The Trailblazers

Early cinema was the pulp fiction of its time: a crude and undistinguished novelty, and just as with other lower-tier entertainment, there were surefire moneymakers: nudity, shock, thrills and escapism. And thanks to the possibility for movie magic, science fiction was popular in these early days. All the pioneers dabbled in it: the Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison, and most notably the father sci-fi movies, 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. 

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Zoetrope “films” often came in replaceable slips of paper, which were placed in the bottom half of the cylinder.

Before the development of camera film, moving images were first projected in the 1830’s with so called zoetropes, hand cranked wheels with hand painted images on 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). The zoetrope had the images painted on the inside of a cylinder with tiny slits in them. When viewers watched the moving cylinder, they would catch quick glimpses of each of the pictures through the slits, and their brain would filter out the majority of the wheel – which was a black or dark wall – and create movies in their heads. These were short episodes often produced simply to amaze or frighten an audience 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 inventor 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, inventors 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, commissioned by Edison, nonetheless, in 1890.

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Edison’s and Dickson’s short film The Sneeze from 1894 was one of the early experimental movies, and surely the first sneeze caught on film.

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, 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.

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If one wanted to watch films in the 19th century, this was how it was done – here is an example of Edison’s Kinetoscope circa 1895.

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 first few steps of filmmaking 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 occurrences like traffic or different trades. Dancing women, strongmen boxing matches and circus artists were other popular subjects of film, and some naturally exploited the medium for some rather innocent nudity (mostly semi-nudity or suggested nudity). But very 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.

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Le Coucheer de la mariée (Bedtime for the Bride) from 1896 is believed to be the first film containing a striptease. Actress Louise Willy never got much more nude than this, though. The film was made by pornography pioneers Eugène Pirou and Albert Kirchner.

From very early on cinematographers were drawn to the possibilities that cutting, editing, double exposure, forced perspective and other in-camera tricks provided. Today when we see illusionists on TV, we are always assured that “no camera tricks or editing is used”. Back in the early days of cinema, stage magicians had a field day with so called stop tricks, forced perspective, multiple exposures and so forth. The master of this trade was a Frenchman called Georges Méliès, who worked as a stage manager at the Theatre Robert Houdin, named after its founder, a legendary illusionist from whom the famous Harry Houdini took his stage name. But more on Méliès in a moment.

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. 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 instant butchery products like cured ham and sausages at the other end of the box. Not a very inventive sci-fi tale, but it does indeed feature quite a revolutionary piece of future technology. 

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A scene from the “first” science fiction film, La charcuterie mécanique (1895).

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 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.

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Georges Méliès.

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 occurrences. But it was when an accident happened, he realized the potential 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.

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 had the exact same proportions as his theatre stage, where he had filmed his early films. Behind the studio itself was a large hangar where he and his team built the sets and props for the movies, 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, directed and edited, 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 with the celebrated A Trip to the Moon (review), at which point he had already made 200 short films. 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. Others he later had to burn himself because of a lack of storage space. Fortunately enough originals and copies remain so that around 300 of Méliès’ films are still available today – including most of his more influential works.

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The famous shot from A Trip to the Moon of the moon rocket hitting the moon in the eye.

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, and even nude films (the first film known to depict full nudity is After the Ball [1897], in which his would-be wife, actress Jehanne D’Alcy is seen taken a bath in the nude, although she actually wore a body stocking). In 1897 he made the short film Gugusse et l’Automaton – Gugugusse and the Automaton, which is the first film featuring 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 automaton was later turned in the the central piece of Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo, a fictionalised account of Méliès’ later years.

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 demon appears out of nowhere, followed by a woman who makes the demon disappear in a puff of smoke, the she too disappears. The astronomer draws a globe, 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 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 regurgitates smoke, the sorceress and and the demon. 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 – one of the early proto-science fiction novels. It also includes a demon appearing in a dream, a witch, as well as a retold story of a trip through the solar system, much of it relayed through a feverish dream (funnily enough it doesn’t have anything about the moon eating furniture).

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The crazy man-eating moon from The Astronomer’s Dream.

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 filmmaking he more or less developed most of the tricks that made up the bulk of special effects up until the birth of computer graphics. These included double exposure, superimposition with a black background creating what would later be called “blue screen” or “green screen” photography, time-lapse photography, stop tricks, 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 and sometimes gigantic 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. 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.

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Jehanne D’Alcy’s floating head in Méliès’ 1901 film La source enchantée.

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, erotic films (so-called “stag films”) and philosophical epics. 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. It became a stylised universe of layers and collages, three-dimensional, but boxed in by the shallow two-dimensional proportions of the theater stage. Watching Méliès’ movies is almost lime watching a puppet theater with live actors. He also instructed his actors to perform in an overly theatrical and exaggerated 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.

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Two shots frpm Méliès’ studio, where he shot all of his most famous 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’ organization in France to take on the legal battles over distribution, compensation and film rights.

Between all 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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A still from the 1907 film Under the Seas.

Méliès continued to make science fiction films on a grand scale, including The Impossible Voyage (1904), Under the Seas (1907), and his last movie Conquest of the Pole (1912). While the first two were quite successful, Conquest of the Pole came too late, and the extravagant stage props developed for it ultimately meant financial disaster for the filmmaker, who withdrew from the scene after its meager box-office success.

Other filmmakers of the early 20th century also dabbled in science fiction, one can name Walter R. Booth, Segundo de Chomon and Enrico Novelli. These were all pioneers in their own countries, but their sci-fi films all seem like pale repetitions of Méliès’ output. With the onset of the 1910’s US movie producers like Edison started to nibble at sci-fi, mostly through horror movies: Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were popular works for adaptation, but they were primarily low-budget fare with second-rate artistic merit.

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Méliès directing six versions of himself in the 1900 film L’Homme Orchestre.

Nonetheless, taste in film was changing – audiences wanted more realism, and the rapid technical advances in cinematography, as well as a great economical growth within the industry, made this possible. Films also kept getting longer and more character-driven, which ill suited Méliès’ spectale-driven movies. Simple trick photography and fairy-tale thrills wasn’t enough for audiences, who were getting used to more subtle story-telling. While Méliès spoke to the child in all of us, cinema was growing up.

As early as 1903 French Pathé released  a 44 minutes long film called Life and Passion of the Christ (Vie et Passion du Christ), and even though 20 minutes was considered the standard for films up until the 1910’s, more and more filmmakers flaunted this restriction. 1906 saw the release of the Australian film The Story of the Kelly Gang, which was the first movie to run over an hour, and in 1912 several US films ran longer that 70 minutes. When Enrico Guazzoni’s bombastic blockbuster Quo Vadis premieried in Berlin in 1913, Méliès must have felt that his time was over. Quo Vadis was over two hours long, had lavish sets and employed over 3 000 extras. When it opened in Berlin’s first purpose-built movie theatre, the crowd scenes were enhanced by stage actors in costume. The film was followed by another Italian epic, Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), which was even more extravagant, and featured several cinematic innovations, such as the tracking shot, which would be picked up by people like Cecil B. DeMille, who made his debut with the resounding hit western The Squaw Man later the same year, as well as W.D. Griffith. In 1915 came Griffith’s three hour long historic epic The Birth of a Nation, which changed the face of cinema forever. Science fiction directors soon picked up the slack: in 1916 Danish company Nordisk Film released an apocalypse epic called The End of the World (Verdens undergang), complete with miniature sets being bombarded with burning meteorites and scenes of flooding. That same year Universal adapted Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the same book that Méliès had loosely adapted nine years prior. But where Méliès had to rely on cardboard and plywood sets, Universal producer Carl Laemmle actually put cameras underwater.

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Georges Méliès in his toy shop at Montparnasse station in 1927.

Georges Méliès found himself broke and nearly forgotten after WWI, and although he continued to produce and direct stage plays, his fortunes dwindled fast. He lost his film studio, and later his theater stage, and opened a small shop at Montparnasse station in Paris, where he sold sweets and toys. He survived on funds collected by other French filmmakers. However, in the late twenties he experienced a renaissance as film scholars rediscovered his works, and in 1929 he was honoured with a gala retrospective at a prestigious Parisian concert hall, much like in the film Hugo. In 1931 he was made a Knight of the French Legion of Honour, and the medal was presented to him by none other than fellow film pioneer Louis Lumiere. His economic situation also improved in 1932, when he and his family were admitted to a retirement home for filmmakers in Orly, where he also taught and advised young filmmakers.

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A scene from Under the Seas recreated in the 2011 film Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese.

Today Méliès is rightly noted as one of the greatest pioneers in film history, and needs not pale next to the likes of DeMille and Griffith, who ultimately pushed him out of the game. For the development of special effects and genre film few auteurs have been as central as Méliès. Along with early trailblazers like the Lumieres, Thomas Edison, Walter R. Booth, and a handful others he raised the bar and redefined what cinema could be. Although the techniques these filmmakers used to create their worlds seem crude by later standards, and even if their stories tended to be rather flat and one-dimensional, it was a long way away from using the new medium simply as a novel way for peeping at undressing ladies. Even today one can watch the best of Méliès’ films and say “Damn, I wonder how they did that!”. And that, my friends, is movie magic.

Janne Wass

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