Three Cheers for
Georges Melies

I wonder what Georges Melies would make of today's science fiction movies, special effects, designs, stories... Too bad we can't have him go on the record - that in itself would be a topic for a science fiction movie! However, we do know how he created his movies and we can take a peek behind his camera.

He was among the 33 people who attended the big event on 29 December 1895. The Lumiere brothers introduced their invention called Cinématographe and showed the audience, at Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, something which was unexpected and amazing - the first movie ever. For 1 franc per ticket, they could watch 10 films. Each movie was almost a minute long.

Melies was amazed and he immediately recognized the significance and possibilities of this invention. Lumiere' refused to sell him their device, but Melies didn't give up. He went to England and bought a projector called the Theatrograph from Robert William Paul.

He also bought a few movies from Edison and started to show them in his Theater Robert-Houdin. In the meantime, he and two of his engineers Lucien Korsten and Lucien Reulos set out to create their own camera. They patented it in September 1896 and it was called the Kinétographe.

Georges Melies was a man of great imagination and among the first filmmakers who realized that movies can show much more than just scenes from everyday life.

He started like everybody else, filming scenes from real life, but soon he stumbled on first special effects by accident. After that, as he was enchanted with his new tricks, he started to experiment and explore. Soon he invented several of them and these early movie special effects became a foundation for many more to come and inspired lots of those we admire today.

Georges Melies built his movie studio in 1896 which was the first of its kind in Europe. As Pascal Pinteau describes it in his book Special Effects: An Oral History - Interviews with 37 Masters , the building was 17 m long and 7m wide. Matte glass covered the structure of steel girders and beams. Underneath the floor, there was a 3m deep hole where he could sink his equipment during filming.

Inside studio Melies could control the light and shoot tricks which, without the protection of the glass walls, would be easily ruined by weather changes, such as sudden wind or an unexpected cloud.

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A Trip to the Moon

He made the first science fiction movie, creating the science fiction movie genre as well, "A Trip to the Moon" in 1902, just 7 years after the Lumiere brothers showed the first movie.

After more than 100 years his movies still capture our imagination and make me wonder how different the movie history would have been like if he had remained just a shoemaker?

His father wanted Georges (and his brothers) to continue family shoe manufacturing business, but destiny had other plans for him...

From the early days Georges Melies was drawn to arts and theater. As a child, he built cardboard sets and staged marionette shows which he loved to perform before an audience. He also had a knack for sketching and often drew caricatures of his teachers and classmates.

At 10, on his first visit to theater, Georges saw a performance of a famous magician Robert Houdin, which made a lasting impression on him.

As a young man, Georges wanted to become a painter, but he had to work in the family shoemaking business. At age 23, his father sent him to London to learn English and Georges Melies took this opportunity to attend with great enthusiasm number of interesting theatrical performances. At that time, John Maskelyne and George Cooke performed at The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. Not only did they show illusions involving ghosts, animated skeletons and severed limbs, but also showed how these tricks were made.

After he got back from London, Georges had to continue working in the family business despite his wish to became a magician. After his father retired in 1888, Georges sold his share in the company to his brothers Henri and Gaston and, finally free and eager to pursue his dreams bought the Theater Robert-Houdin. There Melies would present to his audience in 1996, one year after Lumiere Brothers presented their invention, his first movie with special effects titled The Vanishing Lady.

During his life he made more than 500 movies, last one in 1912, which were heavily copied around the world.

When his wife died in 1913 he retired from movie business. After his last movie, which was not a success he had hoped for, his financial losses were severe. In 1923, one of his financiers managed to buy his property at a low price. Ripped off and in despair Georges Melies destroyed most of his work.

In 1925 Melies married his former actress Jehanne d'Alcy and joined her in managing a toy store at the Montparnasse Station. He was re-discovered in early 1930's and the Mutuelle du Cinema magazine made it possible for them to live in the Orly castle covering their expenses.

Georges Melies was rewarded with Legion of Honor in 1931. He died seven years later.

Georges Melies was a renaissance man of his time. As a one man band, he stood behind and in front of the camera, he wrote the stories, made sets, makeup, costumes, special effects. His remarkable work opened the door for all those future filmmakers who nowadays transform thoughts and ideas - still using light, imagination and magic - into something real and alive allowing us to be a part of new exciting worlds.

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