Film

Georges Melies: The Most Important Filmmaker You've (Probably) Never Seen

Dave Maine

It’s tempting to say that without Melies, there would be no Avatar, no vampire movies, no Star Wars or Star Trek, no special-effects extravaganzas, no docu-drama like Erin Brockovich, no animation, no Walt Disney, and no porn.

What do the following have in common: magic tricks, science fiction, ghosts, oversized insects, space aliens, vampires, the Devil, fairy tales, color, product placement, historical re-enactments, docu-drama, animation and pornography? The twofold answer is that they are all common elements in contemporary movies -- and they were all first rendered in motion pictures by one remarkable man, French magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Melies.

Melies is the most important filmmaker you've (probably) never seen, or at least, haven't seen enough of. Considering his importance, he remains surprisingly little-known, even to avowed film buffs. In a breathtakingly short span of 16 years, from 1896 to 1912, he made more than 500 movies, an extraordinary output of productivity.

Admittedly, many of these movies were a mere minute or two long, and the first 70 or so were simple documentations of street scenes and so forth. They soon became far more complicated, however, reflecting Melies' theatre background; incorporating elaborate sets, costumes, and a dizzying array of camera tricks that Melies himself invented. In his memoirs, the Frenchman would write of this outburst, “The demon of invention tormented me," and this is easy to believe when considering the vocabulary of film that he single-handedly created. (Georges Melies, Mage et "Mes Memoires" par Georges Melies, Jean-Jacques Pauvert, editeur Paris, 1961)

Melies grew up in Paris, the youngest son of a successful factory owner. His early interests included puppetry and stage magic, and as a young man he left factory work to buy the theatre that had belonged to the recently deceased Robert-Houdin, a hugely influential stage magician of the time. (So influential that Harry Houdini, a Hungarian-turned-American illusionist originally named Erik Weisz, took a variation of Robert-Houdin's name as his own.)

Melies' stage career was reasonably successful, but everything changed on a December afternoon in 1895, when he was invited to an exhibition of the Lumiere brothers' invention, the cinematographe. Melies sat in a café basement with 32 other astonished spectators and watching as pictures moved upon the wall. Melies, however, saw more than just pictures; he saw the future.

He wasted little time. Within a few months he had a camera of his own, built from a modified design because the Lumieres wouldn't sell him one of their own (protesting that they couldn't take his money, that the camera was “an invention without a future"). Melies churned out films by the score those first months: street scenes, card games, factory gates, cityscapes, anything that was suitable for a moving picture -- which was, of course, just about anything at all.

It seems impossible to parse the particular moment when a man changes from dabbler to visionary, but if any man has documented that moment it is Melies. In his Memoires -- considered by many to be less than entirely accurate -- Melies relates the incident that transformed him from documentarian to creator. One day, while shooting a street scene in Paris, the film jammed in his hand-cranked camera, and a few moments of judicious jiggling were needed to get the mechanism moving again. When he developed and screened the film, Melies was startled to see the substitutions that had taken place during the moments when the film was not advancing. Women changed into men, adults into children, horses into human beings, and -- most ominously -- an omnibus full of workers blinked into a hearse.

Reliable or not, the story neatly encapsulates the filmmaker's growth from observer to manipulator. Melies intuitively understood what had happened, and soon his movies were utilizing and expanding upon the substitution trick in such films as The Vanishing Lady (1896) and The Magician (1898). Other tricks followed: multiple exposures against a black background allowed Melies to sing and argue with his decapitated self in The Four Troublesome Heads (1989) or call forth ghostly “spirits" to glide across the screen in Blue Beard (1901).

The Four Troublesome Heads (1898)

Dissolves resulted in fade-ins and fade-outs; split screen exposures, in which half the lens was covered for one shot, then the other half for the rewound film's subsequent exposure, allowed Melies to have conversations -- and argument -- with himself without the need for a black background. Double exposures combined with differing camera placement allowed midgets to converse with giants, or -- in the case of 1902's justly celebrated The Man with the Rubber Head -- allowed body parts to grow or shrink before the audience's disbelieving eyes. A cartoon spaceship splashes into the sea and is rescued by a cartoon steamship in 1902's A Trip to the Moon.

Nor were his innovations limited to tricks of exposure and substitution; cleverly-placed tanks allowed fish to swim between the camera and the actors portraying divers in his faux-documentary Divers at Work on the Wreck of the “Maine" (1898). Melies was the first person who understood both the ramifications of the substitution technique, and the larger issues of film as a two-dimensional representation of three-dimensional space. As if that were not enough, his hand-colored films -- available to exhibitors at a considerable surcharge -- dazzled audiences 40 years before the arrival of the Technicolor splashed The Wizard of Oz.

For a time, all this made Melies the most popular filmmaker in the world. Audiences loved the magic in his films -- the dizzying tricks and misdirection, such as the man who morphed into two men, then three, eventually seven, each playing a different musical instrument, all gesticulating wildly and hamming it up for the camera. (All, naturally, were played by Melies himself in 1900's One Man Band.)

His appeal ranged far beyond tricks, though. Fairy tales like Cinderella (1899) were just as popular, as were historical recreations such as The Coronation of Edward VII (1902) -- which married location shots of Westminster Abbey to interior scenes filmed in Paris -- and such comic shorts as The Colonel's Shower Bath (1902) or the multi-episode faux-documentary The Dreyfus Affair (1899).

This remarkable series of nine films, most only about one-minute long, dramatized the plight of a Jewish captain in the French army who was convicted of treason, imprisoned, sentenced to death, pardoned, imprisoned again and finally released. Melies, who had served in the army himself, was outraged at what he felt to be unduly harsh treatment of a slandered man innocent of wrongdoing. His depiction of Dreyfus' plight foreshadowed the docu-drama genre that would produce such films as The Insider (1999) and Erin Brockovich (2000).

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