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Cinema History: Georges Méliès and Experimentation in film

Updated on April 2, 2015


  1. Introduction to Cinema (History)
  2. Lumiere and Melies
  3. Melies Experimentation
  4. Post Melies
  5. references
  6. Further Reading and Viewing (links)
  7. Video "A Trip to The Moon" Original.

Introduction to Cinema (History)

Before cinema was invented, there were many other forms of entertainment such as circuses, theatre and Dioramas which were productions with painted backdrops and actors that illustrated historical events. In some countries such as the United States, there were numerous touring theatre productions which would perform in opera houses and theatres. It was no easy task heaving the whole production from town to town so it is easy to understand why cinema was invented. It was a simpler and easier way of providing entertainment, but it wasn’t just that, cinema was also becoming a new form of artistic expression.

Cinema came about in the 1890’s in the aftermath of the industrial revolution and it was a new artistic medium. Film is the youngest art form, following theatre, storytelling, literature and music. It consists of many of the older art forms, using literature to create the storylines, theatre to act it, storytelling to narrate the film and music to create the scenes. There are four main types of film: Non-fictional documentary film, Fictional Narrative film, animated film and experimental film. Film was a machine that recorded live images and combined them to make a continuous action. It was said to be invented by Louis Lumiere but in fact there were several others inventing similar motion picture cameras at the same time.

Lumiere Bothers
Lumiere Bothers

Lumiere and Melies

Film was a machine that recorded live images and combined them to make a continuous action. It was said to be invented by Louis Lumiere but in fact there were several others inventing similar motion picture cameras at the same time. What Louis Lumiere did invent was a machine called the cinematographe, a device that could capture motion pictures, process the film and project it all in one. The first footage the cinematographe captured was on the 19th of March 1895, it recorded workers leaving the Lumiere factory. This First movie was 46 seconds long. It is said by many that Lumiere’s cinematographe began the motion picture era, the age of cinema. It was in 1895 that The Lumiere Brothers presented their first motion picture to a paying audience.

It was at this Lumiere screening that a stage musician and illusionist by the name of Georges Méliès noticed how the Lumiere brothers had changed the history of entertainment. He first tried, unsuccessfully to buy the Lumieres’ cinematographe. He then managed to acquire a projector from Robert Paul, an English film enthusiast who created his own motion picture equipment, in 1896. After converting the projector into a camera he recorded his first film on the 10th of June 1896. After years of working on motion pictures and experimenting with film he released a movie on the 4th of October 1902 called ‘Le Voyage Dans La Lune’ (see Bottom of Page). It was a black and white, silent, science fiction motion picture. This was the first science fiction film. Méliès believed motion pictures could be used as story telling rather than documentaries and ‘gimmick films’. Some historians now say that although the film was among the most technically innovative films of that era, it lacks an understanding of narrative film techniques. Ken Dancyger wrote "[The film is] no more than a series of amusing shots, each a scene unto itself. The shots tell a story, but not in the manner to which we are accustomed.”(Dancyger, 2002). Méliès films grew to 14 minutes long but consisted of a series of single shots strung together.

Melies Experimentation:

Méliès was the first user of ‘Trick photography’ and was innovative with his use of special effects in film. He discovered the ‘Stop trick’ accidentally. This is where he would stop the film and either take something out of the shot or put something in and it would look like something disappeared or appeared magically. This was discovered in 1896. He experimented with multiple exposures, which is where two or more individual exposures are made to construct a single shot. He was also among the film makers which experimented with such tricks as time-lapse photography, dissolves and introducing colour into film.

Time-lapse photography is a technique used where each frame is captured at a pace slower than it would be played back. This created the illusion that time was moving much quicker.

Dissolves were methods used to gradually shift from one image to another. This effect was made by transitioning the last clip in a shot to the first clip of the beginning of another shot.

Colour was introduced into films by hand painting each frame. At first only two colors were used, to illustrate time of day. Yellow was used to represent daytime and blue was used to represent nighttime.

‘An Impossible Voyage’ was the second of Méliès science-fiction films which was released in 1904. Quite like his first, this film was of a journey, although this time it was to the sun. Using many visual effects and forms of transport the film was considered a feature of modern movement. The train was considered especially significant as in the early 1900’s the train was viewed as an invention that could take you anywhere. The fact that this film uses the train to show such an adventure is symbolic of the increasing possibilities of the time.

Regardless of his original success in the film industry Méliès couldn’t keep up with the film industry, film aficionados had improved his techniques and moved on to more modern effects. His films were also more like filmed stage plays, with the frame of the camera imitating a theatre stage. His camera never moves in a scene. In the end his company went bankrupt and he lost all his success. He was, however, awarded the Legion of Honour in 1931 when his movies made an unexpected revival.

Georges Méliès was and still is considered the first wizard and the father of cinema. This is because his work stands alone and is idiosyncratic. His methods in film making and illusions are as inspirational today as they were in early nineteen hundreds inspiring many filmmakers over the years.

Want to Read More?

Post Melies

Melies paved the way for future filmmakers, with his experimentation which led new directors to do the same. We still see some of his techniques used today. Dissolves were a fascinating way of moving from one clip to another, however the temporal shifts were evident and continuity of editing was only really achieved with the production of 'The Great Train Robbery' (1903). This film was also able to achieve special background effects with the use of a screen. The screen showed desert area while in fact the film was shot in New jersey. Parallel editing appeared in film for the first time. Parallel editing is the cutting of two or more scenes that happen simultaneously but in separate places. A narrative story with multiple plot lines progressed the film industry and its experimentation.

Now of course, we are able to edit without the actual cutting of film, but the concept is the same. Camera's are no longer stable, they move throughout films, giving close-ups, establishing shots and moving shots. Blends and dissolves are still used, and color is treated to highlight certain areas, or dampen the mood of a scene. While we have moved into an age of technology and easier film making, we are still learning from the father of cinema. New ways of film making are being created every year.

George Melies

Some References

Dancyger, Ken (2002). The Technique of Film and Video Editing: History, Theory, and Practice. New York: Focal Press.

Solomon, Matthew. (2011) Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès's Trip to the Moon. New York: Suny Press

Robinson, Dave. (1993) George Méliès: Father of Film Fantasy. London: Museum of the Moving Image.

A Trip to The Moon

© 2015 Astrid North's Study Guide


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