I am looking forward to seeing the new Scorsese film “Hugo”. When I read the book, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” to my son, years ago, I quickly recognized the role played by George Melies in the story. If you are in animation, and you don’t know who George Melies was, you need to. He was the original special effects filmmaker. You probably know this image.
UPDATE: I had some free time, so I re-watched my dvd of “Melies The Magician” (which is apparently out of print). I learned how the “automata” element, the windup robotic figure, found it’s way into the Hugo story. George Melies, during his stage magic years, had purchased the Robert Houdin Theater. Robert Houdin, was the first stage magician to create shows purely for entertainment purposes, rather than insisting supernatural forces were truly at work. (The later, and more famous, magician Houdini took his name from Robert Houdin) Houdin had skills as a clockmaker, and part of the theater included complex automata, animated figures that would act out simple motions. Some automata were similar to what you might see in a department store window, but some where extraordinarily complex and could actually write and draw. Here is a video with examples.
There are a bunch of educational links available at the Hugo Cabret website.
For those who just want an easy introduction, here is a short video: