Georges Méliès and the Birth of Filmmaking
Georges Méliès was born on December 8, 1861. I says hats off (or heads off if you’re as talented as Monsieur Méliès) to the man who first recognized cinema’s potential for magic. To honor the bday of one of cinema’s greatest pioneers, here’s a repost of a Méliès primer that I wrote for the Toronto Film Scene, originally published on December 5, 2011.
Cinema Revisited: Georges Méliès and the Birth of Filmmaking
French cinema pioneer Georges Méliès is having a moment. Martin Scorsese’s recent 3D release Hugo pays homage Méliès. The electro-pop duo Air just announced the release of a new album, La Voyage Dans La Lune, inspired by Méliès. The title not only refers to Méliès’s most famous film, but a limited edition of the album will be co-packaged with the movie. And, of course, a production still from that same film, a very annoyed moon with a rocket ship embedded in its eye, remains the most iconic image of the silent era, gracing t-shirts, coffee mugs, and the covers of countless film studies books.
It feels like a good moment for a Méliès resurgence. In the midst of frenzied technological innovation – bullet time, blue screen, CGI, digital compositing, go-motion, green screen, motion capture, morphing, virtual cinematography, 3D, rotoscoping – examining the contribution of Georges Méliès to the birth of filmmaking might be instructive. While other early filmmakers were busy filming babies eating and men sneezing, Méliès explored and developed the technical potential of the medium in the service of storytelling.
A neat series of circumstances brought Georges Méliès to the movies. He was a neighbor of the Lumière brothers and was one of the few people to attend the first screening of a projected motion picture in Paris in 1895. It was there that Méliès, a professional magician, collided with the perfect illusion making machine. In less than 3 months he had his own camera.
Méliès is often called things like “The Magician of the Screen.” Terms like “trick photography” are tossed around. All this is true. But because Méliès was a magician, invested in the creation of illusion, he saw a potential in moving pictures that other filmmakers just did not see at the time. The Lumières came from a documentary photography background. Edison’s films were made by Edison’s employees. They might have been employees in an innovation factory, but they were still factory workers. They set up a camera, filmed reality as it unfolded in one continuous shot, and went out for beers.
Georges Méliès filmed reality too, called “actualities” in cinema history lingo, while he learned how to operate the equipment. Then he set about doing things no one dreamed of doing. He single-handedly invented the film fantasy genre. He invented special effect with in-camera editing, stop motion photography, and double exposure. He made the first horror film (Le Manoir Du Diable in 1896). He was the first to splice together multiple shots to tell a story (Cendrillon in 1899). He made the first sci-fi flick (La Voyage Dans La Lune in 1902). He wrote, produced, directed, and starred in his films, behaving like an auteur about 60 years before Fracois Truffaut coined the term. Méliès was the first filmmaker, maybe still the only one, to remove his own head and toss it in the air (Un Homme de Têtes in 1898).
Despite this catalog of firsts, the contribution of Méliès is more profound than a few photography tricks and special effects. He saw beyond the novelty of photographs that moved. Méliès himself described his movies as “artificially arranged scenes.” He was the first, the very first, filmmaker to create a happening in order to film it, rather than filming something happening. Take the argument further and it’s fair to say that he not only brought something into being to film it, he brought something into being by filming it. This leap, this abstraction from documentation, was radical.
Méliès understood that this new thing called cinema, this flickering projection of light and shadow, had nothing to do with reality. Cinema is dreamlike and fantastic, a place to make the unreal real and the real seem very, very questionable. Contemporary audiences are familiar with the idea of Hollywood as a dream factory, but it was Georges Méliès who manifested that conceit on movie house screens. Méliès opened a conceptual door that led to everything that came after him, right up to the ultimate magic trick – his own 3D resurrection in Hugo.
The early evolution of film moved at the breakneck pace of a Keystone Kops comedy. Right now, filmmaking might or might not be on the cusp of a major technological upheaval similar to the introduction of synchronized sound. Or the dizzying introduction of new technologies might be more akin to the heady days of early cinema. Or maybe our sudden 3D and CGI boom will be an interesting evolutionary dead end in cinema history, like Smell-O-Vision. Either way, let’s take a lesson from Georges Méliès and remember that the best of cinema is magic. It’s about dreams, illusions, and alternatives to the mundane, not about how realistic a flying dragon looks.