Video: HUGO and the First Movie Magicians


The 84th Annual Academy Awards will be announced this Sunday, with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo leading the pack with 11 Oscar nominations. Along with the 10 nominations for fellow front-runner The Artist, silent cinema will occupy center stage at the ceremony in a way it hasn’t since the dawn of the sound era. To commemorate the occasion, this video links Hugo to several films by the early pioneers of cinema, whose films can be watched on Fandor.

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Disguised as a 3D kid’s flick, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a loving and delightful lesson in the history and magic of early moviemaking. The magician at the heart of Hugo is filmmaking pioneer Georges Méliès. An illusionist by trade, Mèliès exploited film’s potential to expand his universe of visual wonders, preserving it for generations to marvel.

In Hugo, Méliès’ begins his fateful journey into filmmaking when he watches his first movie, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) by Auguste and Louis Lumière. One character in Hugo recalls the legend of how the first screenings of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat sent audiences ducking in terror as they expected the screen’s oncoming train to actually hit them, proving that cinema possessed 3D powers from the very beginning.

While Lumières and Méliès are considered founding fathers of cinema, it wasn’t all a boy’s club. With a career spanning 25 years and over 700 films to her name, Alice Guy registered a profound impact on early cinema not just as the first female director, but also as one of the first developers of storytelling in film. In The Burglars (1898) she innovates with the use of screen space, using a layered set with a painted backdrop to create a scene of remarkable spatial depth for its time, as well as an amusing prototype to Keystone Cops comedy.

One of the first Spanish filmmakers, Segundo de Chomón was a worthy challenger to Melies as cinema’s reigning magician. Chomón’s films make particularly good use of early special effects and color (each frame painted by hand), as seen in one of his finest works, The Golden Beetle (1907).

A pioneer of animation (and selected as one of our 100 Important Directors of Short Animation), Ladislas Starevitch was Director of Lithuania’s National History Museum when he set out to make movies about animal life; ultimately he found it more interesting to use stop-motion animation with dead animals than to work with live ones. With films like The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), a fascinating short about infidelity among insects, Starevitch suggests a psychic forebear to Franz Kafka and Tim Burton.

Méliès reigned supreme throughout the first decade of the 20th century, but, as told in Hugo, the dark realities of wartime Europe made his fantasies seem unfashionably quaint. Louis Feuillade carried French cinema into the Teens with sinister serials like Fantômas (1914) and Les Vampires (1915), where the seeming appearance of normal life gives way to surreal anarchy at once thrilling, comic, and disturbing. His subversive technique, which inspired the Surrealists in the 20s, could be traced to as early as this 1907 short The Colonel’s Account, where an old man’s telling of war stories at a dinner party becomes hell for the other guests. Unlike Méliès, Feuillade didn’t need camera tricks to transform reality before our eyes.

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