Maries-Georges-Jean Méliès, was born in Paris, where his family manufactured shoes, on December 8 1861. His early interest in the arts led to a place at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where he showed a particular interest in stage design and puppetry.
Méliès’ father wanted him to learn English so Georges continued his studies in London. In 1884 he attended a performance by Maskelyne and Cooke at The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. This sparked his life-long interest in stage magic. His fascination with film began the following year after seeing a demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ camera. Apparently he tried to buy the machine, but was turned down. Undeterred, he travelled back to London and investigated the camera/projector of Robert Paul.
What happened next depends upon whose account you read: either he bought a machine from Paul, or he returned to Paris and built his own projector based on Paul’s design. Whichever the truth, we do know that he began screening his own film presentations on 4 April 1896. At first he showed other people’s films, but within a few months he was making and screening his own short films. At first these were one-reel views or event records, lasting about a minute.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After returning to Paris from London he started work at his father’s shoe factory, taking over as manager when his father retired. The lure of the theatre was still there, however, and when the famous Theatre Robert-Houdin came up for sale in 1888 he bought it. Soon he was moving away from the simple cityscapes and began using his camera to record magic acts and gags.
We’ve all heard the (probably apocryphal) story of Méliès’ accidental discovery of the most basic camera trick in the fantasy film-makers’ armory: Apparently he was filming a street scene (in 1896) when the camera jammed. He sorted the problem out and continued filming. When he came to process the film Méliès must have been delighted to see the result: objects apparently changing, appearing and transforming instantaneously… a magician’s dream?
In 1897, he established a studio on a rooftop property in Montreuil. Actors performed in front of a painted set inspired by the conventions of magic and musical theatre. He directed 531 films between 1896 and 1914, ranging in length from one to forty minutes. In subject matter, these films are often similar to the shows that Méliès had been doing as a stage magician at the Robert-Houdin, containing “tricks” and impossible events, such as objects disappearing or changing size.
We now recognise Méliès’ importance in developing many technical and narrative techniques in early cinema. He was one of the first to use multiple exposure (see Un Homme de têtes, 1898), time-lapse, and dissolves in his films.
This is perhaps Méliès’ most famous film A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune) made in 1902, which includes the celebrated scene in which a spaceship hits the eye of the man in the moon. We are told that agents of Thomas Edison bribed a theatre owner in London for a copy of A Trip to the Moon. Edison then made hundreds of copies and showed them in New York City. Méliès received no compensation. [Plus ca change… eh Roger?]
Like many of Méliès’ films, A Trip to the Moon, shot of course in black anbd white, was also sold in hand-coloured versions. Each of the 13,375 frames was labouriously hand tinted. The result is extraordinarily beautiful. The only known coloured version was discovered in a state of almost complete decomposition by the Spanish Filmoteca de Catalunya. A frame by frame restoration was begun in 1999 and completed in 2010, often by taking missing frames from the monochrome version and digitising them to match the original hand tinting. It premiered at Cannes in 2011, 109 years after its original release.
In 1913 Georges Méliès’ film company was forced into bankruptcy by the large French and American studios and his company was bought out of receivership by Pathé Frères. His beloved Theatre Robert Houdin was demolished. After being driven out of business Méliès became a toy salesman at the Gare Montparnasse. (Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret and set in the Gare Montparnasse, is something of a tribute to Méliès.)
Tragically, the importance of Méliès’ films was ignored and most of the cellulose stock was seized by the French Army seized to be melted down into boot heels during World War I. Many of the other films were sold to be recycled into new film. As a result many of these films do not exist today.
In 1932 the Cinema Society gave Méliès a home in Chateau D’Orly. In time, Méliès was rediscovered and honored for his work, eventually taking up stage performance again.
Georges Méliès was awarded the Légion d’honneur. He died in Paris on January 21 1938 and was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Legendary film-maker D.W. Griffith was once asked how important Méliès’ work was to him. He replied, “I owe him everything.”
[This post is based on an article which appeared in Issue 2 of PrestiDigital, the world’s first multimedia magic magazine, accompanying a video of Méliès’ 1898 film The Four Troublesome Heads (Un homme de têtes).]