When I think of the history of film there are a handful of names which come to mind, and one of them is Georges Méliès. Some of you may know him from Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film “Hugo”. Part of the reason I loved that film so much was because I was already very familiar with the works of Méliès. He made such films as “Voyage to the Moon” and “The Four Troublesome Heads” and “The One Man Band”. Why is he so important? He was one of the first filmmakers to begin to see the possibilities that cinema could provide. Before Méliès almost all films were just actuality films (slice of life documentary films). Méliès was an entertainer and a magician and brought that sense of wonder to his films by using special effects. Now, his films still seem like filmed stage productions, but there is also a great sense of wonder watching them because he is able to make things happen which people could only dream of. Here are two examples.
The first one is called “The Four Troublesome Heads” from 1898.
This film cannot help but make you smile. He had no films to base these special effects off of, so he essentially created them himself. Just imagine what audiences probably thought of it back 1898 when they saw a man take his head off multiple times! Of course, by today’s standards, this is easier than ever to replicate, but back then it was new and exciting and paved the way for all other special effects to follow.
Take a look at “The One Man Band” from 1900.
This another fun little film of his to watch. He brought magic to the screen at the turn of the century where it is still employed today. You can see, however, that these films really did feel like just filmed theatre, but it was a start. Remember: there was no such thing as a green or blue screen, or computer editing systems. All these effects had to be done by hand with the film stock and camera; filming scenes multiple times with parts of the film blocked out. It was meticulous but the final product was worth it.
People came to forget Georges Méliès, however. He became a toy salesman for years as he lived in obscurity. He was rediscovered in the late 1920s and he began to get the recognition he deserved. I am glad that he lived to see the turnaround in public recognition of his works. Without him cinema would not be what it is today. The events in “Hugo” never happened, but it was true that he was a toy salesman and had fallen on hard times. I always love revisiting his films because of that fantastical world he creates. There are so many of his films which you can watch online and enjoy, and I highly recommend doing so.
No article on Georges Méliès, however brief the article may be, is complete without talking about “Voyage to the Moon” from 1902. The film also goes by the title “A Trip to the Moon”. This is one of the most important films ever made in the history of cinema. Along with “The Great Train Robbery” from 1903, this film is considered one of the first narrative films of considerable length. It is about 13 minutes long, and includes many special effects. However, unlike the other films which I have included on this post this one does not look entirely like staged theatre. Méliès built sets and explored what cinema could do. This is also the film which includes the iconic “face of the moon” shot. Unlike those others films this one actually has a simple plot which carries the film just as much as the special effects. Perhaps I will write another article in the future dedicated completely to this masterpiece, but for now just take a gander for yourselves and you will know why it was ahead of its time.