Saturday, April 14, 2007


Ten Things About Brian Selznick

First of all, my apologies for not writing more posts this week. I had family visiting from out of town, and blogging somehow didn't get on the agenda. But I'm back, and with a special treat: Hot Man of Children's Literature #8, Brian Selznick, came to my library today to give a lecture, and I was able to slip in for it. The talk was given in conjunction with Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' fabulous kidlit series, Black, White, and Read All Over. If any of you reading this are in the area for these great lil' features, I highly recommend coming on down for them. These lectures are always rather fabulous -- and we usually have punch and cookies in the children's non-fiction room afterwards. But let's get to the good stuff -- here are the best tidbits from the Selznick lecture, and I'm givin' 'em to you factoid style:

Pifft! Stop thinking about drinking punch and cookies in the non-fiction room! Focus! Focus!

1. Selznick began the lecture with a "reading" from The Invention of Hugo Cabret -- that is, he had the images from the opening sequence of the book projected on the lecture hall's big screen, then asked for the lights to be dimmed. While the black-and-white pictures of 1930s Paris flickered on the screen, Selznick played old-fashioned movie music on the lecture hall's sound system. It was absolutely thrilling, and I don't know if I've ever said that about a Power Point presentation. If anything, Selznick definitely has a flair for the theatrical -- something that I think has been reflected in many of his books.

2. Due to his love of drawing monsters and dinosaurs as a kid, Selznick was often told that he should illustrate children's books when he grew up. This, of course, lead to an intense dislike of the idea on his part. So, when he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, he refused to take courses on children's illustration -- even though those classes were taught by the likes of David Macaulay and Chris Van Allsburgh.

Oooh, doesn't it make you wince? Just wince?

3. When Selznick did decide he wanted to illustrate for kids, he got a job at Eyeore's, a children's bookshop in NYC. While there, he re-discovered a book he had loved as a child:


In Fortunately, Selznick loved the way that the action of the story was directly controlled by page turns -- how that made the reader an active participant in the storytelling. This, of course, fed into the development of the style of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, one of the first illustrated novels ever created for kids -- where turning the pages creates an interactive-yet-cinematic experience. (Selznick now counts the creator of Fortunately, Remy Charlip, as his mentor.)

Now, I'm going to insert a disclaimer here. I'm not going to bother describing The Invention of Hugo Cabret, or synopsize the plot, or talk about why this book is so innovative. If you want that, read the Fuse#8 review. Because I think there's enough redundancy in the world. Enough.

4. The chief inspiration for the book was the work of Georges Méliès, the Victorian French filmmaker -- who also appears in Hugo Cabret. But Selznick also spent a lot of time looking at other French filmmakers from the 1930s -- especially the film Under the Roofs of Paris by René Clair. Clair wasn't that fond of the (then-new) addition of sound to films -- like books and paintings, Clair thought that film was best appreciated as a solely visual medium. So he would use sound, but in unconventional ways -- usually bursts of sound after long silences. Selznick took this idea to shape the format for Hugo Cabret -- in which there are bursts of text after many pages of illustration.

5. Oh -- Selznick liked the look of Clair's films so much, that he lifted several scenes from Under the Roofs of Paris for the illustrations in Hugo Cabret. Also, Selznick said that when he created the pictures for Hugo Cabret, he made them at 1/4 scale, and then had them enlarged for the book. He said that he liked the way the enlargement made the pictures "airier," and that it helped him work faster, even though he had to do most of the work under a magnifying glass.

Hey, all you illustrators out there: how common is this? Usually, I hear complaints from illustrators about how they dislike having their work shrunk or blown up, because it distorts the vision they had for the book. What gives?

6. Automation is also a big part of Hugo Cabret. Selznick spent a lot of time studying the automata at the Franklin Institute in Philedelphia:


When Selznick arrived at the Institute, he found that the automata was broken (and had been for some time). Selznick had an engineering friend, Andy Barron, who he was also consulting for Hugo Cabret. When told about the broken machine, Barron offered to fix it for the Institute. The automata will be the centerpiece of an exhibit on machines produced by the FI in 2008, and Selznick has been invited to do a presentation on Hugo Cabret as part of the festivities. Oh, and be sure to read more about this very cool machine right here.

7. When drawing human characters for his books, Selznick says that he gets an idea of what the character looks like in his head, and then keeps an eye out for real people who match that image, and then asks them to model for his book. So, for Hugo Cabret, he met a kid named Garret at the National History Museum in NYC who looked just like his idea of Hugo. Fortunately, said Selznick, his mom was keen on the idea of going over to Selznick's apartment for a photo shoot. The girl who modeled for Etienne was found in a pizza parlor.

Kind of amazing -- when I was a kid, I would have loved for that to have happened to me! It's like those Hollywood stories of starlets being "discovered" in Woolworth's, or whatever. Only, for me, being captured in a book seems so much cooler. Kind of an anonymous celebrity.

8. As a sidenote to this, Selznick asked Remy Charlip to do the modeling for the illustrations of Georges Méliès. You gotta admit, the two of them look very similar. Here's Charlip:


And here's Méliès:

Just . . . a little . . . eerie, no? You may also note that the book is co-dedicated to Charlip. (Awwww.)

9. Hugo wasn't originally intended to be an orphan when Selznick began writing Hugo Cabret; it wasn't until the passing of Selznick's own father that he realized that it would be a necessary part of the book.

10. OH -- and as if creating beautiful books weren't enough, Selznick also does toy-theatre-style puppet shows in his spare time. He created one about The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins a few years ago, which featured tiny antique cabinets containing scenes from Hawkins' life:


So, here's my request for Mr. Selznick: Is there any way, any way you could get footage of these puppet shows up online to be enjoyed by One and All? There's a load of fresh cupcakes in it for you . . .

8 comments:

jules said...

Ooh ooh thanks for the great report. I just requested a copy of Fortunately, as I've never read it and it looks interesting. And WHO KNEW that about Selznick resisting children's literature for so long? I'm glad he gave up the fight.

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