Hugo

Let’s talk about 3-D. For years, I’ve been saying that 3-D works best with animation. I’ve also been saying it should not be treated as a gimmick, but as an element. A tool. Like color, which quickly became the norm of cinema, 3-D should be used as one gear in a large machine. Animation seems to handle this philosophy best, seeing as computer animation has only recently gone from gimmick status to element status in the last decade.

3-D is commonly employed poorly in live action films. It sometimes works well, Avatar being a nice example (although, really, one could easily consider Avatar a computer animated film), but it is usually used for movies that would otherwise have nothing interesting to offer. The producers fund a lousy film under the promise that the swords will come flying out the screen and the three to four dollar surcharge will come flying out of wallets, not because the film’s story can be modified in any way by this extra dimension. Avatar made such an impact because the world James Cameron: created felt completely immersive. The film was about virtual bodies becoming real, dreams becoming tangible. The third dimension added a layer of depth to the overall intent of the film. I cannot say the same for The Green Hornet, Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender, or any other totally valid reasons that people often give for not liking 3-D. Why pay the extra money? It’s never worth it.

Here’s the problem. 3-D technology is extremely impressive. When used effectively, the technology can add depth and wonder to the cinematography of a film. However, when used poorly, the technology faces extinction. We are in a transitional period. Like the introduction of color, we are faced with low-caliber variations of a phenomenal tool. For instance, many people believe that The Wizard of Oz was the first color film. It wasn’t. People just believe that because the color was used to aid the story, to give the land of Oz depth, and to show people how the technique can revolutionize the way moving pictures can be experienced.

In a way, this is the story of film. When the Lumiere brothers made their first film of a train moving toward the camera, filmmaking was seen as a triviality. A sideshow gimmick. It took decades for film to be as respected as it is today. And, in some circles, film is still not quite as appreciated as literature or painting.

Which brings us to Hugo.

Martin Scorsese has made a name for himself in recent years for spearheading an ambitious film preservation society. He has given numerous talks, and made several documentary shorts, in order to spread the news that old films are disappearing each day. And, as one of the most knowledgeable film historians in the world, Scorsese has done pretty well with the campaign. And when I saw Scorsese’s masterful, gorgeous new film Hugo, I couldn’t help but wonder if any other filmmaker could have pulled off such a watchable educational film concerning cinema preservation.

Movies are at the heart of Hugo, Scorsese’s first 3-D film, and he uses the medium not only to wow audiences with impressive visuals, but to also comment on the film’s overall message.

The film concerns a forgotten silent filmmaker whose entire filmography has been destroyed for the sake of shoe heels (it makes sense in the movie), and how devastating this treatment of film was to the genius filmmakers who were left behind after the world wars.


         Hugo is about film as an art form. It is about the director as artist. It reminds us that there was a time when special effects were new. That the visual wizardry of filmmaking was once shocking, surprising, awe-inspiring. That filmmakers used to be scoffed at for making populist drivel, even while they were producing some of the most incredible work of any artist at the time. At its heart, Hugo is about the relationship between an artist and his/her tools. For the early filmmakers, their tool was considered nothing more than a gimmick, a phase, a temporary distraction from real art. And, as I said earlier, 3-D is the new gimmick.

Scorsese, one of the most celebrated living filmmakers, was criticized for choosing to make his newest film in 3-D. The fad, as some say, has worn out its welcome. I beg to differ. The fad is not wearing out its welcome, bad use of the technique is. Now that we’re finally getting master filmmakers behind 3-D cameras (Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, to name some Germans), audiences can now decide for themselves whether 3-D is their thing.


      Hugo utilizes 3-D in a way that I have never seen outside of a theme park. The opening shot actually turns your stomach, in the best way possible, when it zooms through a busy train station and weaves around halls and ladders. The photography is kinetic and exciting. The depth is incredible, the shot compositions perfectly suited to the technology, and Scorsese feels right at home with the extra responsibility.

Also at home are Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz, the two young leads of the film. Butterfield in particular, as the titular character, brings warmth and emotion to his role–much needed elements for the mostly silent performance he gives. Moretz plays the opposite of her Kick-Ass character, Hit Girl, as she is an innocent, bookish girl who is terrified of getting into mischief. Moretz grounds the film with her calm, old-soul presence. The two leads play well off of each other, and they are benefitted from the excellent script by John Logan.

Hugo is a beautiful film. I highly recommend that you go see it, and I cannot stress enough how great the 3-D is here. But you have to meet the film halfway. If you don’t want 3-D to be used as a gimmick, don’t expect it to act like one. The extra dimension is just that, an extra dimension. This does not mean stuff flies in your face constantly. This means that there is an extra layer of depth to the screen. The shot compositions have become more complicated, and more interesting, because of this technology. Okay? Okay.

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  • A great review, Cameron, and I really appreciated your discussion of 3-D. Have you read Brian Selznick's novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret? Like Scorsese's adaptation, the novel does something different with the form, described as it is on the author's website as "not exactly a novel, and it’s not quite a picture book, and it’s not really a graphic novel, or a flip book, or a movie, but a combination of all these things." I haven't read the novel, but my nephew loved the copy I gave him (it was one of the first books that gave him the reading bug).