Monday, November 28, 2011

Phil remembers Georges Méliès: The First Wizard of Cinema-November 29, 2011

After seeing Martin Scorsese's brilliant new film HUGO 3D this past Sunday, I started to think that some of you out there may not be familiar with the films of Georges Méliès, let alone who he was. For those who read my review of the film, I only hinted as to who this extraordinary man was and how movies today would not look the same hadn't been for is imagination and sense of wonder. So for tonight, I thought it would be nice to pay homage by giving a brief biography about one of cinema's most important filmmakers ever. So ladies and gentlemen, here is the true story of Georges Méliès: The First Wizard of Cinema!

Georges Méliès (Dec. 8, 1861-Jan. 21, 1938)
Méliès was born in Paris, France on December 8, 1861, where his family manufactured shoes. Later on in life he became a professional stage magician and was performing shows at the Theatre Robert-Houdin, which he bought in 1888. But fate stepped in when in on December 28, 1895, when Méliès saw the Lumière Brothers' films and soon fell in love with the movies. He originally tried to buy a camera from the Lumières but they refused to sell him one. As a result, he bought a projector from Robert W. Paul (a successful engineer) as well as a Bioscope camera. Soon, he was off making moving pictures.

His first films, like the Lumières, were actuality films (called actualités) which he added to the program at his theatre. Years later these films would became known as documentaries. He later filmed scenes of himself doing magic tricks. Then one day he accidentally discovered that he could use stop-motion photography to render trick visual effects, such as making objects disappear or change in size with a puff of smoke. Méliès was also the first to use techniques such as fade-ins, fade-outs, and dissolves to create some of the first real narrative films. He was also the first to use split screen and double exposure in his films as well. Also by accident, Méliès also created the world's first 3D camera While trying to figure out how to make sure that his US films weren't stolen before the release of his European copy, he devised a camera that would hold two reels of film that would shoot the image simultaneously; one reel is the "right eye" and the other the "left eye." When these images overlaped on another, they would become what we call a 3D image. If you don't believe me, read my review of the Méliès program I attended at the Motion Picture Academy back in September. The link in near the bottom.

Still from A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902)
Between 1896-1914, Méliès made over 500 films, but only one of those films still stands the test of time and is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. In 1902, Méliès made the film A TRIP TO THE MOON (Le Voyage dans la Lune), which included the famous image of a rocket hitting the eye of the man in the moon. The film became the foundation for future science fiction films as well as fantasy films. However, by 1913, the first World War brought an end to the innocence of his films. Many solders had seen the horrors of war, and Méliès' films of fantasy and make believe seemed childlike. Unable to change with the times, the Theatre Robert-Houdin was closed in 1914 as a result of World War I, which forced his film company into bankruptcy. Not realizing just how important his films were, he let the French Army seized most of this stock 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, all of his films appeared to be lost forever along with him as well.

After being driven out of business, Méliès became a toy salesman at the Montparnasse Station in Paris and was completely forgotten. Fortunately, the French surrealist movement in the 1920s brought about a rediscovery of his surviving films, and the acknowledgment of his contributions to the art and the industry of motion pictures. Eventually, this led to his being awarded the Legion of Honor in 1931. He was also given a rent free apartment where he spent the remaining years of his life. Georges Méliès passed away on January 21, 1938, and was buried in the Pere Lachaise Cementary.

The Georges Méliès 5-Disc DVD Boxset (2008)
Seventy-three years after his death, Méliès is still talked about and his films are still being shown and being rediscovered by a whole new generation of film fans and lovers. Over the years many of his films thought to have been lost were being unearthed and preserved. In 2008, film historian David Shepard along with Eric Lange produced the unprecedented and comprehensive five disc DVD boxset entitled Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) released by Flicker Alley. The boxset contained 173 rare and original films thought to have been lost. Upon the release of this DVD set, several more of Méliès' films were discovered, prompting Flicker Alley to release Georges Méliès Encore: New Discoveries (1896-1911). It contained 26 new and rare films on a single DVD. But the surprises weren't over yet.

In 2010, a rare, hand colored print of A TRIP TO THE MOON was discovered in a film vault in Barcelona, Spain. French film historian and archivist Serge Bromberg acquired the film but the print was in very poor condition. As a result, Bromberg's company Lobster Films, along with Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, plus with the aid of Tom Burton at Technicolor’s laboratories in Los Angeles, California, launched the most complex and ambitious restoration project in the history of cinema. In the course of one year, they were able to restore Méliès' film in time for its premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, with a recorded soundtrack done by the French band Air. During my vacation in Los Angeles back in September, I attended the special program entitled "A TRIP TO THE MOON AND OTHER TRAVELS THROUGH TIME, COLOR, AND SPACE" at the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Science, where they had a special screening of the film, along with other important silent films (including the previously mentioned Méliès 3D films). For those of you who didn't get a chance to read my review of this special occasion the first time around, please click here to read about it.

Georges Méliès is more than just a filmmaker, he is an icon. A hero to some, others see him as a pioneer. But what is not disputed is this: now and forever more, Georges Méliès will simply be remembered as the first wizard of cinema!

The Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) 5-Disc DVD Boxset and the Georges Méliès Encore: New Discoveries (1896-1911) single disc are currently available on the Flicker Alley website. To purchase copies, visit their website at

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the show!

1 comment:

  1. This was the very first article I ever read of yours, Phil. He sounded like such an amazing man. Thank you for sharing this with us : )