70 percent of American silent films are lost to time. And it’s not just the US archives that are suffering; these numbers are consistent across the globe. It’s terribly sad, because if not for these early masterpieces and the leaps and bounds made by these intrepid pioneers of film, today’s movie industry would not be possible. Yet, so much of this cultural heritage is now gone forever.
That is why it is so important that we continue to honour and watch these early films, films that continue to excite, inspire, and astound. Films that are not trapped in the past, but are just as engaging now as ever. If you don’t believe me, watch this film by Georges Méliès and prepare to be amazed:
Martin Scorsese’s 2011 motion picture Hugo proves that silent films are still relevant and brilliant. Based on the exceptional novel by Brian Selznick about a 12-year-old orphan who meets the master of early film, Georges Méliès, Hugo is more than just a beautiful film; it is an astounding tribute to the silent film era. Hugo masterfully captures the charm and innovation of the era, not just through its subject matter, but through the very design of the movie itself. Indeed, from the opening frame to the end credits, Hugo alludes to the magic of the industry in every way possible:
1. Silent Film References Are Everywhere
Perhaps the most obvious tribute is the inclusion of clips of some of the most famous and innovative silent films. Four in particular play key roles in the plot: Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last is mirrored by Hugo in the climax of the film; the Lumière Brothers first film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat is copied in two train station scenes; Jean Renoir's La Bête Humaine is referenced in the scenes featuring the train engineer; and the Paris skyline is an exact copy of the one in Rene Clare's Under the Rooftops of Paris.
Others that you can try to spot include: Thomas Edison and W.K.L. Dickson’s daring film The Kiss, one of the first films to be shown commercially; Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery; and the German expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Further big names referenced include Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, G.W. Pabst, William S. Hart and D.W. Griffiths.
Yet, Hugo doesn’t stop there, and in fact, the structure of many scenes pay homage to silent films. From the extended opening act which plays out mostly in silence, to the small dramas happening around the train station, there are many scenes within Hugo that can easily be imagined as silent films. Throw in some slapstick comedy, and the essence of early cinema is faithfully preserved.
2. The Color Scheme Is A Nod To Early Color Photography
In 1903, the Lumière brothers invented a way to more easily produce coloured photographs. Called autochrome, the process used potato particles dyed red-orange, violet and green to capture a wide range of colour.
Using this as the starting point for Hugo’s palette resulted in the glorious teals, navy blues, golds and maroons that are so key in creating the film’s nostalgic atmosphere. By manipulating colour temperature, a whole range of shades were made available, helping to create the depth and richness of detail that make the movie so breathtakingly stunning.
3. An Innovative Reference To Early 3D Movies
Beyond the best way to bring Selznick’s highly detailed drawings to life on the big screen, shooting Hugo in 3D provided two other ways to pays homage to early film.
3D has been a part of the history of film since the very beginning, with the earliest commercially released 3D film being The Power of Love in 1922. In a movie that is all about the father of special effects, including the modern contributions of polarized 3D and CGI is a perfect fit.
Like Méliès, Scorsese pushed his film to the limits of creativity and innovation. Hugo was filmed entirely in 3D, with no rendering done later in studio. At the time of its release, Hugo was heralded as the future of 3D innovation and the best use of 3D technology to date.
4. Méliès’s Life Is Authentically Portrayed
Apart from some simplification for the purpose of clearer storytelling, Méliès’s life, as described in Hugo is historically accurate: Méliès’s was indeed a magician turned filmmaker who became destitute in 1914, and ended up owning a toy booth in Gare Montparnasse.
Hugo, however, refuses to stop at a mere biography of Méliès’s life, and the flashback scenes depicting Méliès working in his studio are faithful recreations of Méliès’s actual films:
Even Méliès’s glass studio was carefully reconstructed so that watching Hugo brings you as close to Méliès and his filmmaking process as possible.
5. Accurate Historical References And Recreations Abound
Though it may seem like mere fantasy, highly complex automatons that could walk on tightropes, play piano, perform magic tricks, write poetry and draw pictures really did exist in the 1800s. In fact, Méliès owned an impressive collection himself.
In order to recreate this magic, the automaton in Hugo was not rendered in CGI and with the aid of magnets and gears really did draw the picture by itself.
What of the shocking train crash scene? That too is based in reality. In 1895, a train went off it’s track and crashed through the front window of the station. To recreate this scene in the movie, a large model was built, and was crashed through a window set.
6. A Modern Tribute To Classical Film Scores
The marvelous music of Hugo easily transports you to the magical world of 1930s Paris, but it is notable in other ways too. Composer Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings) was sure to include historical instruments like the mussette, a French accordian; an ondes martenot, a French theremin; a 1930s drum kit; and a vintage gypsy guitar.
Two classical scores are also woven into the films wonderfully atmospheric soundscape: "Danse Macabre" by Camille Saint Saens (Saint Seans is credited with composing the first score specifically designed for a film, Assassinat Du Duc de Guise (1908)) and "Gnossiene" by Erik Satie.
7. Special Effects Trickery Galore
I saved the best for last. Hugo uses every special effects trick in the book from the days of Méliès to the present. In all, the film contains a very impressive 850 VFX shots.
"We did all the classic cinema tricks from modern times to today, and pushed beyond anything done before. Miniatures. Digital characters. Stop motion. Time-lapse photography. Persistence-of-vision animation. Matte paintings. Motion-captured characters. Iris wipes. Morphs. CG augmentation... Méliès’ work was pretty miraculous. When we studied his work, sometimes it took days to figure out how in the hell George Méliès did this.”
The scene where Méliès's studio falls apart mimics time lapse photography, it is stop frame animation, not CGI, that powers the toy mouse Hugo repairs, and the flames that burn down the museum in Hugo's flashback were tinted by hand!
Hugo is proof that silent films are still alive, and that the beauty of the era has not been lost. It is an invitation to delve into the magical world of film and a reminder that it is our duty to preserve old films because to lose any more would truly be devastating.
[For further reading I recommend: The Hugo Movie Companion by Brian Selznick]