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Georges Méliès

[mAl' yes] pioneer of many movie special effects

Georges Melies

Marie Georges Jean Méliès was born in Paris, France, on December 8, 1861. As a boy, he studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, where he showed particular interest in stage design and puppetry. His parents intended that he join the family shoe business, however, and in 1884 they sent him to London to further his education. While in London, he developed a keen interest in stage conjury after witnessing the work of Maskelyne and Cooke. On his return to Paris he worked at his father’s factory and took over as manager when his father retired. His position meant that he was able to raise enough money to buy the famous Théâtre Robert Houdin when it was put up for sale in 1888, and from that point on Méliès worked full time as a theatrical showman whose performances revolved around magic and illusionist techniques which he had studied while in London as well as working on his own tricks.

On December 28, 1895, Méliès was a member of the first audience in the world to see the Lumiere brothers' Cinématographe. Wanting to incorporate motion pictures into his theatre, he tried to buy the Lumieres' equipment, but they refused to sell to anyone. Not willing to give up on his idea, he bought a projector from Robert W. Paul, an English inventor, and he was able to present his first film screening on April 4, 1896.

At first, Méliès screened other peoples films, mainly those made for the Kinetoscope, but he soon brgan making and showing his own work. Using a camera he built himself, with help from Paul and two engineers, he shot his first film, Une Partie de Cartes, in May 1896; by the end of that year he had made about eighty films. His first films, like those of the Lumieres, were simple life scenes which he added to the program at his theatre, almost all of which were one shot views lasting about a minute. He began expanding his repertoire, however, after a "happy accident" led to the discovery of special effects.

In the fall of 1896, Méliès was shooting a street scene in the Place de l'Opera in Paris when the camera jammed. It took a minute or so to get the camera working again, after which Méliès resumed shooting. Later, while viewing the developed film, Méliès was astonished to see that a bus entering the scene just as the camera stopped turning suddenly turned into a hearse when it started up again. Always a magician at heart, Méliès saw in this unintended trickery a new way of performing illusions, and "magical, mystical, and trick" films quickly became his trademark.

In early-1897, Méliès built the first movie studio in Europe at Montreuil-sous-Bois, where he began churning out films at an almost frantic pace. Unlike the Lumiere Brothers and other filmmakers of the day, Méliès considered the cinema a perfect vehicle to escape for an audience. To that end, he conceived all of his films in terms of fully played-out scenes, and was the first filmmaker to use production boards and storyboards. In keeping with his penchant for illusion, he pioneered the use of double exposure (in La caverne Maudite, 1898), split-screen filming (in Un Homme de tete, 1898), the dissolve (in Cendrillon, 1899), and many other now-common cinematography tricks. In addition to his fantasy films, Méliès also tackled a wide range of subjects as well as the fantasy films usually associated with him, including advertising films and serious dramas. He was also one of the first filmmakers to present nudity on screen, with Apres le Bal (1897).

Méliès' film The India Rubber Head (1901) featured a scientist, played by Méliès, who appears to place his head on a table and then inflates it to great size.

scene from The India Rubber Head

A Trip to the Moon (1902) was one of the longest and most elaborate of Méliès' trick film epics. The film was hugely popular, but not as profitable as it should have been. Perhaps the most heavily pirated film of its era, crowds around the world marvelled at its tale of space travel, but Méliès received bare pennies from its many showings because there were no laws protecting filmmakers from unauthorized (and unpaid) screenings of their work.

scene from A Trip to the Moon

Méliès made over 500 films before the novelty of his special effects productions wore off. Faced with a quickly vanishing market, he abandoned film production in 1912 and resumed his career as a showman. The forced closure of his theatre by World War I sent him into bankruptcy and Méliès all but disappeared into obscurity until the late-1920’s, when his substantial contribution to cinema was recognized by the French and he was presented with the Legion of Honour and given a rent-free apartment, where he spent the remaining years of his life. He died there on January 21, 1938, and was buried at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.


Early Cinema
Internet Movie DataBase
The Official Georges Méliès Website
Who's Who in Victorian Cinema

See Also

World War I

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The Robinson Library >> Motion Pictures

This page was last updated on 01/21/2019.