Georges Méliès, Magic and Cinema

The Cinémathèque française

On December 28, 1895, the magician Georges Méliès, owner of the Robert-Houdin Theater since 1888, attended a demonstration of the Lumière Cinématograph in Paris.

Fascinated by this spectacle, he wanted to purchase a replica of the camera for himself, but the Lumière brothers refused to sell one to him: "This invention is not for sale and what's more, my dear friend, you can thank me for that as it would be your ruin. It can be exploited for a while as a scientific curiosity, but apart from that, it has no commercial future…"

Nonetheless, rival cameras, like that of George William Bedts, could be found in Paris as early as spring 1896.

However, Méliès, who had connections in London thanks to his network of magicians, preferred to turn to the optician Robert William Paul, who was selling a 35-mm film projector called the Theatrograph, equipped with two seven-spoke Geneva drives and two toothed sprockets.

After returning to Paris, Méliès transformed the Paul projector into a film camera. He reversed the system, enclosed it in an oak box with a 54-mm Zeiss lens, and installed a rotating shutter and a metallic pressure plate, which intermittently stopped the film in front of the window.

He started off by producing Une partie de cartes (Playing Cards), an imitation of a Lumière film and the first title in his catalog. The second film, Une séance de prestidigitation (Conjuring), combined magic and cinema and paved the way for all future special effects. Hundreds of films were to follow, including, for example Automaboulisme et autorité (The Clown and Automobile).

Méliès still had his camera in 1937, and this is how he described it in his memoirs (whilst talking about himself in the third person): "We will now return to the first camera that Méliès built. This machine, still in his possession, was a veritable monument: enormously heavy and extremely difficult to transport. An oak box contained the mechanism, which was mounted on a heavy cast-iron platform. The camera stand was large, bulky, and heavy; a large cast-iron wheel, attached to one of the tripod legs, made it even heavier. By means of a leather belt, the wheel would move a pulley placed on the side of the box, which would then set the interior mechanism in motion. Thanks to the small size of the pulley in relation to the the 0.5-m cast-iron wheel, the multiplication of rotations achieved was similar to that of a bicycle, and produced a speed of 16 to 18 images per second. (...) Méliès was fairly pleased with the results produced by this first camera, but, besides its huge weight, it also had the disadvantage of making such a racket that even its maker jokingly referred to it as his coffee grinder, or his machine gun."

It is perhaps thanks to his first camera that Méliès became the king of "trick films." That said, the camera's mechanism didn't always work smoothly. One day, in the Place de l’Opéra, the film jammed. Méliès replaced the film and continued shooting. When he projected it, he realized that a bus had suddenly turned into a hearse, thanks to this unplanned "substitution splice."
How did he show his movies at the Robert-Houdin theater, now that the Paul projecter was being used as a camera? Méliès, with the help of Korsten and Reulos, was inspired by an existing projector, that of Louis Charles, and built the Robert-Houdin Kinetograph. Méliès was able to screen his films in his theater for the first time on April 5, 1896.

The Robert-Houdin Kinetograph, which would be patented on September 4, 1896, was equipped with an original system: a spiral ramp into which fit a series of pins on a shaft linked up to a toothed sprocket. For probably the first time, the supply reel was enclosed in a casing in order to protect it from dust and fire.
Two Kinetographs were made, one of which would be used by the magician brothers Emile and Vincent Isola, for a film screening in Berlin,Unter den Linden, on April 26, 1896. The following year, Méliès attempted to commercialize a Kinetograph for amateurs, but had no success.

At the end of 1896, Méliès was able to produce his first catalog, which already contained 45 films, most of which used tricks. In 1897, he built a glass film studio in Montreuil. By 1913 he had made some 500 films there, many of which played a part in the history of cinema.

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