Georges Méliès, born in 1861 in Paris, began his career as a magician and theater owner. While running his own theatre he was invited to a showing of a “movie” by the Lumière brothers and their cinematograph in 1895. His journey into the world of cinema began when he witnessed the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph in 1895. He was captivated and promptly set out to obtain his own camera for his own purposes. With his background and experience as a magician and theater owner he was able to transition into filmmaking, a field where he would leave an indelible mark.
Méliès’s background in magic heavily influenced his approach to filmmaking. He viewed the camera not just as a recording device but as a tool for creating fantastical narratives and illusions. This perspective led him to develop numerous pioneering techniques in the nascent art of cinema, one of which, and perhaps his most signification contribution to the world of film making, was the “stop trick.”
The “stop trick,” or substitution splice, was discovered quite by accident when his camera jammed during filming. Upon restarting it, he noticed that objects seemed to change spontaneously. He harnessed this effect to make objects (and even people) appear, disappear, or transform. This technique was groundbreaking in creating visual effects and is considered a precursor to modern-day special effects.
Another innovation was the use of multiple exposures. He achieved this by rewinding film and exposing it several times. This technique allowed him to superimpose images, creating ghostly apparitions and other fantastical visuals. Méliès often used this in conjunction with theatrical stagecraft techniques, such as trap doors and wires, to enhance the illusion. Further enhancing the illusion of depth and grandeur was his use of detailed set designs and miniatures. His background in theater proved invaluable in this regard. His films often featured fantastical landscapes and elaborate structures, all meticulously crafted by hand. All of these techniques can be seen in his film The Devil in a Convent, a film which is incredibly elaborate and quite sophisticated, even by today’s standards.
Méliès also introduced the “narrative structure” in films, an incredibly significant improvement. Unlike the Lumière brothers, who focused on capturing everyday life, Méliès created whimsical, story-driven works; his were stories come to life. He moved cinema beyond mere documentation, exploring its potential for storytelling and fantasy.
A Trip to the Moon (1902), perhaps his most renowned film, is a seminal work in the science fiction genre. The iconic image of a spacecraft landing in the eye of the moon remains one of the most enduring images in film history. Méliès’s use of innovative animation and special effects, including the famous ‘stop trick’, creates a fantastical and engaging narrative that is both humorous and imaginative.
The Christmas Dream (1900) displays Méliès’s penchant for combining the magical with the mundane. The film, rich in visual effects, transforms a simple Christmas setting into a surreal landscape where toys and characters come to life. This work is an early example of Méliès’s ability to infuse everyday scenes with a sense of wonder and fantasy.
Other select films
The Mermaid, 1904: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIG01ZEROL0
The Man with the Rubber Head, 1901: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yK7XpRe9ZGE
The Astronomers Dream, 1898: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_Mp0F0RE1A
The Haunted Castle, 1896: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPmKaz3Quzo
The Living Playing Cards, 1904: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZgjUf0MLeg