(Credit: Maëlann LE GAL)

Georges Méliès: The magician of early cinema

Laugh with me, laugh for me, because I dream your dreams.” – Georges Méliès

The name of Georges Méliès has been permanently etched in the history of the film industry as one of the pioneers of the cinematic medium. The French illusionist is responsible for influencing a lot of visual narrative techniques, including time-lapse photography and multiple exposures among others. On the 159th anniversary of his birth, we take a look at Georges Méliès’ life and his contributions to the world of cinema.

Born in Paris in 1961, Méliès was the third son of a wealthy family who owned a shoe factory on Boulevard Saint-Martin. Although he received a classical education, Méliès was more interested in his creative abilities than traditional intellectual pursuits. During classes, he would find himself drifting away and would immerse himself in his drawings and caricatures. According to film scholar Miriam Rosen, “The artistic passion was too strong for him, and while he would ponder a French composition or Latin verse, his pen mechanically sketched portraits or caricatures of his professors or classmates, if not some fantasy palace or an original landscape that already had the look of a theatre set.” With a natural flair for orchestrating mise-en-scène, Méliès began making his own cardboard puppet theatres when he was just 10-years-old and experimented with more complicated marionettes as a teenager. Méliès also developed a lifelong passion for magic around this time, regularly visiting shows conducted by the reputed illusionist John Nevil Maskelyne at the Egyptian hall while he was working as a clerk in London. Despite being forced to be a part of the family business when he returned to Paris in 1885, Méliès never really got over his love for stage illusion. He would frequent the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin’s legacy for his beloved craft.

When his father retired in 1888, Méliès made up his mind to not give up on his passion. He used his wife’s dowry and sold his share of the family business to his brothers in order to finance the acquisition of the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. Over the course of nine years, he continuously worked on the art of stage illusions and pioneered 30 brand new tricks which were influenced by the performances he had seen in London and incorporated elements of comedy and melodrama. Audience numbers hadn’t gone up after Méliès had initially taken over the theatre but his innovations drove more and more people to see his genius. He also exercised his inclination towards caricatures while working as a political cartoonist for the liberal newspaper La Griffe during this time. The pivotal moment in Méliès’ life arrived in 1895 when he attended the first public screening of 10 short films by the Lumière brothers at The Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris. The films demonstrated the capabilities of the Cinématographe device used by the brothers to capture dynamic vignettes of life, translating realism to the cinematic medium. However, Méliès immediately recognised the potential of those devices and offered 10,000 francs to get his hands on one of them but the Lumière brothers refused his generous offer. He did not let the opportunity go and tracked down fellow pioneer Robert W. Paul in London to purchase his Animatograph film projector for 1000 francs and modified it to suit his own needs, converting it into his personal film camera. Within a year, Méliès began displaying films as a part of the routine at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin.

This sparked an intensely productive period in his career, inspiring Méliès to direct more than 500 films between 1896 to 1913. These early films and experimentations were primarily made to test the limits of this newly burgeoning medium, investigating the realm of fantasy through the burlesque elements he picked up while practising stage illusion. His works did not build on conventional plots but employed a variety of techniques unique to filmmaking which would become vital in constructing a language of cinematic storytelling. What the French New Wave did in 1960, Méliès started doing in the 19th century. He subverted the realistic translations of time and space by using jump cuts and featuring magical disappearances like the ones associated with stage performances. According to Méliès’ memoirs, these experimentations came about by accident when his camera jammed in the middle of a take and “a Madeleine-Bastille bus changed into a hearse and women changed into men. The substitution trick, called the stop trick, had been discovered.” In his short films like The One-Man Band (1900), he used innovative techniques like multiple exposure to play seven characters all at the same time. One of the first filmmakers to work with storyboards, Méliès’ works marked a lot of landmarks for the language of cinema: using split screens and overlapping dissolve for the first time. Out of sheer dedication to his art, he added colour to his films by painting each frame with his own hands. In order to further his craft, he built a film studio just outside Paris made completely out of glass walls and ceilings so that film exposure would be facilitated by the sunlight.

Georges Méliès during his ‘The Vanishing Lady‘ projecy. (Credit: Wikimedia)

At the start of the new century, Méliès showed no signs of slowing down. He continued figuring out new techniques, including how to create the illusion of changing a character’s size by moving the camera forward on a pulley-drawn chair system in 1902. Later that year, he would create what many still call the apotheosis of his artistic career: the 14-minute film A Trip to the Moon. Loosely based on Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, the film launches an early exploration of sci-fi and fantasy genres through an allegorical story about an expedition to the moon and the aliens who live there. Like many of Méliès’ works, this iconic piece of cinematic history was initially lost but was later rediscovered and restored in 2011. He made the spiritual successor to A Trip to the Moon in 1904, a 24-minute long film called The Impossible Voyage which starred an anthropomorphic sun this time. It was lauded by critics and proved to be a success for Méliès. Unfortunately, the coming years would not be kind to the legendary filmmaker. He would be forced out of business by 1913, already bankrupt by the time the first World War erupted. His favourite theatre, the Théâtre Robert-Houdin, was demolished and his glass studio was converted into a hospital for wounded soldiers in 1917 by the French Army. They melted any of Méliès’ original prints they could lay their hands on (over 400), using the molten silver for shoe heels. Out of rage and frustration, he felt the need to burn his own works, costumes and sets because he felt as if the world had taken everything away from him. His art was no longer wanted by this changing world. Pushed into poverty, he operated a sweet and toy shop for several years in order to make a living.

Georges Méliès’ cinematic legacy is incalculable and this indisputable fact was thankfully recognised again during his lifetime. Journalists began discovering and researching his works by the late 1920s, introducing his masterpieces to the film world again. He was awarded the Legion of Honour in 1931 by Louis Lumière who called Méliès “creator of the cinematic spectacle.” Sadly, none of this cultural and critical acclaim improved his financial condition and he died in a retirement home for film veterans in 1938. Although he wasn’t able to make more films or theatrical appearances, Méliès enjoyed drawing, writing and talking to young theatre and film enthusiasts until his death. His works continue to inspire contemporary filmmakers like Terry Gilliam who said Méliès was:

The first great film magician.

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