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Georges Méliès: the Father of Modern Cinema and Special Effects.
Two videos included
Georges Méliès had a rocky life, from initial glory to ruin. The recognition of his talent was very late, confirming in this the old adage: no one is a prophet in his own land!
Draftsman and Conjurer
Born in 1861 in Paris, he was first a draftsman, before becoming passionate about magic and becoming a conjurer.
In 1888, thanks to the inheritance of his father, a wealthy shoe manufacturer (Georges refused to work in the family business), he bought the Robert Houdin theater in Paris, to organize magic shows there.
In 1895, he was one of the privileged few who experienced the historic moment of the first screening of a film by the Lumière brothers. He also decides to embark on the creation of films, in which he will inject all the ideas he has developed through drawing, theater and magic.
It is part of this period when France invented and shaped cinema, with the first films of the Lumière brothers, the invention of the cinema industry and production studios by the Pathé brothers.
A prolific creator and a multifaceted genius
Until 1912, he made more than 520 films that were poetic, fantastic, mysterious, naive and full of humour: short films of 1 to 20 minutes screened at fairs that amazed the spectators. He created new professions, unknown until then, but essential to the cinema: producer, director, scriptwriter, decorator, actor, operator, director of actors,...
His genius and his creativity are immense, and so is the legacy he left to cinema.
We can, pell-mell, attribute to him the invention of special effects/tricks, of Fantasy and Science-fiction cinema, of storyboarding, the construction of the first cinema studio with manufactured sets, etc.
He invented several techniques of tricks, some still very common today, including:
Trompe-l'oeil decorations with painted wood and backstage to make the actors circulate, giving the illusion of seeing the characters circulating in a fantastic universe.
Stopping the camera allowing elements to appear and disappear, giving the illusion that a character is teleporting, that a monster is disappearing in an explosion, etc.
Drawings on the film, mask and counter-mask technique, blocking off part of the lens, then allowing you to return to the same scene by adding what you want to it, which notably allowed it to split in two screens etc.
All of these processes laid the foundations for special effects, some of which are still used today. For example, we can find several of them in the first Star Wars (1977).
The man with the rubber head
In the famous “The Man with the Rubber Head”, he approaches the camera in jerks, his body hidden behind a piece of black cloth, pierced with a hole through which he sticks his head.
Stopping the camera makes it possible to modify elements of the scene by superimposing two shots filmed in quick succession, with the same framing. The result caused a sensation at the time.
“A Trip to the Moon”: the world's first science fiction film
The absolute masterpiece of Georges Méliès, made in 1902.
It is probably the most legendary film in the history of cinema, the first “fantasy” film. The film is inspired by another Frenchman, also a pioneer of science fiction, in literature this time: Jules Verne. You can watch the full movie (about 12 minutes) here:
From glory to ruin
Georges Méliès is not well-versed in money matters. In 1925, he is ruined. Creditors are suing him. All his films are sold to showmen or destroyed. To survive, he accepts the job of selling toys at Montparnasse station (a train station in Paris)!
The rise and fall of a genius…
Recognition at last!
Some of his films, pulled from the attics, were screened at a gala in his honor at the Salle Pleyel on December 16, 1929. A triumph in the presence of all of Paris!
In March 1931, during a banquet of the cinematographic corporation, he was finally recognized by the profession, with Louis Lumière, as “one of the two pillars of French cinema.”
Two days later, the then famous actor Charlie Chaplin received the Legion of Honor (la Légion d'honneur: the highest French order of merit, both military and civil, established by Napoleon in 1802).
But Georges got nothing!
An Englishman is honored while a Frenchman, father of cinema and special effects is ignored! That’s nothing less than a crime of lese-majesty!
The situation is untenable for the French government that finally agrees to decorate the filmmaker. Sponsored by Louis Lumière, particularly moved, Méliès received the Legion of Honor on October 22, 1931 during a banquet of 800 guests at the Claridge.
Georges Méliès died on 21 January 1938 at the age of 76. He is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
In a book published in 1973, Madeleine Malthête-Méliès, Georges Méliès’ granddaughter, wrote:
He was so nice, always in a good mood, always full of ideas to entertain himself and entertain the world. Sporty, dynamic, young in appearance, fundamentally honest, very upright, always in a good mood, he remained in adversity the same wise and philosophical man.
Humble, like all geniuses…
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