of the work was Pixomodo

  • Hal

    What is worth mentioning about the use of 3d is the way in which Martin Scorses visualized how early audiences seeing films for the first time were mesmerized by the “reality” before them – in particular, I think the scene where an audience reaction to the Lumiere’s “A Train Arriving at a Station” was one of the most justified uses of 3d I’ve seen – the train actually moves forward in Z space within the screen from the distance to almost collide with the foreground audience in the theater. Scenes like that were an inventive use of 3d, and I wish only the “flashback” scenes of Melies’ life was in 3d. Between Scorsese and Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (I’d argue the most artistically sound use of 3d ever) at least something worth while’s come out of the 3d fad.

  • Hal

    It’s also one of the more faithful adaptations of a children’s book – at times its almost frame for frame the illustrations, though with a richer Steampunk/Jeunet look. It makes the leap to film well – a filmmaker with less love of cinema wouldn’t bring such a wealth of details to the world on display. Certain wide shots of Paris mimic layouts in 30’s screen print posters (I recognized at least one Phantomas reference in a shot, and the poster even cameos).