More on Melies

More on Melies

Known as the “father of special effects,” Georges Melies originally worked as a magician, operating the Theatre Robert-Houdin.  Attending the very first screening of the Lumiere brothers’ Cinematographe in December of 1895, Melies attempted to purchase a camera.  When the Lumieres refused, Melies instead designed one himself and started making films as early as 1896.  A Nightmare, part of our program tonight, is one of the very earliest films by Melies to survive today.  A true pioneer, Melies produced, directed, designed, and starred in almost every film he made.  His showmanship, panache, humor, and precision come through in each film, particularly in those based on his magic act, where he replaces the magic trick with the cinematic illusion.

Melies made more than 500 films, less than half of which survive.  Although known for “trick films,” he also made actualities, historical recreations, and even stag films.  (Among other things, he is reputed to be the first to include nudity on film.)  The personal narrative of Melies told in the film Hugo is correct on the whole: his film business deteriorated in the 1910s, he closed his studio, and eventually did indeed open up a toy shop in the Montparnasse train station.  Later in the 1920s, his work was rediscovered, and he was presented with the Legion d’honneur award by the French government in 1931.

Melies has been credited with the invention of many special effects and techniques of cinematic grammar, including the stop-motion edit, the dissolve, and the double exposure.  He claims to have discovered stop motion when he was filming a street scene and his camera jammed momentarily.  When he looked at his footage later, it appeared that a carriage had transformed into a hearse.  This macabre example reportedly inspired many of his cinematic effects, including transformations (umbrellas turning into mushrooms), disappearances (aliens turning into a puff of smoke), and pixillation (objects appearing to move on their own).  His exploits with special effects are even more impressive considering that they were all done in-camera (not with the special processing and optical printing equipment later devised, and certainly not with the ease of our point-and-click digital technology today).  Thus, something like The Man with the Rubber Head had to be run through the camera twice–once with Melies sitting on the side and once with his head appearing on the table (using a rolling chair to move to and from the camera, making it appear that his head is inflating and deflating). The Melomaniac would need to be run through the camera many more times–once for each of his heads.  The black background in each of these films facilitated this kind of in-camera matte shot.


  • This article describes the relationship between last week’s film Hugo and the filmmaker Georges Melies.
  • Look here for more on the recent restoration of Melies’ A Trip to the Moon and an accompanying documentary, An Extraordinary Voyage.

This video by the Smashing Pumpkins was inspired by Melies’ films.