Original Creators: Georges Méliès

Original Creators: Georges Méliès

Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Georges Méliès.

When film first emerged as a creative medium in the late 19th century, advanced by the efforts of researchers like Eadweard Muybridge and early filmmakers like the Lumière brothers, it was accompanied by an air of magic and illusion, inspiring awe in early audiences with its never-before-seen moving picture technique. But the subject matter of early films was anything but—focused on the familiar and the mundane, most early films captured the everyday activities of the common man, such as a trip to the butcher’s or the blacksmith’s. That is, until Georges Méliès came along.

Méliès is the godfather of special effects, the patron saint of sci-fi, and the beneficent muse that would give spark to the horror film genre. As one of the first filmmakers to use the medium as a means of transforming and manipulating—as opposed to faithfully depicting—reality, Méliès is in many ways responsible for turning film into the creative form we know it as today. Having started out as a stage magician, Méliès was uniquely fluent in the language of spectacle, visual trickery, illusion and slight of hand that would help introduce fantasy to the cinematic world. He was the world’s first “cinemagician.”

After accidentally discovering the stop trick in 1896, he would go on to pioneer many other imaginative techniques inspired by his background in theater and magic, such as the use of multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand-painted color in his films. Working like his research-oriented contemporaries, Méliès never stopped experimenting with his work, directing more than 530 films between 1896 and 1914, ranging in length from one to forty minutes, many of them devoid of a traditional plot structure and revolving almost entirely around developing a specific special effect technique.

Sadly, Méliès was never good with money and undervalued his cinematic contributions. He closed his film studio in 1913 due to bankruptcy and became a toy salesman. His magnificent films were subsequently seized by the French Army and melted down into boot heels during World War I. Though very few of his works survive, Méliès’ legacy has cast a long and enduring spell over the film world and continues to inspire makers in other cinematic mediums such as the music video or Augmented Reality.

Below is a selection of some of his most iconic (surviving) works:

The Vanishing Lady / Escamotage d’une dame (1896)
One of Méliès’ earliest film experiments, this short flick is a pretty literal adaptation of a classic magic trick—the disappearing woman—to the film format. Using his most significant contribution to the world of special effects—the stop trick, where the camera stops rolling while an object is removed or replaced in the frame, creating the illusion of appearance/disappearance—Méliès gives the familiar trick new life.

A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la lune (1902)
Widely regarded as the first science fiction film, A Trip to the Moon is a loose amalgamation of two popular sci-fi novels from the time period: From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and The First Men in the Moon by H. G. Wells. It’s one of the most famous and most widely referenced of Méliès’ films and served as the inspiration for The Smashing Pumpkins 1996 music video for “Tonight, Tonight.”

The Moon At One Meter / Lune a une metre (1898)
Once again taking the moon as his source of inspiration, Méliès conceives of a more intimate experience with the celestial body. Though the purpose of this film was clearly to amuse and entertain audiences, its dark undertones paint a mischievous and murderous heavenly body that destroys all who come into its path, laying the groundwork for the sci-fi and horror genres that would emerge in later years.