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Seeing Is Believing Visited – Hugo and Georges

Georges Méliès

As I’ve written earlier in Seeing is Believing, I went to the discussion session on Magic In Cinema at the Rotterdam Film Festival. As it happened I should have taken that literally. Focal point of the discussion was the magic being used in HUGO and the authenticity of the film against the background of the importance of Méliès in cinema history. Contributors to the discussion were art historian Theodore van Houten (father of actresses Jelka and Carice), filmcollector Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films,  filmhistorian and lecturer Hilde D’haeyere from the Royal Academy for Fine Arts in Gent and magician Will Houstoun. I’m not going to condense a one hour discussion in a single post, but I will try to summarize a few interesting themes. Serge Bromberg, who is at the festival to present a very interesting programme, Bromberg’s journey through the world of 3D, is an expert on Méliès. Recently he completed the restoration of the colour version of Méliès’ LE VOYAGE DANS LA LUNE which reportedly cost over a million dollars making it the most expensive restoration project up to now. Here’s another Méliès in colour to give an idea of the feel. Bromberg provided the framework of the discussion. The importance of that early period of silent film was underscored by D’haeyere, author of the delightful Dislexicon by the importance of silent film as an outlet for comedy. Comedy, she told me earlier, you would not find in photography in that and the preceding era. She showed a few examples of the enormous technical contraptions that were built and designed just to create a comic effect. The inspiration of comedy was to be found in the theatre (especially the magic theatre like the Robert Houdin Theatre that Méliès used) and, as van Houten added, the inspriration for the imagery of Méliès and some of his contemporaries came from the science fiction illustrations for Jules Verne books and by Albert Robida.

La Guerre Infernale, Episode 2, January 1908 by Albert Robida

As a fervent supporter of Méliès, Serge Bromberg pointed out that the historical authenticity of HUGO is not a 100%. HUGO’s statement that Méliès was bankrupted by World War I was a historical error as Méliès’ financial downfall already had set in 1912. Minor points he made I’m sure, Serge added that it was Scorsese’s privilege tot tell the story as he chose. I can’t possibly comment on that as I UNBELIEVABLY STILL HAVEN”T SEEN HUGO YET!!! AAAARRGH!!

Will Houstoun was on hand to prove that authenticity in the field of magic was taken very seriously during the production. Will was a magic consultant for the film. He’s a magician as well as a student of art history hoping to earn his PhD on the Victorian magician Angelo Lewis aka Professor Hoffmann. He assured the tricks used in HUGO are tricks that are typical for the era in which it was set and were described by Professor Hoffman in books like MODERN MAGIC of 1876.

MODERN MAGIC by Professor Hoffman

Will taught Ben Kingsley and Asa Butterworth the card tricks they perform in the movie. Star trick of HUGO is the “Rising Card”.

Interestingly they did not learn the entire trick, but only the last part as that’s the part that is shown and as Ben and Asa only had four months to master the nimbleness of fingers required. Will told the funny story that Asa Butterworth was quicker in learning than Ben Kingsley. This was a bit of a nuisance as in the film Ben is suppose to teach Asa. To keep “it fresh” as I believe the term is, Will Houstoun sabotaged Asa’s deck of cards by applying a bit of grease and dirt, so that he found it to his chagrin more difficult than anticipated. Will told me earlier something interesting about the actual shooting of the trick scenes. The tricks were not scripted beforehand, but developed on the set. The script described a certain effect to be had, Scorsese would tell the day before the scene was shot what he wanted exactly and the magic crew had to prepare different tricks to achieve that effect. Ultimately the decision which one to use was made on the set.

All in all it was a very good day, especially as I was excessively spoiled as well. Not only was I able to meet a few lovely people, I also was asked to join them at dinner after the session and learnt some wonderful things about how to burn nitrate film, how to bend your finger and not break it and about the excellent spicy squid. So thanks very much Hilde, Will, Serge, Theodore and the others, thanks Rick and thanks to the festival organization, especially Mieke, thanks!

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