FREE FILM SCHOOL #24: Who the @#$% is George Melies?

He's not just some guy from Hugo, he's one of the greatest pioneers in film history. Professor Witney Seibold explains why this French dude is responsible for most of your favorite movies.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold


Last week, Martin Scorsese released his most recent filmHugo, a Dickensian fable about a young boy who lives inside the enormous clockwork in a Paris train station, and the mysterious old man whom he orbits. The old man, we learn, is none other than Georges Méliès (1861-1938), the famous film pioneer who directed hundreds of films back in the early days of cinema, and it’s up to our intrepid title character to make Méliès re-discover his old career and learn to love film again after decades of hurt and dismissal. The film, as it has been said by some critics, may not reach s large an audience as is could, as it’s largely an open lecture by Scorsese about film preservation, a personal pet project of his. In Hugo, we learn that many of Méliès’ film strips were melted down for their plastic, and used in women’s shoes. If only, Scorsese seems to be saying, someone had openly acknowledged Méliès earlier, he may have made even more brilliant fantasy films.

I love the film, myself, so, to take on an equally self-indulgent pet project, I have decided to devote this week’s lesson in CraveOnline’s Free Film School (the only film school you can attend while you’re in another class) to teaching you, my beloved students, about Georges Méliès, what he did, and why he is significant. If you haven’t seen Hugo yet, I hope this lesson will encourage you. Méliès, you see, saw the emerging form of cinema as an ideal way to perform visual tricks, and he spent the bulk of his filmmaking career constructing elaborate fantasy films full of creatures, warriors and magic. They all looked unearthly and exciting. He sometimes hand-colored his film strips, long before the advent of color film. These days, you hear (usually from marketing departments) that films “capture the imagination,” or perhaps “are the stuff of dreams.” Méliès didn’t just pay those phrases lip service. Méliès started a continuing film tradition that allows films to depict the wildest of fantasy images, all in a safe theatrical environment. It was Méliès who took the form of film and moved it from a sideshow novelty, or perhaps a venue to record simple, rote theatrical exercises, and made it into a world of its own.

George Méliès started his long career as a stage magician around the turn of the century, studying under an English illusionist named John Maskelyne. He was intensely interested in subterfuge, illusion, and various forms of entertaining trickery. He was a bright, playful soul who seemed to be constantly dazzled by the world around him. When touring a local circus one day in 1895, he was presented with the brand new invention of the film projector, presented by the famed Lumière Bros. One of their first films, as you may have seen through your general pop culture exploration, was a simple short of a train pulling into a station. For the first time, pictures moved. It’s hard for me to imagine the initial shock of this spectacle. According to stories, people would dive out of the way to avoid being hit by the train on the screen. In a world saturated with TV screens, it might seem quaint to think of such a naïve response, but if one considers that people had never seen a movie before, well, it would seem downright miraculous.

Méliès, enchanted by this new technology, tried to buy the projector, but was refused. A skilled engineer in his own right, Méliès built one of his own cameras, sold his old prestidigitation theater, and built one of the world’s first film studios in Montreuil. While experimenting with the camera, so the story goes, Méliès would film commonplace things like traffic, train stations, shops and the like. One day, while he was filming a passing bus, his camera ran out of film, and he had to quickly change film cartridges. When it came time for him to review his film, he found that the bus he was filming vanished in the edit. He found that, through simple film editing, one can make all kinds of illusions. The first editor was born in that moment. Watching his films, you’ll find that Méliès often employed the “magical edit” to make people, buildings or monsters disappear, or simply transform into puffs of smoke.

In Hugo, we get to see Méliès’ studio in action. It was made of glass as to let light in (electric lights were not typically used), and the stationary camera was placed at one end of the long room. Ropes were laid down on the ground to demark where the camera’s field of vision ended. The films would all be shot on a constantly rebuilt stage.

Méliès had one of the most daunting and extravagant imaginations in the history of cinema. Not only was he interested in the mechanical and technical ins and outs of camerawork, but he was intensely drawn into the fantasy stories of his youth. Most of his films detail the ancient fantasy tales one is often drawn to as a youth: the Arabian Nights, the ancient warriors, the magical fables. He made the first Cleopatra movie in 1899. He made an early Cinderella (1912), and other bizarre films with titles like The Astronomer’s Dream (1989) and The Treasures of Satan (1902). All told, he made about 500 features. And while he was inspired by book illustrations and ancient magical stories, Méliès brought to the screen a series of wholly original images that he conceived of himself. He would build dragons, costumes, weird sets and pulleys, and try to make mermaids fly unfettered through the heavens. Film, Méliès thought, should depict what cannot be seen in the real world. If it was ideally suited for illusion, then illusion should be the center of the medium. He was a storyteller, yes, but he was first and foremost a magician. Every fantasy film you’ve ever seen, from Disney animated features to the epic CGI-infused orc battles in The Lord of the Rings are all following in the tradition of attempting to transport the audience to another world. I know the phrase “transporting you to another world” is another one of those obnoxious marketing phrases typically adopted by publicists, but remember again: there was a time when such a phrase needed to be invented. It was the wonder of Méliès that inspired such phrases.

His most famous film, and the one most recognized by even the most casual of film fans, is his 1902 masterpiece A Trip to the Moon. In its mere 14 minute runtime, a group of crotchety scientists launch themselves to the moon, landing right in the Man in the Moon’s eye. On the moon, they discover a race of demonic imps who would do them harm. The astronomers do battle with the imps, striking them down with umbrellas and the like, causing the monsters to transform into puffs of smoke. They eventually flee back to their craft, and return to Earth safely. Méliès used every trick he had learned in this film, sometimes double-exposing the film (making for overlapping images), and often employing forced perspective sets to show the grandness of a giant rocket, or the oddball architecture of the moon’s landscape. In Hugo we see that Méliès also hand-colored his films frame-by-frame. This detail was not known until 2002, when a print of the film was discovered in Paris with the tinting in tact.

There is a visual and emotional texture to Méliès’ films that is both unique and hard to describe. While each frame of every one of his films was busy with elaborate images, he did not seem to work in a swirl of chaos. He, like many filmmakers to follow, seemed inspired by a very definite dream-like aesthetic he would see every night as he slept. There is an immediacy to his films. A kind of actual exhilarating wonder. This was not a man in the game for financial gain. This was a man obsessed with the possibilities of living theatricality. He wanted to condense the grandness of the world’s most elaborate five-hour opera cycle into every 15 minutes of film he shot. In many ways, he succeeded.

At the beginning of WWI, in 1913, the money for his ambitious endeavors began to slip away, and watching imaginary dragons and film magic seemed to fade from the world’s consciousness in the face of real-life war violence. This is also dramatized in Hugo. Méliès, in disgust, burned most of his sets and props, and sold his films for the celluloid. He returned to the stage. And while films continued to develop into a burgeoning art form, Méliès himself stayed out of the business, largely in debt, and working odd jobs to make ends meet. He was once head of a worldwide studio (his studio, by the way, was fittingly named Star Films) which had offices in Spain, France, England and America. Now he was a struggling has-been, lionized by obscure critics but uncelebrated by the world at large. It wasn’t until the early 1930s that people began finding old prints that survived his self-destructive deluge, and many of his films started making the rounds again. To this day, one can easily find Méliès movies on DVD.

It’s difficult to measure just how important Méliès’ influence has been on the filmmaking community. Simple editing tricks came to him naturally, but, just like the simple technique of cross-cutting, the subtle editing and illusory tricks he invented would shape the way movies were made. It was Méliès who first realized that the camera can be “tricked” using special lights and forced perspective to make images. Unlike a theatrical audience of hundreds, the camera only has one possible perspective. The entire audience, as it were, is contained inside a tiny lens. As cameras became more nimble over the decades, we became used to swirling perspectives and elaborate tracking shots. But, despite all the bells and whistles and CGI-enhanced zooms and dips, it was Méliès’ experiments that revealed to filmmakers and to audiences that the camera’s perspective can be manipulated.

Many young film-goers seem averse to attending silent movies. To such people, they seem far away and alien. Consider this, though: The motion picture camera made its proper debut in 1895. Sound didn’t become a staple of movies until The Jazz Singer in 1927. That’s over 30 years’ worth of film. Three decades of innovation, genre trends, special effects, and the discovery of film techniques that are largely still in place today. I wouldn’t want to miss any three decades of movies; imagine missing every movie in between Star Wars and Zodiac. The greats extend back to the beginning, and few were greater than Georges Méliès.



Of course, track down some Méliès films, most notably A Trip to the Moon. You can find them at libraries or your better video stores. Many are online as well. When you watch them, try to figure out how some of the visuals were achieved. How do the films make you feel? What sort of aesthetic do they have? If you had a single stationary camera, and no access to computer effects, how would you film a story with monsters and magic? How can editing be used to achieve special effects? How does a camera’s limited field of vision aid in a film’s visuals? Then watch some other silent movies, and compare. How do simple things like camera placement and editing reflect on the way films are made today? How much is different? How much has stayed the same?