Martin Scorsese embraces 3D beyond the realm of 'Hugo' and fantasy

Posted by · 10:26 pm · November 28th, 2011

As I walked past the offices of Technicolor on my way to see a screening of what may (one day) be considered the film that represents the first true step the entertainment industry at large took in its embrace of 3D as a legitimate cinematic tool, Martin Scorsese”s “Hugo,” I could not help but think of Kris”s piece on the company”s efforts to restore and preserve cinema”s classics. There is something beautiful and compelling about the symmetry of a film that is reverential in its depiction of cinema history nudging a business that is still at odds with itself about a new technology. And there’s something about a company that is responsible for one of the most significant advances in film restoring its past that I find intriguing.

I was struck again by a sense of synchronicity when I read Mr. Scorsese”s interview with Deadline this weekend in which the director indicated that he would be interested in shooting his future projects in 3D. He, as James Cameron frequently does, compared 3D to the advent of Technicolor in the mid-1930s. “We view everyday life with depth,” he said. “You have to go back to Technicolor; when it was used in 1935 with Becky Sharp. For about 10-15 years, Technicolor was relegated to musicals, comedies and westerns. It wasn’t intended for the serious genres, but now everything is in color.

Of course, 3D has been introduced and reintroduced in a series of fits and starts over the last hundred years, beginning with the first presentation in 1915. The journey with 3D began for Scorsese with “House of Wax” in 1953. Though the filmmaker attests he was, “always fascinated with it,” even before he saw any 3D films. Yet, his current enthusiasm for the medium comes just few years after he said he had no interest in it. The director explained that the shift in his attitude was due to, “the climate of what Jim Cameron did with ‘Avatar’ and noted that he felt it was time to take a chance with the new technology.

Before I delve too deeply into my thoughts on the significance of “Hugo” and what Scorsese had to say about the use of 3D, let us pause to acknowledge James Cameron”s role as the undisputed champion of the tool in its current iteration. He has, however, faced very public battles with poor conversion techniques and 3D kitsch films such as “Piranha 3D”; which brings us to Scorsese, the significance of “Hugo” and his role in the advance of the technology.

There can be no doubt that a filmmaker with Scorsese”s gravitas giving his endorsement to 3D both within the context of a children”s fantasy film, and then beyond the confines of fantasy will change the scope of how the industry sees and utilizes the medium. He says he thinks it’s open to any kind of storytelling and shouldn’t just be limited to genre, which is the tack proponents like Cameron have taken in the past. This year has seen two genre efforts from Francis Ford Coppola (“Twixt,” which played the festival circuit) and Steven Spielberg (“The Adventures of Tintin”) that fit int he genre frame, but Wim Wenders’s use of 3D in the Pina Bausch ode “Pina” has been cited as perhaps its best implementation to date by some, while another documentary, Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” was championed for it as well.

It is the combination of the respect that Scorsese inspires and his unmitigated passion for the art and craft of filmmaking that will allow other (what some people refer to as) “proper” filmmakers to embrace the medium across a broad spectrum of genres. Once again, a sense of balance feels present when one thinks of the thematic core of “Hugo.”

The new film is based on the graphic novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick about an orphaned boy, Hugo (played by Asa Butterfiled) who lives in the in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris. The boy becomes connected to a mystery surrounding the only thing that remains of his father, a broken “automaton,” the man who runs the station’s toy shop (Ben Kingsley) and his adopted daughter Isabelle (Chloe Moretz). The toy maker, we discover, is Georges Méliès, one of the cinema”s earliest and most imaginative innovators. This element brings the focus of the film back to Scorsese”s lifelong obsession: film. “Hugo” reaches its greatest potential in the third act, the portion that deals most specifically with Méliès and his work.

The imagery of Méliès’s “A Trip to the Moon” (particularly the rocket through the eye of the man in the moon) acts as a motif in the film, an image that Hugo tells us his father felt was like “watching his dreams” in his waking life. Portions of the restored version of “A Trip to the Moon” appear in the latter part of the film, which as Kris points out truly brings the intrinsic and extrinsic themes in Scorsese”s film “full circle.”

What is interesting to note is that a director who was at one time known for his gritty portrayal of the harsher elements of “reality” is paying homage to a man who was taken by flights of fancy, a man who (in the world of the film) became irrelevant when tastes shifted to “realism” following World War I. Méliès, in some ways, may have been like a Cameron of film’s earliest days. (Indeed, Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg, who headed up the restoration of “A Trip to the Moon,” called the film “the ‘Avatar’ of its day” during a presentation at the Telluride Film Festival in September.)

Méliès was a creator driven by the need to push the edges of what is possible in order to capture what his imagination demanded he express. He was an artist who hand-painted his frames in order to give them color, built his own cameras and nudged the boundaries of technology in order to present the illusions, the fantasy, the sense of splendor that he desired to bring to an audience.

Full disclosure: I have always been a supporter of what 3D, at its best, brings to the cinematic experience. It is a tool, like any other, and as such can be either utilized to transform and transcend current confines or grotesquely misused. Yes, there is work to be done. Yes, we would all like to see the glasses disappear. But what Cameron has done and continues to do, what Peter Jackson is creating by shooting “The Hobbit” at 48 frames per second in 3D, and what Martin Scorsese has done with “Hugo” is exiting. It opens up realms and choices for storytellers. It does not shut the door.

I love film. I love the look of film, the feel of it. I have held it in my hand and spliced it together and felt an almost sensual attachment to it. But change happens, and it is something we must look at with an eye toward harmony. Forgive me as I take a momentary foray into the realm of hyperbole, but in this as in most matters I find resistance to change both restrictive and futile and the abandonment of the lessons of history tragic.

We can, as Scorsese does with “Hugo,” honor the past even as we embrace the future. Change has a ripple effect. A switch to digital projection, for example, may open the door to independent films by cutting down on the excessive costs of delivering pricey film prints. That aside, though, Scorsese sees 3D as a tool that could have been applicable to some of his most revered films. He cites “The Aviator” as one which may have benefited from the technology and, somewhat surprisingly, “Taxi Driver,” because of “the intimidation of the main character” and his “presence.”

3D may indeed become the standard as Cameron predicts, or it may remain a tool, one among many that directors and cinematographers can select to support the story they are telling or not. I’ve just come from seeing the incredible landscapes that Janusz Kaminski captured in Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” vivid, rich, pictorial (even in the horrific) vistas that lent themselves to capturing the essence of what is, in many ways, a fairytale. Alternatively, one of my favorite uses of the camera this year was the stripped down, intimate space that Sean Bobbitt created for “Shame.” The raw quality served the story just as Maryse Alberti’s did for “The Wrestler.” Each narrative has its own needs. It is how the medium is used to tell a given tale that is key, and it is likely that we are just beginning to discover how flexible 3D can ultimately be.

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