The first decade of the 20th century was the time when motion pictures matured from a simple amusement novelty into a narrative medium. After the invention of the peep-hole film viewers and the first public movie screenings in 1892 and 1895, respectively, the interest for moving images slowly waned. Films were a side-show attraction and most people didn’t think they were good for much more than that – even the pioneering Lumière brothers dropped out of the business in 1905. During the Greco-Turkish war and the Spanish-American war newsreels seemed like the salvation of the film exhibitors, but the lack of any real news organisations for film producers, getting interesting news footage every day in peace-time proved difficult, and without sound film producers struggled to engage audiences.
But there were some who believed in the artistic and narrative power of the film. Projectionists, whose job it was to edit together the short clips delivered to them were aware that the way in which the film reels were edited together could have a huge impact on how films were perceived. These early editors often tried to create dramatic arcs, juxtapositions and even coherent stories through the footage available, and realised that if they could control both the filming and the editing process, they would be able to tell longer and more elaborate stories on screen.
At the same time the fictional film was beginning to rear it’s head, especially in France, with pioneers like Alice Guy Blaché, Ferdinand Zecca and especially Georges Méliès – who worked both as a filmmaker and an exhibitor at his Theatre Robert-Houdin. He was one of the very first to create a film with several different scenes, when he released Cinderella in 1899, to international acclaim. This, along with his movies like Joan of Arc (1900) and Bluebeard (1901), inspired a handful of cinematographers around the world to start creating narrative films in the same vein. The final breakthrough was Méliès’ legendary 12-minute epic A Trip to the Moon (1902, review), loosely based on the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, which would remain his most successful and best known film throughout his career. The movie was filmed at his Star Film studio outside Paris, with carefully painted backdrops, and sets, moving set-pieces, and all the pomp and circumstance of the popular feerie plays of the French theatre tradition. Added to this was Méliès groundbreaking visual effects, utilising stop tricks, forced perspective, double exposures, dissolves and animation.
The huge success of the film inspired Méliès to return several times to the julesvernian Extraordinary Voyages, and his films set the template for how science fiction films were made, even though the term science fiction had not yet been coined. But even as Méliès drew inspiration from his famous countryman, who passed away in 1905, his notion of sci-fi was still rooted in the old proto-sci-fi literature. Méliès portrayed his fantastic journeys not as an achievable possibility, like Verne, but rather like fairy-tales. Thus one might say that his movies were still rooted in the tradition of Lucian’s True History from around 200 BC. His whimsically satirical portrayal of life on the moon, in the skies and under the sea is also more closely related to 16th and 17th century writers like Cyrano de Bergerac, Francis Godwin and Jonathan Swift than to his contemporaries Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. The dream sequence he and other filmmakers, like Gaston Velle and Edwin S. Porter, used to portray dealings with supernatural and alien entities harkens back to Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (1608). In this sense, the majority of early 20th century science fiction in film was still firmly stuck in notions from the 17th century. This partly had to do with the fact that the early sci-fi films sprung from the fairy-tale movie tradition.
Mèliès made his films for his own independent Star Film company, and his French rivals, in particular the behemoth Pathé, tried their best imitate his successful style with their own fairy-tale and science fiction movies. Under the firm hand of Ferdinand Zecca, directors like Gaston Velle and Catalan Segundo de Chomon were brought on board to Pathé in order to emulate Méliès’ films, not without success, even if they tended to remain pale imitations. However, it was when Segundo de Chomon was released from the restraints of imitation that he proved himself to be an equal to Georges Méliès in creative madness and technical skill. Both Velle and Chomon had surrealist streaks, creating feverish and abstract art films, filled with the patented Pathé colours, trick filming and beautifully crafted sets. But Chomon also pushed the boundaries of the technical trickery that Méliès had championed, especially in regard to stop-motion animation and pixilation, as seen in The Electric Hotel (1908, review), as well as black screen photography, as when he took on H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man in his 1909 film The Invisible Thief (review). Chomon was also one of the few to actually take on modern science fiction topics, rather than the old fairy-tale tropes. While de Chomon’s impact wasn’t as great as Méliès, it is high time that he was acknowledged as an important pioneer with a distinct and unique voice within science fiction, and not just reduced to “Spain’s Georges Méliès“, as is often the case.
Another filmmaker inspired by Méliès, who probably also inspired Méliès himself, was British trick filmer Walter R. Booth, who often worked alongside technical innovator Robert W. Paul. Booth was for Britain what Méliès was for France. He was interested in horse carriages, automobiles, airships, electricity and all things new and modern, and often used these in his films. Booth was a decent trick filmer, but perhaps more interested because of his need for speed and his love for reckless, audacious characters. His had a morbid and twisted sense of humour, as seen in An Over-Incubated Baby (1901, review) and loved to have his characters run over by anything moving, see The ‘?’ Motorist (1906, review). Booth sprinkled the whole decade with science fiction films, and finished with an aerial trilogy at the turn of the decade.
A few others dabbled somewhat in sci-fi, like New Zealander Franklyn Barrett, who made the first film about a visit from Mars (A Message from Mars, 1903, review) or Edwin S. Porter. Porter was one of those projectionists mentioned earlier in the article, who started making their own films, and quickly realised the power of editing. Not only was Porter one of the pioneers of trick films and special effects in the UK, along with people like J. Stuart Blackton and William K-L Dickson, he was also one of the pioneers of the narrative film, and along with Wallace McCutcheon he practically cemented the blueprint for the modern western.
While Porter wasn’t such an important figure for science fiction films explicitly, his popularisation of the multi-scened narrative film with The Great Train Robbery (1903) had a huge impact on movies in general, as did his realistic shooting style, and most of all his editing. While people like British James Williamson and Georges Méliés had experimented with overlapping editing before – that is showing the same moment twice from different angles, Porter was the first to actually rewind an entire scene to see what happened to characters that had been left hanging when a story split up in multiple strands. While this was a technique that most filmmakers would have found counter-intuitive, Porter trusted that viewers would realise that the narration moved back in time to a point where we had left off, following different characters to another place. This was more or less the beginning of the modern language of films, a language that would evolve at such speed during the coming years that not even Porter himself would be able to keep up.
The Great Train Robbery was only 14 minutes long, or about the same lengths as the films that Georges Méliès was making in 1903. But other filmmakers were experimenting with even longer movies. In France Ferdinand Zecca and Lucien Nonguet made the 44 minutes long film Life and Passion of the Christ, while Siegmund Lubin made a US version called The Passion Play, running close to an hour in length. Both films were released in 1903, and could be called the first feature films, even though they were actually made as a number of short tableaux, each containing a distinct biblical story and individual sets, edited together into a longer film. In style these films still followed the theatrical mode as popularised by Méliès, being largely studio-shot with painted sets and flat two-dimensional props that weren’t even supposed to look real.
But change was on the way. In Australia the first actual feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was released in 1906. While not exactly a piece of cinematic art, the movie is noteworthy for being the first film over an hour in length not following the tableaux tradition, and using to a large extent realistic outdoor photography. Italy started popularising ever longer realistically filmed productions, such as Mario Caserini’s Shakespeare adaptations, beginning with Othello in 1906. One of the turning points came with Arturio Ambrosio’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1908). While still retaining some of the theatrical style, Ambrosio’s 16 minutes long film takes on a much more serious air and makes an effort to portray the fall of Pompeii in as realistic a manner as possible. The film was a huge hit and sparked a wave of Italian historical epics and sword- and sandal-movies, culminating in Quo Vadis (1913) and Cabiria (1914), which finally opened the door for feature films, completely overhauling the film industry. That overhaul was just as revolutionary as the transition to sound films fifteen years later, and ended the careers of most of the early cinema pioneers, Méliès, Porter, Velle and Booth included (Chomon survived, and continued as a cinematographer and special effects creator).
While most of the early science fiction films had an air of fairy-tale to them, and failed to draw inspiration from contemporary literary sources, the reality of the early days of the 20th century did seep into the films. The early 1900’s was an age of huge technological optimism. Not only was it the age of cinematic innovation, it saw the popularisation of the automobile, the birth of flight and the beginning of the electrification of society. Cars, trains, moon rockets, submarines and airships dominated science fiction movies (oddly enough no airplanes, despite the Wright brothers’ 1903 feat). Many filmmakers took on the marvels of electricity, and made good use of undercranking the camera to make electrified people shoot across the screen. The first electrical appliances entered the market during this decade, such as the electrical clothes iron, the vacuum-cleaner, the bread toaster and many more, as public spaces, factories and even private homes were electrified.
It was also a time of relative peace and general optimism regarding the future. Both the second Boer war and the Spanish-Philippine war ended in 1902, and Europeans and Americans were not generally concerned with the Russo-Japanese war in 1904-1905. However, social unrest was brewing as the workers’ movement and early socialism and anarchism were gathering steam, alongside the suffragette movement, and this can be gleaned from films of the era. Many movies followed the exploits of tramps and working class characters, and many filmmakers, especially in Europe, developed a satirical tone toward the upper class and the establishment. But that didn’t mean that socialist agitators and suffragettes didn’t get their share of ire.
Towards the end of the decade growing social unrest and deeper class divided did give some films a darker tone, such as Walter R. Booth’s 1909 film The Airship Destroyer. But it was the movie industry itself that created the darkest clouds on its sky around 1907-1909. This was a time when the film industry headed towards a much more rigid system of copyright control, territorial rivalry and general tightening of regulations. Companies like Edison in the US and Pathé in Europe ended up controlling much of both the manufacturing and the distribution of movies. Especially hard-hit were independent US companies, when Edison and a number of other firms formed a movie trust, mainly aimed at stopping the dominance of French films on the US market. In 1907 French films amounted to 60 percent of all films showed in US movie theatres and Nickelodeons. But Edison’s monopoly didn’t just affect foreign actors in the US, but also small and independent filmmakers, many of whom left Edison’s sphere of influence on the east coast and moved to the west, thus giving birth to Hollywood.
International standards were set up in 1909 regarding a new system of distribution, whereas distributors bought films priced according to their length. This was partly due to the fact that Nickelodeons and newly opened movie theatres wanted to change their repertoire almost daily, with customers wanting to see new films and newsreels on a regular basis. While the problem wasn’t as bad in Europe, there was still a call for more and longer films. Auteurs like Méliès, running a small independent company, but still making the most expensive and time-consuming films in the industry, were doomed. Fordism entered the movie business, and companies were now expected to turn out several films a week, often with little regard for quality. And the longer the films, the better – up to a point: the US film trust still didn’t allow for actual feature films, as they were deemed too costly to make, and weren’t expected to please audiences – to the great displeasure of young directors like Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith.
But the coming decade would be theirs, largely thanks to the Italian forerunners. And with the breaking of the Edison monopoly in 1913 and the beginning of WWI, neither the world nor films would ever be the same. In a sense, an era of filmmaking was over when Georges Méliès released his first and only serious attempt at an historical epic in 1908, Humanity Through the Ages. While the fairy-tale style filmmaking did have a lingering popularity up until around 1911 or 1912, one can probably say that the time of the great pioneers more or less ended with the new decade in 1910, with new heroes and villains taking over.