Georges Méliès’s world of fantasy

While Edison, along with Étienne-Jules Marey, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, and the Lumière brothers, was inventing the foundation of the modern motion picture, other early practitioners of the cinematic art were creating worlds of their own. Georges Méliès was a former magician who became involved in film as a way to further his obsession with illusion. His trademark brand of phantasmagorical wizardry made him the godfather of special effects cinema in the hundreds of films he created in his Paris studio, including Le Spectre (Murder Will Out, 1899) and Le Rêve de Noël (The George Méliès’s Le Voyage dans le lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) made science fiction a “reality” for early cinema audiences.

Christmas Dream, 1900). In Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin (The Conjuring of a Woman at the House of Robert Houdin, 1896), Méliès makes a woman vanish before our eyes. In L’Ha-lucination de l’alchemiste (The Hallucinating Alchemist, 1897), he presents

the viewer with a gigantic star sporting five female heads. Les Aventures de baron de Munchhausen (Baron Munchausen’s Dream, 1911) features a woman/spider construct that anticipates the Scorpion King in a much later film, Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy Returns (2001). In Le Chaudron infernal (The Infernal Boiling Pot, 1903), three young women are boiled alive in a gigantic cauldron.

Méliès’s most famous film, Le Voyage dans la lune (1902), distributed in the United States and England as A Trip to the Moon, ranks as one of the cinema’s first (if not the first) science fiction films, combining spectacle, sensation, and technical wizardry to create a cosmic fantasy that was an international sensation. The film also created many of the basic generic situations that are still used in science fiction films today. A visionary scientist proposes a trip to the moon and is met with derision. Defying the scientific establishment, he pushes on with the construction of his rocket, aided by a few close associates. After much preparation, the rocket is successfully launched and, in one of the most famous shots in the history of cinema, hits

the “man in the moon” in the eye, landing in a triumphant close-up of the moon’s face. On the moon, the scientists are captured and taken to the moon’s ruler, who proposes to put the scientists on trial for daring to enter his domain. But the leader of the scientists breaks free, makes a mad rush for the ruler’s throne, and destroys him by hurling him to the ground where he vanishes in a puff of smoke. The group escapes and races back to their rocket ship, which is now conveniently located on the edge of the moon. Beating off their pursuers, the scientists manage to tip the rocket off the moon so that it falls back to Earth, controlled solely by gravity. Fortunately for the scientists, the rocket lands in the ocean, immediately floats to the surface, and is triumphantly towed into safe harbor by a steamboat.

About fourteen minutes long, A Trip to the Moon was an enormous critical and commercial hit.

Méliès’s films, like those of Edison and the Lumière brothers, relied on a fixed camera position, but within this limitation he created a basic library of special effects that would dominate the cinema until the advent of the digital era in the late twentieth century: double exposures, dissolves (one image “melts” into another), mattes (in which one portion of the image is “masked off” and then rephotographed to create spatial, or spectacular, illusions), reverse motion, cutting in the camera (to make objects appear and/or disappear), and numerous other cinematic techniques.

For all his showmanship, Méliès was an unsuccessful businessperson, and his films were often bootlegged in foreign countries. Near the end of his career he went bankrupt, partially because of the extensive pirating of his work, but also as a result of overspending on increasingly lavish spectacles. The negatives for Méliès’s films were melted down by a creditor for their silver content. Many of his films survive today only through the illegal copies that helped to bankrupt him.

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Georges Méliès’s world of fantasy