Herald Journal Columns
Oct. 13, 2003 Herald Journal

Birth of film making -
a French connection

Georges Melies, like so many artists, fell in love in Paris. It was a winter evening in 1895, in the ever-romantic Grand Cafe.

When he realized that the object of his desire belonged to another, he was not deterred. Instead, he offered money.

The story started a year earlier, when Louis Lumiere fell in love in Paris with an American ­ an American Kinetoscope.

The Lumiere family had been at the forefront of photography in France for some time, but when Louis saw a demonstration of Thomas Edison's new device that could record moving photographs ­ motion pictures. The Frenchman was enthralled.

But Edison's device only recorded the motion picture, it could not project them. Only one person at a time could view the movie, peep show style.

Edison's idea was to market Kinetoscopes like televisions, one in every home; but the solitary nature of the experience limited its marketability.

Louis had a better idea: what if you could shine light through the exposed film and project it onto a reflective surface? Then a whole group of people could enjoy it together.

Within a year, Louis and his brother, August (the now legendary Lumiere Brothers ­ and with a surname like that, it's easy to imagine they were predestined to do this), invented the first motion picture projector, which they dubbed the Cinematograph.

It was at the unveiling of the Cinematograph, there in the Grand Cafe that cold December evening, when Georges Melies fell in love with it.

Already a famous conjurer and illusionist who owned his own theater where he presented his popular live shows, Melies was always on the lookout for novel tricks and effects.

His illusions were elaborately spectacular for their time ­ the David Copperfield of his day ­ and he had already make effective use of "magic lanterns" to achieve limited projected images. But with the premiere of the Cinematograph, he visualized stunning new possibilities.

So, he tried to buy it from the Lumiere Brothers on the spot. Great sums of money were offered, but Louis and August knew the significance of what they had, and wanted to hold on to a monopoly as long as they could.

The unflappable Melies went to London, where he bought a Bioscope Projector, which had just been developed based on unlicensed copies of Edison's Kinetoscope.

Very soon he was incorporating short films into his live performances, furthering his fame. He shot his own movies voraciously, making well more than 100 films by the end of 1897.

But these early cameras were plagued with breakdowns.

One day, while shooting a street scene, Melies' camera jammed. A quick repair was made, and filming resumed.

Later, as he viewed the footage, Melies discovered that, where the camera had jammed, a person now appeared where a horse had been, a carriage suddenly disappeared ­ in effect, everything that moved had changed while the stationary objects remained the same. His illusionist's mind reeled with the possibilities.

In this fortuitous accident, Melies stumbled onto trick photography. This opened the door for him to other effects: the dissolve transition (an overlapping fade between shots in which the previous scene gradually disappears as the new scene slowly fades in), double exposure, fast and slow motion, and animation techniques.

By 1897, Melies' theater had converted from live performance to only showing movies. He became more adventurous, and, along with the short novelty and trick films he'd been making, began telling entire complex stories in several scenes and acts.

Keeping in mind that these films predated the addition of sound to film by more than 20 years, it's quite impressive that Melies was one of the first to bring narrative to film, with such stories as "Cinderella," "Joan of Arc," "The Damnation of Faust," and his best known work, "A Trip to the Moon."

Taking great license with this classic Jules Verne novel, and with his trademark theatrical flair, Melies included animation, elaborate stage scenery and effects, and the inevitably French chorus line of dancing girls.

It is still great fun to watch ­ recently when I showed a clip from "A Trip to the Moon" to a Science Fiction class of eighth graders, they wanted to see the entire film.

By 1902, there was a substantial market in the United States for illegally copied Melies' films, so he opened a branch of his company, Star Film, here to distribute his French flicks. Soon, the new studio was cranking out local productions as well, mostly Westerns, but also some of the first newsreels, including one of President Roosevelt in 1905.

Georges Melies kickstarted movies as storytelling, and some critics even credit him with single-handedly supplanting the novel as the most popular narrative art form.

He also started the ball rolling on editing techniques and special effects, and his output was monumental, including hundreds of movies from 1896 to 1913.

But by 1910 the novelty was wearing thin, and the public was inundated with a wide array of films from which to choose. Melies went broke, and returned to his old profession in live illusionist shows. But this also failed financially, and he lost his theater building.

He was managing a working class theater in a French mining community, when, in 1928, there was an unexpected upsurge of interest in his work and appreciation for his contributions to the art of film.

He was awarded the Legion of Honor medal and granted an apartment by the French government, where he lived until his death in 1938.

Sources and additional reading: "The Film Encyclopedia," by Ephraim Katz; "An Introduction to American Movies," by Steven C. Earley; "The Art of Movie-Making," by Richard Beck Peacock.

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