The greatest pioneers of early cinema were Thomas Edison, Edwin S. Porter, D.W Griffith, W.K.L Dickson, the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès. The current generation of technology savvy cinema goers, saturated by 3D and special effects, may not remember or even know that it was Georges Méliès who started it all, the first wizard of cinema, the maker of the first science fiction and special effects films.
Georges Méliès was born in Paris in 1861. His family had a shoe factory on Boulevard Saint-Martin. Though he had a classical education, his artistic interests overshadowed his intellectual ones. He made cardboard puppets at age 10 and scribbled caricatures and drawings in his school notebooks during class. As a young man studying in London, he was greatly fascinated with stage illusion, visiting the Egyptian hall regularly run by the famous London illusionist, John Nevil Maskelyne. After returning to Paris in 1885, pressured by his father, he joined the family business. Yet, his passion led him often to the Théâtre Robert-Houdin founded by the famous magician Jean Eugène Robert Houdin. He also took magic lessons and was soon performing at the cabinet fantastique of the Museé Grévin. After his father retired in 1888, he sold his share of his family business to his two brothers and bought his beloved Théâtre Robert-Houdin.
The Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris on December 28, 1895 was the historic setting for the first public screening of 10 short films by the Lumière brothers, using their Cinématographe device that could record, develop and project motion pictures. Ranging from 38 to 49 seconds these were the first rudimentary documentaries capturing realistic moving images such as their first film ‘Workers leaving the lumière factory‘. There was one man in the awestruck audience that day who was profoundly inspired and saw a greater potential in this marvelous new invention. Georges Méliès wanted desperately to be a part of this new wonder and approached the brothers after the show, offering to buy one of their Cinématographe devices. Unfazed by the brother’s refusal of his generous offer of 10,000 francs, Méliès went to London and bought an Animatograph film projector from Robert Paul for 1,000 francs and re-engineered it himself turning it into his own film camera. By 1896, he was making his own ground breaking unique short films.
Méliès’ main contribution to cinema was in recognizing the possibilities of the medium for narrative and performance, combining traditional theatrical elements with motion pictures, seeking to present performances of a kind not possible in live theater. He created the basic vocabulary of special effects, manipulating and distorting time and space to create illusions of appearances, disappearances, using jump cuts and other complex special effects such as the first double exposure, the first split screen, the first overlapping dissolve, fade in fade out, stop motion photography and much more. He even added color to many of his films, hand painting each frame. With these techniques and showmanship, he pushed the envelope of film-making from mundane single action shots to an imaginative storytelling vehicle. In 1897 Méliès constructed a glass studio at Montreuil-sous-Bois, in which he was able to elaborate his productions and trick work.
His 1902 silent film Le Voyage dans la Lune is his most famous work, and is considered the first science fiction movie and one of the most influential films of cinema history. Inspired by a wide variety of sources, including Jules Verne’s novels From the Earth to the Moon and Around The World In 80 Days, the film follows a group of astronomers who travel to the Moon in a cannon-propelled capsule, to explore the Moon’s surface and are forced to escape from an underground group of lunar inhabitants, and return with a splashdown to Earth with a captive Selenite. The rocket hitting the moon in the eye is an iconic cinematic moment. The original film was lost and later rediscovered and a hand painted version found in 1993 and restored in 2011.
Méliès made over 500 films, acting, financing, directing, photographing, and designing the stage and costume for each one of them. Often his wife, who was his muse, starred in them. His films were a roaring success internationally, inspiring many to copy his style and sometime pirate his movies. However, the brutal realities of the great war of 1914 made the public lose interest in his fantasy films and Méliès was driven out of business. Bankrupt, he had to abandon film making. He was forced to turn his innovative studio into a variety theater and his beloved theater Houdin was demolished. In 1917, the French army turned the main studio building at his Montreuil property into a hospital for wounded soldiers, confiscated over four hundred of original prints of Méliès Star Films company, melted them down to recover silver and celluloid to make heels for the army’s shoes. Méliès himself in rage and despair had burned many of his negatives, sets and costumes. Penniless, Georges Méliès ran a tiny sweet and toy shop in Gare de Montparnasse for many years to make ends meet.
In the late 1920s his immense contribution to cinema started to be recognized again and he was awarded the legion of honor. Yet he still lived in abject poverty and in 1932 the cinema society put him up in a retirement home for film veterans where he died in 1938 and was buried in Père-Lachaise graveyard in Paris where he lays to this day.
At the heart of the 2007 novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick and 2011 Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation Hugo lies Méliès story which has helped to keep the embers of his legacy and memory alive.