Melies ImageGeorges Méliès was one of the most important pioneers of early cinema. A successful magician and owner of the Theatre Robert-Houdin in Paris, Méliès attended the first screening of the Lumiere Cinematographe on December 28, 1895. In February of the following year, Méliès purchased a motion picture camera, and he began making his own films that May.

Cinema technology was just being developed, and Méliès had to study various mechanisms, and have projectors, printers, and processing equipment custom made based on other people's designs or improvements of his own design.

Méliès' first films were straightforward cityscapes and event films, patterned after the short films of the Lumieres, but soon he was using the camera to document magic acts and gags from the stage of the Theatre Robert-Houdin. By late 1896, Méliès was incorporating his knowlege of the mechanisms of motion pictures with the magic skits, and producing his first "trick" films, which relied on multiple exposures to create the illusion of people and objects appearing and disappearing at will, or changing from one form to another.

Over the next few years, Méliès was perhaps the most inventive filmmaker in the world. Not only did he experiment with what could be done inside the camera with special effects and multiple exposures, but Méliès led in the development of a film language based on separate scenes edited together in chronological order. At a time when most filmmakers were content with single-shot films, Méliès was stringing shots together to make mini-epics like "Cinderella" (1899), which used seven minutes and 20 separate scenes to tell the popular fairy tale

Méliès best known film, "A Trip to the Moon" (1902) was one of his longest and most elaborate of his trick film epics. Although Méliès had developed the idea of composing film narratives from separate scenes, he never really moved beyond this stage in his filmmaking style. His scenes were single shots. They were complex shots, to be sure, involving a lot special effects work. But the techniques of composing scenes out of separate shots, of changing the camera's point of view, and of employing close-up in addition to medium and long shots, were not used by Méliès in his films.

As films, Méliès' films from 1905 through 1912 were behind the curve of the groundbreaking work of filmmakers like Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith. Even the declining popularity of his films failed to induce Méliès to change with the times.

Ultimately, Georges Méliès wasn't a filmmaker. He was a magician, who experimented with films, and who was more concerned with how the film reflected his concept for the tricks involved than for the evolution of the new art form. But the inventiveness, humor, and visual power of those film-created tricks, when projected in a theatre or performance hall like those where Méliès was first exposed to the cinema, give the films of George Méliès a unique magic that has lost little of its potency over the past 90 to 100 years.

Born Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès, Paris, December 8, 1861. Died January 21, 1938.

Selected Méliès Filmography.

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Copyright 1996 E.H. Larson.