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A New Kind of Magic: Part I: The Power of Prestidigitation

Marco Lanzagorta
Still from the 1905 film, Le Palais des Mille et Une Nuits (The Palace of the Arabian Nights)

In the first of a three-part look at the symbiotic relationship between the horror film and special effects, our Dread specialist argues for magician George Melies' place as the father of all F/X-based fright flicks.

With the current success of Peter Jackson's King Kong, we have been hearing and reading dozens of discussions regarding the movie's tender love story, and how it was realized through complicated, up-to-date special effects. This is a paradox; determining the success of a fantasy film's narrative based on how well the moviemakers are able to visualize that which we, the audience, know is not real. This is also, perhaps, the primary calling of movie magic: it does not have to be real, but it certainly has to look authentic.

The relationship between narrative and special effects technology is not unique to Jackson's most recent film. In one way or another and to both a greater or a lesser degree, it holds true for most movies, especially horror films. Clearly, the images that characterize the horror genre usually derive from the unearthly, the grisly, and the fantastic. Therefore, special effects are essential to bring this macabre imagery to the screen. For better or for worse, said screen science is the true heart and soul of many fright films. Along with science fiction, perhaps no other cinematic category manages to fuse narrative and technology in such a profound way.

Such is the intimate connection between F/X and terror narratives that one begins to ponder where and how it all began � such as with concentrating on the relative hierarchy in the history of horror cinema. Other queries arise as well: Have the technology and techniques of special effects been developed to support the imaginative plots that characterize the genre, or have these films been made as a mere showcase of new film technologies? That is a difficult question by any means, yet these three installments of Dread Reckoning will attempt to shed some light onto the issue by looking at the early history of special effects and how they relate to horror films. We will see how these two evolved together from the very establishment of cinema, retro-feeding each other in a symbiotic relationship that has lasted well over a century.

Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of films from the silent era have not survived the passage of time. This disquieting fact compromises any chronicle of early cinematographic techniques. However, it is widely believed that the first film to use special effects was in the historical dramatization, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (photographed at the Edison studios in Orange, New Jersey, August 1895). In this early film, made of a single scene shot from a fixed angle, the queen walks and kneels in front of the executioner. After a single blow of the executioner's axe, her head falls down and rolls away.

The producer-director of this groundbreaking film, Alfred Clark, is often referred to as the father of special effects cinematography. For this effort, Clark halted the camera right before the axe fell on the queen, ordering the actors to freeze their position. Then the queen was exchanged for a dummy, and the action was resumed. After the negative was processed, a few frames were trimmed before and after the fatal blow, creating a rather convincing illusion.

Usually referred to as "stop action", "substitution shot", or "jump cut", this technique was very influential in the years to come, and even continues to be used today. For instance, in A Very Long Engagement (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2005) there is a scene that appears to play homage to Clark's film. Here, the scene of a murderous woman beheaded in public was filmed using the exact same stop action technique as in The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. However, Clark seldom if ever used this technique in his subsequent works.

While not exactly a horror film, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots certainly sets forth the gory scenes of dismemberment that would flood cinemas in the years to come. As far as can be determined, the very first actual 'horror' film in history was George Melies' The Haunted Castle (1896). Taking place inside a medieval castle, and featuring skeletons and witches, the presentation's set piece is a sequence where a large bat transforms into the Devil. After conjuring ghosts and other supernatural haunts, a crucifix makes the demon disappear in a puff of smoke.

For these phantasmagorical transformations, Melies used the "stop action" technique, which he had discovered by accident (and independently) of Clark's work. However, in contrast with Clark, Melies was a professional magician and owner of the acclaimed Robert-Houdin Theater in Paris, and he quickly realized the power of film to create a new type of magic. One of his first films, and running under two minutes, The Haunted Castle was explicitly made to showcase the illusion of the "stop action" technique.

At this point it is worth highlighting the similarities and differences between The Haunted Castle and The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Even though both showcase scenes of horror, and use the stop action technique, their approach to special effects is diametrically different. While Clark's film uses tricks to carry out the plot, to enhance the realism of the scene and make it more dramatic, the story in Melies' movie was written to specifically accommodate the effects of cinematography.

In the years that follow, Melies further developed additional special effects techniques such as double exposure (combining images photographed at different times on the same frames of film), fast and slow motion (changing the speed of the camera), dissolves (one scene fades from the screen as another gradually appears) and perspective tricks. To carry out his work, Melies built a sophisticated film studio beside his house. He then equipped it like a magic theater with trap doors, winches, pulleys, mirrors, flying rigs, a mechanical workshop and its own scenery store. Melies' workshop is often considered the first studio and special effects facility in cinema history.

In the years between 1896 and 1912, Melies produced about 498 shorts. Only 137 of them still exist today. Because of his interest in special effects, most of these movies delved in the fantastic and the macabre. In A Trip to the Moon (1902), audacious scientists travel to the Earth's satellite and fight strange creatures. In Cleopatra (1899), the Queen of the Nile is resurrected from the dead. And in The Conquest of the North Pole (1912), an arctic expedition fights an evil, giant snowman. However, Melies' films are closer to the tradition of pantomime and comic fantasies, made to produce laughs and amazement rather than abject terror.

Consider for instance A Trip to the Moon, which was loosely based on works by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Melies does not try to portray a "realistic" rendition of how space travel would look in the future, as the writers did. Instead, he creates a comedy where few things are based on the science or technology of the time. For example, the Moon has a face, and glamour girls are seated on top of the stars. And we never feel that the members of the expedition are really threatened by the rather fragile, fanciful Moon creatures.

For Melies, film was an extension of magic, and he neglected the power of the narrative to convey more complex stories and ideas. The rather simple plots that characterize his films were a mere excuse to showcase the imaginative cinematic illusions he had helped to develop over the years. Also, Melies never attempted to use the full power of other cinematographic techniques. For instance, he never experimented with camera angles or edition: all his films were staged in the manner of vaudeville with a static lens observing the action, providing an audience point of view from an imagined front row, center seat. He used a similar strategy with lighting: all his films were made with natural sunlight coming down from his studio's glass roof.

Thus, the outstanding special effects created by Melies were his greatest assets � and his most serious liability. Eventually, his work was seen as repetitive and redundant. But Melies is really not to be blamed for the way his films were structured. After all, every time that a new technique emerges in the area of special effects, films tend to exploit it to the point of its very exhaustion (the special make-up and prosthetics craze of the early '80s, and the current vogue for CGI, are recent examples that come to mind). It is perhaps ironic that, in this regard, Melies' films are strongly reminiscent of several horror films released during the '80s and '90s. The Nightmare on Elm Street series comes to mind as a good representative example, wherein each film was mainly a showcase of the latest techniques in special effects, with an almost complete disregard to logic, narrative development, and characterization.

But nevertheless, in spite of the many shortcomings of his movies, Melies was the undisputable king of the horror genre until the early 1910s. However, lacking a substantial dramatic structure, his trick flicks became seriously impaired once audiences became acquainted with the sophistication of cinema. The horror genre, as exemplified by any of Melies' shorts, was about to become extinct. But in an almost Darwinian manner, it was at this next point that horror films were able to evolve. As we will see in the next installment of Dread Reckoning, during the 1910s, horror movies were no longer brief, amusing displays of movie magic. Instead they grew longer and incorporated more sophisticated stories and narrative structures.

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In the next issue of Dread Reckoning: Edison's Frankenstein and the Influence of German Expressionism

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