Méliès: A magician’s story
Georges Méliès was born in Paris on December 8, 1861. Before becoming one of the most important filmmakers in early cinema, Georges Méliès was—and remained throughout his life—a gifted magician. Fascinated by puppets from a young age, he was introduced to magic tricks by 2 masters of the craft: John Maskelyne and David Devant.
A mentor: Robert-Houdin
In July 1888 Méliès used money from his father's side of the family to purchase the small magic theater owned by his mentor, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.
It was there that Méliès first unleashed his vivid imagination, performing fantastical and remarkable illusions and sketches.
The arrival of the cinematograph
At the end of 1895 Georges Méliès witnessed one of the first public appearances of the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph, to his delight. He recounted how he and the audience “sat with our mouths open, speechless with amazement.” Méliès immediately saw the spectacular and magical potential that the “Cinématographe Lumière” held.
First steps into cinema
However, the Lumières refused to sell a copy of their device, believing that “this invention has no future.” Fortunately, Méliès found a similar version in London, invented by Robert William Paul, a scientific instrument maker.
Escamotage d'une dame chez Robert-Houdin - Extrait by Georges MélièsThe Cinémathèque française
Méliès’ first film, one year later, was no more than a copy of the Lumières’ work; but shortly after, he made “The Vanishing Lady” (1896), a trick film that established the early yet defining blend of magic and cinema.
His diabolical, fast-paced universe that evoked both terror and laughter—where devils, skeletons, ghosts, and demons all came to life on forced-perspective sets—thrilled his audiences, who clamored for more.
The Montreuil studios
To build on this success, Méliès constructed a film studio on his family property in Montreuil, just outside Paris, at great expense. Complete with dressing rooms for the actors, set storage, trapdoors, and light filtering equipment, it would serve Méliès until the end of his filmmaking career.
Nothing remains of this purpose-built glass studio, which was the first of its kind; it was completely demolished in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Superimposure, cross fading, montage, black backgrounds, close-ups on a slider, theatrical and pyrotechnic effects, illusions…
Le Cake-Walk infernal - Extrait by Georges MélièsThe Cinémathèque française
The Man with the Rubber Head
Méliès’ filming techniques hid a trove of ingenuity. In "L'Homme à la tête de caoutchouc" (The Man with the Rubber Head), for example, he plays with camera effects and with perspective.
The “rubber head” effect was obtained using a cart mounted on rails. The actor and the cart move toward the camera, which remains still. This creates a “magnified” effect when the cart moves toward the lens, and vice-versa: a shrinking effect when it moves further away.
The Man with the Rubber Head (1901) by Georges MélièsThe Cinémathèque française
Trick films allowed Méliès to create scenes on screen that would not have been possible on stage: cut-up, flattened, and exploded bodies; severing heads and limbs while the subject is still alive; duplication, substitution splices, transformations, levitating people and objects…
A trip to the moon
The year 1902 was one of Méliès’ most prosperous years, as he created his most famous film, "A Trip to the Moon." He drew inspiration from many sources, including Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, fairground amusements, and operettas.
Trip to the Moon by Georges MélièsThe Cinémathèque française
Filming took several months and required a huge amount of funding. The film measured 853 feet (which amounted to about 13 minutes of screentime) and included 30 scenes.
It contained the most amazing and ambitious tricks, the likes of which had never been seen before. The film took the world by storm and was heavily pirated, especially in the United States, where Méliès was forced to open a branch office to protect his film rights.
The year 1908 would mark the peak of Méliès’ career, where he created over 50 productions in a year. It also marked the beginning of the end for Méliès; in 1912 he created his final 3 films, commissioned by the influential film company Pathé. They were all flops. Audiences no longer wanted to watch fairy stories; the poetic realism of Louis Feuillade now prevailed on screen; in the US, David W. Griffith was setting a new pace for cinema worldwide, and the Great War was approaching… While the French film companies Pathé, Gaumont, and Éclair became major institutions, Méliès never wanted to turn his small independent company into a corporation.
In 1923, unable to repay his debts to Pathé, Méliès was forced to sell his Montreuil studio. To make a living, he sold sweets and toys at the Montparnasse station in Paris. A journalist rediscovered him there, and a gala was organized in his honor in 1929. Three years later Méliès and his wife Jehanne d’Alcy, who he had married in 1925, were admitted to a retirement home in Orly that was owned by the Cinema Society. He died in Paris on January 21, 1938.
The tricks created by Méliès prefigure the modern special effects used today that are now rendered digitally. The masters of Hollywood never forgot about Méliès and consider the Montreuil magician to be the one who opened Pandora’s Box. The most recent tribute to Méliès, as well as the most spectacular, is the 2011 film Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese.