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The Intricate, Cinematic World of 'Hugo Cabret'

Feb 9, 2007 (All Things Considered)

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Cover of Brian Selznick's 'Invention of Hugo Cabret' Drawing from 'Hugo Cabret' - Primary

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The beginning of the story called The Invention of Hugo Cabret unfurls like a miniature silent film — even though it is a book, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick.

The opening pages of the children's book don't have any words, just black-and-white drawings on a black page. In fact, finely detailed pencil drawings — unaccompanied by text — fill more than half the book's 500-plus pages.

Selznick, a well-known illustrator, has employed an experimental form in Hugo Cabret: He says the pictures pick up where the prose leaves off — and propel the story forward.

The book tells the story of Hugo Cabret, an orphan who lives in a Paris train station. Along the way, readers also meet a young girl named Isabelle and her godfather, a gruff old man who runs a small toy booth in the train station.

Hugo has been stealing windup toys from the old man's booth. The orphan is trying to fix something very special: an automaton — a complicated, windup figure — left behind when his clockmaker father died.

The grumpy old man turns out to be George Melies, a real-life magician-turned-pioneering filmmaker, who in 1902 made the first science-fiction movie, A Trip to the Moon.

Although he made more than 500 films, Melies fell on hard times and lost his movie studio. He spent the last years of his life working seven days a week at a toy booth in the Paris train station.

A Trip to the Moon and the "crude magic" of its special effects fascinated author Selznick. A few years ago, he read a book about the history of robotics — which included a chapter on the French filmmaker, an avid collector of automata. And the idea for Hugo Cabret was born.

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Inspiration: George Melies

A Trip to the Moon (1902) by French filmmaker and special-effects pioneer George Melies inspired author Brian Selznick. For instance, a scene in which the Man in the Moon is hit in the eye by a giant space bullet is echoed in Selznick's book.

Read an excerpt and listen to a reading by author Brian Selznick.

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