Mooning over Melies

French VFX & Animation

The idea of Martin Scorsese directing “Hugo,” a 3D family movie based on an illustrated children’s novel, raised some eyebrows but his eagerness to tackle the story shows the breadth and endurance of French cinema pioneer Georges Melies’ legacy.

On the 150th anniversary of his birth, Melies — one of the founding fathers of cinema and science-fiction movies, a man whose dreams were crushed by piracy and bankruptcy — is celebrated in Scorsese’s pic and is enjoying a resurgence of popularity.

French helmer-producer duo and fervent Melies admirers Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange oversaw Technicolor’s restoration of the only surviving hand-painted color version of Melies’ groundbreaking “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) in time for Cannes’ opening night in May.

The pair also directed Melies biopic “The Extraordinary Voyage,” featuring interviews with Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”) and Michel Gondry (“The Green Hornet”), among others.

Doc is set to come out in French theaters on the same day as “Hugo.”

Paris FX, the animation and vfx showcase set to run Dec. 14-15, will also host a roundtable discussing Melies’ heritage.

A French illusionist who created the first film studio, Melies pioneered the use of movie special effects to create fantasies. He is credited with laying the groundwork for vfx-intensive spectaculars from such directors as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan, who see him as a kind of spiritual father.

Melies was a perfectionist: drawing on his background as theater owner-manager and stage magician, he oversaw every part of production on his films.

He directed from his own scripts, supervised the cameraman, built scenery designed costumes and applied makeup.

He edited the negatives and wrote music to be played as an accompaniment to his silent, black and white movies.

He was also the first to commercialize hand-colored movies.

“It’s mind-blowing to see how Melies executed his ideas with the few tools available. He used every available cinematic trick — editing, camera work, music, makeup, costuming and miniatures — to create illusions, says “Hugo” vfx supervisor Rob Legato, whose credits also include “Shutter Island” and “Titanic.”

“What Melies did in 1902 with ‘Trip to the Moon,’ without copying anyone, has inspired a lot of people’s work.”

In 1896, the earliest days of cinema, Melies broke ground with “The Vanishing Lady,” in which he stopped the camera to make a woman disappear and replaced her with a skeleton.

“Today, we do these tricks with a computer but they’re the same ideas,” says Legato, adding that Melies inspired him to work the “old-fashioned way” on “The Aviator,” using miniatures. “It looked so convincing — more than with the computer, which can make things look off — and it was so rewarding.”

Julien Dupuy, a French journo who has recently finished a book about Melies, says, “Melies is the first filmmaker who gave special effects an organic place in the creative process.”

Dupuy will host the Melies roundtable at Paris FX.

“Today, in many films there aren’t boundaries between different departments and special effects are integrated everywhere. In Spielberg’s ‘Tintin,’ for instance, special effects were thought of from the very start and are part of the storytelling,” Dupuy says.

Melies also used prosthetic makeup to optimize illusions — a technique used on most genre films and tentpoles, points out Dupuy, citing Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy” and Spielberg’s “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.” Melies also created the precursors of animatronic effects in “The Conquest of the Pole.”

His relentless quest to improve his movies is a source of inspiration, says Pierre Buffin, founder of Paris-based shingle Buf and creator of a number of vfx techniques, such as the “bullet time” shots in the “Matrix” franchise.

“He invented tricks by testing different things and that’s how we work in visual effects. And like him we fabricate everything: we model, do the sound, we color, etc.”

Melies didn’t just create vfx, says Bromberg, “he gave them meaning and charged them emotionally.

“He wasn’t interested by the mundane but rather by the imaginary, the spectacular. Melies propelled viewers into a world of spectacle and poetry and brought out the child within.”

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