Technicolor and Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ restore the magic of Méliès

A rather landmark date seemed to come and go less than a month ago with hardly a whisper of its significance: October 26, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the first motion picture ever filmed in Hollywood.

The production took place in the orchards covering the estate of H.J. Whitely, the real estate developer who helped create Hollywood and fashion it with an industry of its own in the early part of the 20th Century. He landed the moniker “the Father of Hollywood” for his efforts. Whitely had convinced David Horsley — an English-born pioneer of the cinema who, along with his brother, William, had essentially been run out of New Jersey by Thomas Edison and his Motion Picture Patents Company trust — to run the film test on his property and to lease the Blondeau Tavern at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street in the heart of what is now Hollywood to develop it.

The town’s first film laboratory was born the next day in that very space, one soon enough acquired by Universal Studios. And today, maybe fifty paces from those earliest beginnings of the Southern California film industry, Technicolor’s shiny new offices occupy prime real estate with a mind to saving the history of cinema for posterity.

The company is hard at work on a number of exciting projects as of late, one of them being a pristine restoration of the first-ever Best Picture winner, 1927’s “Wings.” One high profile project, however, gets its time in the spotlight this week as a fleeting but integral element of Martin Scorsese’s ode to cinema and film preservation, “Hugo.”

The intense process of restoring an unearthed, hand-colorized version of Georges Méliès’s “Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon)” was covered by In Contention at a Telluride Film Festival exhibition in September. But while Lobster Films honcho and film geek Serge Bromberg’s presentation was thorough and enough for the layman to digest, one doesn’t really grasp the scale and intensity of the project until you hear Technicolor’s Director of Restoration Services, Tom Burton, explain it with visual aids.

“It was like assembling a puzzle without having the box picture,” he says, sporting quite the Méliès-like curled mustache. “You’re holding a chunk of a frame and going, ‘Where does that go?’ Much less what shot it is, in the frame sequence from that shot, where does it go?”

What had happened was this. Bromberg acquired the severely deteriorated roll of film from a Barcelona archive. It was, essentially, a hockey puck, decades of crystallization having hardened it to the point where it couldn’t even be unspooled. Bromberg and his team placed the film in a humidor for a number of years to soften it up and every day would slide a card in between sections of it and try to pull it apart. In order to preserve the film, it had to be destroyed, because once it was removed from those vapors, it would crystallize once again.

“What they were ultimately able to do was put it on a light box and, sort of like animation, they did a down-shooter and they went to capture each frame of the material just so they had a document of the frame,” Burton says. “The focus is questionable because these are warped frames and they can’t really flatten them or they’ll break them. But they really did an amazing job of taking these 13,345 frames and turning them into digital files.”

That’s where Technicolor came in. With this “bucket of digital shards,” as Burton affectionately puts it, the restoration process was underway. And Burton’s comparison to a puzzle without much of a visual cue comes into play.

“At the end of the day, what we received was the result of five years of shooting this material on a variety of hard drives,” he says. “So there was no numerical sequence relevant to any of this. It all kind of came in, literally, as a bucket of images. We had to take all of these files and sort of symbolically hold them up to the light and go, ‘What is that a picture of or a part of a picture of and where might that go in the timeline?'”

Bromberg happened to have an HD transfer of Méliès’s film that was as complete a version as any that had existed. So they were ultimately able to use that as a “reference backbone” to piece the film together. But it was nevertheless a process that took a lot of time, a lot of passion and a lot of heart. (You can check out a sample of the finished product here.)

Naturally, then, it was a perfect fit for Scorsese’s film, which features an aged Méliès when he was a toy salesman (portrayed by Ben Kingsley), struggling to forget and move on from his life’s work as a filmmaker. “A Trip to the Moon” makes an appearance in the film at a key moment in the third act, but it’s not just any version of the film. It’s the colorized Technicolor restoration that Scorsese used, truly bringing the themes of his film full circle.

Méliès was a magician before he became a filmmaker. He brought that touch to his work behind the camera, and when you talk to people who have been inspired by that work, the word “magic” just seems to effortlessly come forth.

“Motion and emotion. They were, and are, at the core of cinema,” Scorsese writes in “The Hugo Movie Companion,” a handsome behind-the-scenes hardbound book that has been published in conjunction with the film. “And it was Georges Méliès who provided the final key: magic…He saw moving pictures as a way to enrich and enlarge his stage presentations. In so doing, he took the movies another giant step forward. The Lumières [who invented motion picture photography] gave us the world as we knew it, and Méliès gave it to us as we imagined and extended it, with imaginary voyages, disappearances, and transformations.”

How vital an element to the mixture we all take for granted when we settle into a theater and watch the latest release. And that was precisely the kind of thing on the minds of directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris when they were conceiving a music video for the Smashing Pumpkins track “Tonight, Tonight” in early 1996. The video, you may recall, is one giant homage to Méliès and specifically “A Trip to the Moon,” largely inspired by the cover art for the album, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” which harkens back to Méliès’s design elements.

“It feels like I’ve known about ‘A Trip to the Moon’ forever,” Dayton says by telephone of the film and its classic imagery. “When we went to make the video, it allowed us to really focus on Méliès and his technique and look at other films of his and really study them. That’s the beauty of music videos. You can take a concept and have it be your entry point into a world of filmmaking. Georges had pioneered so much and he had such a strong aesthetic. It was fun to build on that and frankly to bring it to an audience that, chances are, hadn’t seen anything like that.”

Adds Faris, “Early film still seems to be more experimental in some ways than commercial film today. It’s always a good place to start for inspiration. So much of it is made in camera. And that’s always the most exciting to us, working that way. In that moment, everybody’s working toward the same goal and you’re trying to make something that feels like magic. And when it comes back, it’s this incredible surprise. That element of filmmaking is lost a little bit nowadays because you have so much control over everything. I miss it.”

And the inspiration transferred over to Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, better known as French electronica duo Air. The group was commissioned to provide an original score to the restoration of “A Trip to the Moon,” which premiered before audiences on opening night of the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. They have expanded those compositions and beefed them up for an upcoming album release named after the famed short.

“‘A Trip to the Moon’ is undoubtedly more organic than most of our past projects,” Godin said in a press release announcing the album. “We wanted it to sound handmade, knocked together, a bit like Méliès’ special effects. Everything is played live. Like Méliès’s film, our soundtrack is nourished by living art.”

The legacy of Méliès is in some sense subconscious. Some would have you believe its imagery, not least of all its most famous image, makes for the most classic frames in cinema history. Indeed, Brian Selznick — author of the graphic novel upon which “Hugo” is based and himself a relative of famed film producer David O. Selznick — notes, “The rocket that flew into the eye of the man in the moon lodged itself firmly in my imagination.” That spirit paved the way for a volume that has allowed Scorsese to pour his passion and heart into a new film that, in many ways, is the most organic of his career to who he is as an artist (even if it bears little resemblance to his classic work as a filmmaker).

“Méliès’s films have an exuberance, joy, and excitement I associate with the actual creation of this new art form and I wanted to capture that,” he writes. “As a moviemaker, I feel we owe everything to Georges Méliès. And when I go back and look at his original films, I feel inspired, because they carry the thrill of discovery over one hundred years after they were made; and because they are among the first, powerful expressions of an art form that I’ve loved, and to which I’ve devoted myself for the better part of my life.”

“Hugo” opens nationwide today, so don’t forget to tell us what you thought. “A Trip to the Moon,” meanwhile, continues to be a showcase on the festival circuit and will hopefully see some kind of home video release in the near future…perhaps as a supplement to Scorsese’s film?

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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