"Come and Dream With Me" Hugo: Nostalgia for the Origins of Cinema By David Glick, Justine Robillard, Max Sacra, Sarah Stevenson, and Rolando Vega
Hugo (2011) is a modern yet nostalgic Martin Scorsese (1942 - ) adventure film, following a young boy and girl in early 1930s Paris as they try to solve the mystery of George Méliès (1861-1938), the innovative film genius. Before displaying his surviving fantastical films, the French filmmaker tells his audience, “My friends, I address you all tonight as you truly are; wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers, magicians... Come and dream with me.” The 84th Academy Awards ceremony seemed to beckon its audience to do the same; it invited us to savor the magic of cinema, for it was a festival of nostalgia, honoring films that pay tribute to the early days of movie making and spectatorship.
This year, the theme of the Oscars was the act of “going to the movies.” The entire night was constructed on making relevant, through nostalgia, the theatrical film-viewing experience, as experienced when Cirque du Soleil staged a performance depicting a night at the movies. Billy Chrystal’s opening montage featured him chasing after an unspooling roll of film, and filmmakers and stars testified to their love of film and the consistent significance of going to the theatre. Morgan Freeman explained that the intention of the Oscars was "to celebrate the present and to look back to our glorious past.” Indeed, the night seemed to accomplish this task, especially with the films which were heavily honored.
The two movies that came out as the champions of the Oscars were Hugo and The Artist (Michael Hazanavicius). Hugo received 11 nominations and won awards for Cinematography, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, and Sound Editing. The film dealt insightfully with man’s relationship with machines in the early 1900’s. Fated to spend his childhood fixing clocks in the rafters of a Parisian train station, Hugo is an observer of the world's wonders. He constantly takes in the spectacle of the vibrant, busy world beyond his lonely abode, and reflects, “I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.” Scorsese’s 3D film embodies this touching notion, because it is about finding a purpose in life and leaving a legacy. This concept correlates profoundly with film history, and the nostalgia we feel toward cinema. While Hugo is a spectator of Paris and of early film screens, we are spectators of both the rich history of film and the ravishing hope for the future of film.
Just as the Oscars celebrate people who dream big in the film medium, Hugo is a movie celebrating people who have dreamed big in the past. This is why the movie itself dreams big by using the most technologically advanced film techniques available. Scorsese exceeded boundaries in visual aesthetics as it relates to fantastic story-telling. He used the magical quality of 3D to enhance the story, and made the resurrection of the past all the more phenomenal. Today’s digital technology allowed Scorsese to create his elaborate illusion of 1930s Paris, and to add haunting depth and vibrancy to the images. Scorsese’s idea of telling the story of film’s past using the technology of the present corresponds with the idea behind the 2012 Oscars. While the Academy gave great homage to film’s history, it was signaling that the days of old are past, and filmmakers and audiences must embrace new heights of cinema. Hugo gives flashbacks to early film innovations and spectatorship, and the way in which the story was brought to life signifies how new innovations are taking the spotlight and giving new profundity to the craft.
The character of Méliès in Hugo is discouraged by tragedies faced in the First World War and the toll that reality has taken on his prolific creations. This painful grief incites both the characters and the audience to give voice to the importance of film preservation. The old filmmaker’s wife says, “George, you've tried to forget the past for so long, but it has caused you nothing but unhappiness. Maybe it's time you tried to remember.” The emotional projection of Melie’s films in the movie is, in retrospect, an analogy to The Oscars’ reflection upon the immortalization of film. While technology is rapidly progressing and we are taking filmmaking to new levels, we must never lose sight of where we came from and to whom we owe infinite gratitude. When it comes to movies, the past is not just the past. It does not die. And nor will film become dead to future generations.
Despite Hugo’s great success at the Oscars, it was considered a box office flop. A big problem was that it was over-budget, arguably somewhere between 150 and 190 million when the budget was meant to be 100 million. However, the central reason why it achieved such critical acclaim and yet flopped financially was that its marketing angle failed. Hugo, being PG, was marketed as a children’s film. Small children in society today are attuned to bright happy movies, slapstick humor, and animation. They are shielded from more intense films, and when they are confronted by such films, they find them boring, foreign, or too emotional to handle. Hugo is a more intense, emotional, and somewhat somber film. It also offers thrilling and horrifying scenes like when the train almost runs Hugo over, and the tension of the Great Dane on the chase. Due to this the family audience was quickly lost at the box office.
Another reason the film should not have been marketed towards children is that today, in the new digital era, children are used to being over-stimulated, and typical children’s movies adhere to this. Not only are they full of both brightness of color and action, they have layer upon layer of music, sound, and dialogue. Hugo, on the other hand, has less dialogue in order to give the audience less stimulation so that they can focus primarily on the story and the intense, symbolic beauty of the visuals in addition to artfully layered sounds. While there is not an over-abundance of dialogue in Hugo, there is artistically appropriate dialogue that keeps it fresh and insightful. Also, the dialogue presented throughout Hugo features a rather large vocabulary that children may not understand. However, adults have no trouble finding amusement and depth in both the dialogue and the story. The profound enjoyment which adults can take away from the film proves how unfortunate and unwise it was to market the movie to a very young audience, upon which deep and meaningful concepts might be lost.
After considering things from the perspective of the audiences of this film, it is essential to examine the auteur of the film, and to analyze his personal journey as a filmmaker and what has brought him to this point. It terms of stylistic tendencies, some may say that there are two different versions of Martin Scorsese: one who focuses solely on creating his own stories, and the other that focuses on creating stories that are important to both himself and his audience. However, when one reviews the differences in style of his past films, one will find that his films cover such an extensive range of genres – from crime/gangster to drama and religious epics – that it would be simplistic to state that there are two different versions of him. Rather, there is but one man who continuously experiments with mixing different genres.
Scorsese’s films tell the story of this evolution. His career began when he graduated from NYU and received recognition for directing the film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door(1967), a drama exploring Catholic guilt, which was heavily influenced by Scorsese's background in the Catholic church. Scorsese made quite a few more films in the next few years, which included two documentaries (Street Scenes, 1970 and Italianamerican, 1974), a thriller (Boxcar Bertha, 1972), and the crime drama, Mean Streets (1973). Yet it wasn't until 1976 when his label as the maverick artist was fully realized in Taxi Driver, starring Robert DeNiro. This film was the most rigorous exploration of the New York Scorsese grew up in, which was filled with violence and prostitution. Although this film didn't receive universal critical and box office appeal at the time, it is now considered to be Scorsese's masterpiece and is praised for its insight into the correlation between suppressed sexual desires and a thirst for violence. Another benchmark of Scorsese's career is Raging Bull (1980), which also follows the deterioration of the protagonist – in this case, a prizewinning boxer also played by Robert DeNiro – who isolates himself from the world.
It is important to keep in mind that, while these films are considered to be the climax of Scorsese's aesthetic genius, he wasn't widely recognized until the 1990's. Additionally, the 1980’s were poor years for Scorsese, in which almost all of his films were both critical and box office failures. Yet Scorsese kept exploring concepts and stories that were deeply meaningful to him, such as in The Temptationof Christ (1988). This film was deeply personal, but it was criticized for portraying a Christ that seemed more human than divine. While it would seem that a solid decade of failure would be enough for any director to lose his or her job, this was not the case with Scorsese; since he shot on a mid-range budget, his films were not a high risk to the studio if they failed. This was also how Scorsese has retained such artistic freedom in his films; by needing less money and attracting less attention, he is able to make the film he wants.
In the 1990’s, he returned to his original fascination with the corruption within New York. This period is marked by Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), which focus on the mob. This showed an interesting narrative switch; while his past films such as Mean Streets and Taxi Driver focused on the people of New York who were affected by the mob's corruption, he now focused on the mob itself. However, Scorsese also broke once again out of his own box by directing the romantic drama, The Age of Innocence (1993), which was also an adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel. Yet his fascination with the mob continued in the 2000's, especially with Gangs of New York (2002) and The Departed (2006), even though the latter was set in Boston instead of New York. These have been vibrant years for Scorsese’s career, and he has been seeing a consistent rise in popularity and recognition. During the past decade he was nominated for Best Director for Gangs of New York (2002) and The Aviator (2004), and finally won for The Departed (2006). Another notable film is Shutter Island (2009), which received wide public recognition.
Throughout this decade, Scorsese began tailoring his films so that a wider audience could enjoy them, although he still stayed true to his own style. While his earlier films followed the deterioration of the main character to an irredeemable end, the protagonists of The Departed (2006) and Shutter Island (2009) were able to find some sort of redemption. Finally, Hugo has proved to be his most uplifting film, featuring a protagonist who completes a journey of self-discovery by redeeming—or “fixing”—the forlorn life of George Méliés. This film was also quite personal, for the character Hugo is very reminiscent of Scorsese himself, whose feelings about growing up as a sickly asthmatic and discovering joy and meaning through films were mirrored in the journey that Hugo experiences.
To say that there are two different versions of Scorsese – the maverick who tells an incredibly personal story and the man who tries to make a story that is not only personal but relatable – would be oversimplifying the issue. Scorsese is a director who is constantly experimenting with his own filmmaking style, trying out and mixing different genres in order to tell a story. Whether or not the film is meant to be completely personal or understood by the general public is merely coincidental, for Scorsese is a very dynamic director who is constantly trying something new.
Hugo humbled this veteran filmmaker, who had mastered 2D skills and techniques but had yet to dabble in the wonders of 3D. The Director of Photography, Robert Richardson, also had never shot in 3D before. They approached Cameron Pace Group and were aided in expertise, techniques, and workflow. Vince Pace consulted them with the proper approach. He believes 3D filmmaking should be built on good 2D foundations and filmmakers should not make the mistake of forgetting 2D skills to accommodate the unique challenges of 3D filmmaking. Pace observes, “Too often people are educated about 3D in a way that devalues their previous knowledge, and that’s unfortunate, because 3D is elevated by good 2D techniques and skills.”
Richardson wins the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Hugo
The approach to the visual style was guided by the film’s central theme of Méliès pioneering visual effects. In the same way Méliès ventured into a new frontier of filmmaking, we see a prominent filmmaker like Scorsese journey into a new medium that homages the origins of the movies while reaching its own milestones. Richardson says, “Out of all that came the realization that there could be no better movie to shoot in 3D than on dealing with the time period in which pioneers such as Méliès and Lumière were creating such astounding and magical work.”
The movie was shot on 3D to allow creative freedom in production and post-production. The final color look of the film was inspired by the “Autochrome” color process that the Lumière brothers initiated. Richardson says, “Autochrome had recently been developed and patented by Lumière, and it became the principal photographic color process at that time.” Aspects of the visual craft such as this intrigued the makers of Hugo during their quest to take the viewer into the whimsical world of filmmaking and its past. The skills and techniques done on the camera were supplemented by the post-production approaches that made Hugo win Oscars for Visual Effects.
It would be negligent, when thinking of Hugo’s impact on the Academy Awards this year, to not discuss its achievement in sound. The sound editing and mixing are effective, and both won Oscars for their achievement. The sound editors, Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty, have been working with Scorsese since 1986, and the sound mixer, Tom Fleischman, has been working with Scorsese since Raging Bull (1980). Scorsese placed a massive workload on his sound crew, building the sound of Paris, as if it were in itself a machine.
The sound editors produced many effects, week after week, from the cranks and gears on the machines, to the internal workings of the train station with people walking to and fro, trains arriving and leaving, clocks ticking, steam coming out of the trains, and the sounds of the station inspector and his dog. Scorsese wanted to focus on these characters because of their importance to the plot. The station inspector’s footsteps and the sounds his dog makes ring out crisply throughout the film, reflecting Hugo’s awareness of their presence. The sound editors said that this is something Scorsese wanted to focus on, taking the audio style from the unreal crisp footsteps in the opening sequence of Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967). Another complicated character was the automaton. Since it was built with electronic motors and not clockwork, Eugene Gearty had to completely build a sound palette for the machine, basically building the set of sounds for the machine from the ground up. The clocks in the film were also built from effects that Gearty and Stockton designed. When it comes to sound, this may be Scorsese’s most complicated film, simply because of the sheer number of sounds that needed to be created in sound stages, recorded on different locations, and then inserted into the film.
While the mastery over sound is to be applauded, technologically and thematically, Hugo’s greatest award may still be Visual Effects, an honored position in our digital age. Previous winners of this category have been Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), and movies such as Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007), for their astounding images, created totally in the digital realm. Hugo’s visual effects were of a more subtle sort. In Hugo, for the visual effects creators used techniques in post that enhanced the 3D, to improve the themes throughout the film. Since Hugo himself is an isolated character, the visual effects studio, Pixomondo, used the 3D medium to visually increase the apparent distance between Hugo and the other characters, which isolated him and made this theme more obvious. For example, in the opening sequence, when the camera moves through the crowd and reveals Hugo hiding in the clock, they use the 3D to create more of a distance between him and the people in the train station.
The visual effects of Hugo were geared more towards improving the tone of the film, and the visual effects team saw themselves as pioneers, similar to Méliès. They aimed to honor his contribution to film in taking an innovative approach to the effects, and tried a lot of different things, in the attempt to really create something new. The film is a glistening tribute to the beauty of film history, while utilizing the innovations of the present and paving the way for the cinematic miracles in the future.