The father of sci-fi films

The Lumière Brothers, Thomas Edison, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, Fritz Lang, Sergei Eisenstein. All of these are household names in film history and, rightly so, lauded as pioneers of early filmmaking. But one name that has often been pushed down to the footnotes is Georges Méliès, the brilliant multi-talented filmmaker who was very much the Orson Welles of his time – and contributed as much to the art of special effects and movie magic as later greats such as George Lucas or James Cameron. Fortunately, thanks to Martin Scorcese’s hit film Hugo, he is now better known to a wide audience. And he is undisputedly the father of science fiction movies. 

Georges Méliès in one of his first trick films The Vanishing Lady filmed on set at his theatre Théâtre Robert Houdin. This was also one of the first films to feature his assistant Jeanne d'Alcy, who was to become France's first movie star under Mélies.

Georges Méliès in one of his first trick films The Vanishing Lady filmed on set at his theatre Théâtre Robert Houdin. This was also one of the first films to feature his assistant Jeanne d’Alcy, who was to become France’s first movie star under Mélies.

To put Méliès in context one should perhaps delve a bit into the history of the birth of moving pictures. Moving images were first projected in the 1830’s with so called zoetropes, hand cranked wheels with hand painted images that relied on persistance of vision – the fact that if you show a series of pictures in a rapid succession, the brain percieves them as continuous movement (a fact discovered by the ancient Greek, no less). These were short episodes often produced simply to amaze or frighten an audinence at vaudevilles or sideshows. The first thing we might call a film appeared in 1878 and was made by British photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who put together 24 pictures of a horse galloping and showed them in rapid succession with a special apparatus. But as this was shot with 24 still image cameras, it does not qualify as an actual film.

The invention of the medium of moving pictures is often accredited to either American inventer and film maker Thomas Alva Edison or the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. In fact, as with all scientific breakthroughs, it was a process involving several scientists, hobbyists, inventers and business men all over the world. As still photography evolved, many contributions were made that ultimately led to the birth of the first actual films. These included several designs of crude motion picture cameras and different experiments with film between 1882 and 1890. French inventor Louis Augustin Le Prince is sometimes credited with making the first piece of film with a camera of his own design in 1888 (it depicted traffic on a bridge in Leeds), but William Kennedy Laurie Dickson was the person to invent the first modern film camera (see his first film), commissioned by Edison, nonetheless, in 1890.

History books have turned the early history of moving pictures into a duel between two nations: France and USA. We know that Edison and Dickson were pioneers in the field (see 1893 video), but whether Edison’s supreme sense of money and patents gives the duo an unfair prominence in the annals of movie history is hard to say. We know that they did some early films in their ”Black Maria” studio in 1893, but we also know, for example, that the world’s first film studio was built in Australia in 1892, and that England and Denmark were home to early filmmakers.

Edison and Dickson's The Sneeze was an early experimental film, and surely the first sneeze ever caught in camera.

Edison and Dickson’s The Sneeze was an early experimental film, and surely the first sneeze ever caught in camera.

The world’s first commercial film viewing parlor was set up in New York in 1894 – these were coin operated ”peep hole machines”, that could only be used by one person at a time. These peep hole machines spread quickly around the world, and Edison was only one of the companies involved. In 1895 the French Lumière brothers were among the first to publicly project a film on a screen (the film Workers leaving the Lumière Factory was a sensation at the time), with their groundbreaking camera-projector system. They have sometimes been coined as the fathers of cinema, but in fact another American screened a film with another system just months before. The point here is that pintpointing who the fathers (or mothers) of the movies actually were is almost impossible, since so many were dabbling in this new medium at the time, some better remembered than others.

During these five first years of films the sensation of moving images were novel enough to cause a stir. Most films were a few dozen seconds or a few minutes long, and often portrayed everyday occurences like traffic or different trades. Dancing women, boxing matches and circus artists were other popular subjects of film. But soon films became more imaginative and the magic of editing and optical effects opened a whole new world of movies – among other things science fiction.

Some claim the first science fiction film was made as early as 1895 by the Lumière Brothers, and was called La Charcuterie mécanique – the mechanical butcher (here). It was a “humorous subject”, as were most of the early films of fiction, and depicts three men and a giant box with the text “La Charcuterie mécanique” written on the side. Basically what happens is one man throws a pig into the box, another cranks a wheel and a third picks up butchery products at the other end of the box. Not a very inventive sci-fi tale. This theme was widely repeated by many filmmakers in the subsequent years.

Director Alfred Clark, working for Edison, is said to have filmed the first film in history with trained actors and with an in-camera special effect in his The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots (here) in 1895. An actor (Robert Thomae, dressed in women’s clothing) plays Mary putting her head on the execution block, the executioner raises his axe – and the film was stopped, Thomae replaced with a dummy with a loose head – camera rolled again – and off with her head.

This technique was to be developed to perfection by the French illusionist Georges Méliès in the early 20th century – as well as a multitude of cinematic special effects, many of which are still used widely today.

Méliès was a well educated son of a successful shoe manufacturer in France, but despite doing some work in his father’s factory, his true passion from an early age was art, theatre and conjuring tricks. After his father retired in 1888, when Méliès was 27, he sold his share of the shoe business, and with the money he bought a prestigious, but slightly outdated magic theatre, which in the coming nine years he turned into the most celebrated magic stage in Paris.

In 1896 he discovered a passion for the new medium of film. Initially he did films very much in the same vein as the Lumière brothers, filming dancing girls, traffic and everyday occurrances. But it was when an accident happened, he realized the potantial of film for his art. In filming a street scene the film stuck in the camera at the moment that a bus drove by, but Méliès managed to unstick it and continued filming. When viewing the film he came to a part where the bus suddenly disappeared and was instantly replaced by a horse and carriage, as if by magic. It was a revelation.

Méliès and workers in his studio, built in 1897.

Méliès and workers in his studio, built in 1897.

In 1897 Méliès built the most ambitious, and one of the first, film studios in Europe. It’s walls and ceiling was made out of glass and had white drapes to diffuse sunlight. Inside there was a stage that hade the exact same proportions as his theatre stage. Behind the studio itself was a large hangar where he and his team built the sets and props for the films, and a shed that functioned as a dressing room for the actors. Méliès, the former art student, designed and painted many of the elaborate sets himself, and he also wrote, acted in, directed and edited his films, as well as planned and executed the special effects. In a sense he was very much the George Lucas or James Cameron of his day. His international breakthrough came in 1902, at which point he had already made 200 short films, and by the time of the first world war his back catalogue consisted of over 500 films. Although his films grew ever more ambitious and artistically elaborate, he was ultimately driven out of the film business before the war, mainly because of the financial problems Thomas Edison’s monopoly in the American film business created, and his own inability to adapt to the new business models. During the first great war most of his film stock was seized and melted down, a tragedy for film history. In an ironic twist of faith the former shoe manufacturer’s melted film stock was, among other things, used to make boot heels for he French army. Fortunately enough originals and copies remain so that around 300 of Méliès’ films are still available today – including most of his more influential films.

But let’s rewind and get back to science fiction. Soon after the lucky accident with the stuck film Méliès began telling fantastic stories from the confines of his studio. He has been attributed as the father of fantasy films, horror films, special effects films and science fiction films. In 1897 he made the short film Gugusse et l’Automaton – Gugugusse and the Automaton, which is undoubtedly the first film to feature a robot. It is one of the destroyed films, but it is said to have depicted a clown amazed and confused by the mechanical movements of an automaton, and should by most standards be considered as the first true science fiction film.

The next year he made yet another film which may be described as science fiction, although it is perhaps closer to fantasy – The Astronomer’s Dream, or La lune à un mètre. It describes an astronomer falling asleep at his telescope, dreaming. A deamon appears out of nowhere, followed by a woman who makes the deamon disappear in a puff of smoke, the she too disappears. The astronomer draws a clobe, which becomes a stick man that starts to move around. The moon suddenly appears in the astronomer’s room with big rolling eyes and a mouth that starts to chew up the telescope, then the furniture. Then it hops back into the sky and becomes a crest which acts as a chair for a scantily clad (for the time) woman. The astronomer tries to reach her, puts a table by the balcony and stands on it. It disappears, and he falls to the ground. Sceneries change fast behind the bewildered astronomer, the moon appears in the room again and eats the astronomer, then bellows out smoke, the sorceress and and the deamon. The astronomer appears on his chair again, sleeping. The world is back to normal. Since many of Méliès’ films were inspired by literature, it is not impossible that he had read astronomer Johannes Kepler’s novel Somnium – considered by some to be the first true science fiction novel. It also includes a deamon appering in a dream and a witch, as well as a retold story of a trip through the solar system, much of relayed through a feverish dream (funnily enough it doesn’t have anything about the moon eating furniture).

Repeated in print, the films seems a mess, and in a sense it is. But jus like modern action film directors use fast cuts and special effects to thrill a viewer, so did Méliès. In his first five years of film making he more or less developed most of the special effects tricks that made up the bulk of effects up until the birth of computer graphics. These included doube exposure, superimposition with a black background creating what would later be called “blue screen” or “green screen photography”, time-lapse photography, forced perspective with moving cameras and pulleys, dissolves, and early animation done by hand-painting directly on the film frames. To all this Méliès added beautifully realized sets, complicated puppeteered props, extravagant costumes and stage effects like smoke and fire.

Many of these tricks he used in 1899 in one of his best known films, the “féerie”, or what we might today call fantasy film, Cinderella – an elaborate 6 minutes long film with 20 scenes and 35 actors (watch here). The film was a monumental hit in France and the rest of Europe, and made Méliès a well known name in the United States, as well.

Still from the film The Astronomer's Dream.

Still from the film The Astronomer’s Dream.

It is easy to sign off Méliès off as a mere trickster, but in fact he tried his hand at literally every film genre known to the movie audience throughout his career (and invented some of his own). He not only did special effects and “genre” film, but delved into documentaries, news films, historical re-enactments, contemporary political pieces, comedies, disaster films, detective stories, thrillers, religious satires and philosophical epics. He even made a few of the earliest erotic films. Though when filming his great film star Jeanne d’Alcy taking a bath in one of these “stag films” he had her wear a skin coloured leotard, rather than filming her in the nude. As most filmmakers he also made commercials. In often using a replica of his theatre stage and building sets, he created a whole new style of filmmaking – contrasting with other contemporary directors who opted for naturalistic realism. He also instructed his actors to perform in an overly theatrical and exaggarated style, as if to emphasize the feeling of a world apart, a world of fairy tale and wonder – the world he created was meant to be taken at face value.

Nonetheless he will be remembered for his joy of filmmaking and his drive to amaze, startle, frighten and entertain audiences. His vivid imagination, cheekiness and childlike enthusiasm for magic, tricks and tales of fantasy and wonder is that which has carried on to inspire generation after generation of filmmakers. Director Terry Gilliam has named Méliès as the biggest influence on him as a filmmaker. And all this he combined with a technical brilliance and inventiveness that made him perhaps the most influential filmmaker of the first years of the 20th century in the world. When Edison and his likes tried to replicate what Méliès did they often fell flat, and instead opted to illegally pirate his films.

In the wake of his success with Cinderella, the American market, and the conglomerate created by Edison, had their eyes on Méliès. Not only did Edison create legal hurdles for Méliès to distribute his films in USA without signing over a large part of the profits to the Americans, it was also the beginning of widespread illegal copying of his films, which were then distributed by Edison without permission, and naturally without compensation. Méliès became one of the fiercest spokespersons for European filmmakers in the United States, and created his own filmmakers’ organisation in France to take on the legal battles over distribution, compensation and film rights.

But between this he also continued to not only work full time at his more traditional stage magic show, but perfecting his filmmaking as well. In the first two years of the new century he made the acclaimed Jeanne d’Arc and The One Man Band, in which he superimposed himself on screen seven times, playing different instruments. He also made the influential féerie Bluebeard, ripped off by many other filmmakers, and The Man with the Rubber Head, in which a scientist expands his head to enormous proportions. But his most lasting legacy and one of the most influential films of all times, not only for sci-fi, was made on a huge budget and filmed over three months in 1902. That film was the groundbreaking A Trip to the Moon, the first sci-fi film of a substantial length and an artistic and technical masterpiece – reviewed in its own article here. A Trip to the Moon more or less defined the starting point for science fiction as a cinematic genre.

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