Maries Georges Jean Méliès was many things during his life: puppeteer, actor, stage designer, magician/illusionist, theatre owner, toy salesman and, I think it can be easily argued, the father of film special effects. After witnessing the brand-new Cinématographe being exhibited to stunned audiences by the Lumière brothers in 1895, Méliès became immediately obsessed with this new art form. By the April of 1896 he’d purchased a projector and built his own camera (the Lumières would not sell him one). Shortly thereafter, he exhibited his first original film.
Think about that. Within a year of first seeing this revolutionary technology demonstrated, he’d replicated and mastered its mechanical aspects and begun making his own movies. He couldn’t even buy the proper film yet in France and had to make do with unperforated stock. Mind-boggling.
Méliès presented dramas with elaborate staging and costuming in his films. His use of perspective in his designs made it possible for him to, for the time, convincingly place 2-D objects into a scene and make them believable as 3-dimensional objects. This and other advanced stage design techniques also made his backgrounds and props both beautiful and recognizable to the audience. And he would tint films by hand to make color movies!
According to his memoirs Méliès discovered the idea of film manipulation and ‘in-camera’ special effects when his camera jammed mid-shoot and, after having repaired the film, he was fascinated to find that the jump cut in the film produced the effect of objects and people disappearing or appearing to be replaced by other people. He made liberal use of this technique to portray devils appearing, skeletons evaporating into smoke, double-exposure to create disembodied heads, split screen effects and, inevitably, basic stop motion techniques. Audiences were wowed. Not only were the visual stunning, but there appeared to be real ‘magic’ afoot in Méliès’s films. He went on to make over 500 films (in which he also almost always acted). Eventually, his genius was acknowledged and in 1931 he was awarded the Légion d’honneur, allowing him to live out the remainder of his life in comfort having been nearly forgotten .
So today we celebrate the birthdate of an amazing artist and technologist, a man who immediately grasped the possibilities of a new medium and took it to its [then] limits in so short a time that I’m tempted to call him a film savant. One could almost say it’s like The Beatles making Sgt. Pepper’s a year or so after the phonograph was invented. Maries Georges Jean Méliès: visionary, genius, film savant.
PS – Without spoiling too much, there’s a certain film out right now that features Monsieur Méliès. And it’s very good, fellas. *hint hint* 🙂
PPS – Many mistake Edison’s A Trip To Mars as being a Méliès film, but this… *ahem* clearly derivative film was made after Méliès’s most well-known film, Le voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon). Edison also showed Méliès’s Le Manoir du diable in the USA to great box-office success; paying not a thin dime to Méliès. Edison? A bit of a jerk.